BitDepth 531 - July 04

When architects draw virtual lines in today's CAD software, the pixels represent real bricks and mortar and costs...
The virtual houseplan

The virtual design recipe: formulations of steel, concrete and cladding represent the work involved in creating a support column. Image courtesy Graphisoft.

With the boom in the construction industry, it isn't surprising to find that the sheer enormity of the projects now underway is driving new methods of approaching the construction business.
The big surprise is in just how far back into the planning process new digital methodologies have begun to change the business of architecture and construction.
For more than a decade, the business of designing buildings and then realising them on construction plans has been rapidly changing from pens on paper to digital lines in computer assisted design (CAD) software.

That revolution is essentially over, and it's a rare architectural firm that still has a drafting table around any more. At least part of the driver for change is the convenience and accuracy that computers bring to the design process, but much of the difference has been in client expectations, as the end users of buildings have increasingly come to expect realistic renditions of their projects before a single brick is bought.
The next step in the evolution of CAD is virtual construction, which evolves drawings into fully realised virtual buildings in which a line has weight, dimension, costs and time allocated to it.

According to Brian Lewis, a director of acla:works, "A line isn't just a line on paper, it's a reinforced concrete wall of a particular thickness, with quantities and cost attached."
acla:works, now a fully digital architectural firm with sleek offices replete with flat panel screens everywhere, are putting virtual construction to the test with their work on some major new commissions.
Using Graphisoft's Archicad, they are designing new projects on computer systems which knit together the efforts of the entire consulting team involved in the construction process into a dynamic entity capable of responding to changes and new design specifications with 21st century speed.

Their progress with adopting the system has been impressive enough that AclaWorks was one of two firms (the other was Kirksey of Houston) chosen by Graphisoft for their presentation at the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects in Los Angeles in June 2006.
But before the local architects took their first significant step, they had to plan for a revolution in their way of working. First, they visited Graphisoft to see how the system worked, then Finland, which has embraced the cutting edge of these virtualisation technologies over the last decade.

The result is a system which brings a new level of coordination to the design and construction elements of this massive building project. The process flips the emphasis of traditional CAD, which was focused on two-dimensional drawings, the models created in virtual construction are intelligent three-dimensional models of the structure that articulate all the elements of construction both visually and statistically.

The digital model of the project in this system is the building document, rich with data, rather than just an illustration of it. The construction plans are just one of the outputs, along with client-friendly 3-D renderings and estimating information.
"Steel columns and beams and metal ductwork can be cut and prepared directly from the model without traditional shop drawings," says Brian Lewis. "Every design element generates its own bills of quantities and adds its own timelines to the overall schedule for the project. It's a much more accurate way of working."

The challenge of working this way is aligning every contributor to a construction project with the system's requirements. As anyone who's ever written with a word processor that isn't Microsoft's Word knows, moving files back and forth with precision can be a challenge. The interchange formats in this new way of managing the building process are evolving, but moving data between different software packages remains a challenge.
But these are just speed bumps on a roadway that leads away from musty scrolls of paper to a more intelligent future for architecture.

More virtual construction...
Old school meets new techniques
In one famous application of virtual construction, architect and Frank Lloyd Wright scholar Thomas A Heinz used Archicad to construct a building designed by the famous architect specifically for a site bought by Joe and Barbara Massaro on an island in Lake Mahopac in New York. Heinz recreated Wright's challenging drawings and extrapolated the construction details using the software to complete the project, now the subject of a documentary, "Building Wright" by James G. Libby and William Van Nostrum.
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