BIM Architecture Construction Sustainability
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Architecture in the Age of Automation

Phoenix Center
The Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing, China, exemplifies the complex architectural structures that are now possible.

When it comes to adopting new technologies and processes, the fields of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) have lagged behind other industries such as manufacturing. But recent innovations—including the development of artificial intelligence—have helped to change that trend, and AEC is now seeing rapid innovation. Every step of the process is undergoing transformation, from first concept through construction to management.

That’s bringing powerful benefits, enabling us to build more efficiently by reducing waste and lowering costs. It helps us to improve safety by reducing risk through better planning and by handing off the most dangerous tasks to machines. And it enables us to build more sustainably by reducing the negative environmental impacts of construction.

But this industry-wide transformation is also having another important effect—it’s enabling more creativity in architectural design. By digitizing and automating processes, architectural ideas that were previously impossible to build are not only becoming possible, but also practical and affordable. And this is empowering bolder design visions.

“We’ve been compromising on design for centuries, going with what’s been proven to work,” says Nidhi Sekhar, a senior computational designer at LERA Consulting Structural Engineers. “The laws of physics will always limit us, but with computation, that can be the only limit.”

On the design side, new processes like computational design and generative design are helping to automate routine tasks, optimize rapidly, and also create designs that no human would ever think of. But it’s perhaps the digitalization of construction that is seeing the most dynamic development today, empowering and supporting creativity while also improving efficiency.

From Aerospace to Architecture

Noni Pittenger took to the stage in the AU Theater to share her pioneering work adopting digital metrology and other techniques from the aerospace industry. Currently a senior VDC manager at WeWork, Pittenger was a design engineer at CW Keller & Associates when she spoke, a firm that specializes in the creation of complex architectural features using custom millwork, concrete, and composites.

“When we look at architects stealing from the aerospace industry, it’s not new,” Pittenger pointed out. “Looking back, architects Charles and Ray Eames borrowed from advances in material performance technology that had recently been developed for World War II airplane manufacturing in order to address the curvature that they wanted to control in their forms.”

Pittenger, for her part, is focused on adapting tools such as 3D scanning, 3D laser printing, and object-tracking workflows that enable her to measure and compare a project to its digital model as it’s being built. “Today when we look at the aerospace industry we see that the advances in curvature design and finite element analysis require these tools to address all the parts in the physical world using digital files, and [in architecture] we need physical artifacts such as projection onto the surface in order to see that and use the tools appropriately.”

She described her work on the renovation of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA, an ambitious project that consisted of “50 large curved wood panels that will be installed as the interior of the theater. Each panel is acoustically varied with computationally scripted porosity and then structurally and mechanically integrated into the building,” she said.

Alliance Theatre
One of the panels from the Alliance Theatre renovation.

The more complex a design is, the more precise the execution has to be. “The complexity that we’re seeing [in designs] is not addressable with the current tooling workflows,” Pittenger said. “Using conventional processes, small errors accumulate through the process up to the point that it makes a really expensive clash.”

The real problem lies not just in the cost of reconciling those clashes, though. “We see that it is cutting out more interesting designs.” “As part of our QC workflow, we can confirm that the surface that we design in the computer is actually the surface that we fabricated in the real world,” Pittenger said. It’s a way to align “the digital outputs and inputs at iterative places during the construction sequencing.”

Ultimately, Pittenger explains, “What we want to see is a system in which the digital tools are starting to contact the physical world.”

Noni Pittenger explains how CW Keller built complex geometric structures using 3D laser projection and other aerospace tools and techniques.

Digital from Start to Finish

Tom Van Mele is taking a digital approach to construction from initial conception through to final product. A senior scientist and co-director at the Block Research Group (BRG) of the Institute of Technology in Architecture at ETH Zurich, Van Mele also spoke in the AU Theater, sharing his work on a number of groundbreaking proof-of-concept projects intended to show industry what’s possible.

The Armadillo Vault is one example. Created for the 2016 Vienna Biennale, it’s “a doubly curved, compression-only structure comprised of 399 blocks held together in space by pure force equilibrium,” said Van Mele. Digitally designed and fabricated, “there is no glue, no mortar, no mechanical connections between any of these blocks, they are just standing there in pure compression in space.”

The Armadillo Vault
The Armadillo Vault, comprised of 399 blocks held together in space by pure force equilibrium.

“It’s a gigantic puzzle of stone blocks,” Van Mele said. “Across the 15-meter span, some parts of the blocks have a thickness of 5 cm, [proportionally] thinner than an eggshell.”

Perhaps even more amazing than the structure itself is the fact that it was completed in 5 months, from initial design in Switzerland through fabrication of the stones in Texas and assembly on-site in Vienna.

The precision and predictability of digital construction also opens up other possibilities, including building in more sustainable ways. Van Mele’s team at the Block Research Group is developing the HiLo Unit (short for High Performance, Low Energy) in their experimental NEST (Next Evolution Sustainable Building Technologies) building. In his Theater presentation, Van Mele showcased the ceiling structure, a doubly curved concrete shell that spans 120 square meters, supported by 5 points at the perimeter. It is 3-5 mm thick and reinforced with a thin layer of carbon fiber.

“One of the objectives of HiLo is to demonstrate how lightweight concrete structures can be combined with efficient fabrication and construction methods to minimize the embodied energy involved in their construction process,” Van Mele said.

Digital processes also enable them to work with humbler materials without sacrificing function. Their MicroTree project is built entirely from mushrooms. Another project was a temporary pavilion made from recycled Tetra Pack milk and juice cartons.

Tom Van Mele of ETH Zurich discusses various methods for designing and building more efficient structures.

BIM from the Beginning

Embracing the possibilities of Building Information Modeling (BIM) from the beginning is key to realizing the benefits of digital processes. For Pittenger’s Alliance Theatre project, “we took the BIM information and we merged it with the actual site information via 3D scan, calibrated it to robotic and projection inputs, and then reprojected it out to confirm that the site is what we think it is on the computer,” Pittenger said. “We combined a suite of otherwise siloed tools to converge BIM with the physical environment.”

Van Mele points out that, in addition to designing in BIM, his group has developed their own computational framework, called COMPAS. This framework allows for easy collaboration on projects and effective data sharing among multidisciplinary teams, enabling them keep design data at the center of the process.

A New Era for Architecture

Construction processes have long held back architectural design. After all, there’s little point in designing a structure that you can’t build. The realities of traditional construction have been “cutting out more interesting designs, places where you could spend money on more interesting things,” Pittenger said. “We want to solve this problem.”

The adoption of digital approaches for architecture and construction is one key to that solution, and it’s ushering in a new era of architecture—one where absolute precision becomes the norm and there’s almost nothing we can’t build.

Perhaps most importantly, these tools are available to all, from the smallest architectural boutique to the largest multinational corporation. Anyone who can adapt can drive innovation.

Related Learning

Want to learn more about the digitalization of AEC? Check out this related AU content:

Digital Continuity for Construction

Over the last decade, the use of BIM has exploded in the field of architecture, but the ability to coordinate design and modeling is still lagging in some areas. Joseph Pais of GRAITEC leads an AU London industry talk on the challenges facing the digital design evolution and the role software is playing to meet these challenges.

Connected BIM for Structures

Are you feeling pressure to digitize your processes for designing and delivering buildings? In this AU Las Vegas instructional demo Tomasz Fudala and Dieter Vermeulen show you how to connect the AEC software with each BIM project lifecycle phase and discover efficient workflows from design to analysis to fabrication.

Digital Twin for a BIM Level 2 Project: UCD Dublin

Delivering a digital twin of the physical building before construction starts ensures precision throughout the process. Luis Ros explores the case study of the student residences at UCD Dublin—and the pros and cons of developing and delivering a digital twin—in this AU London 2019 industry talk.

Construction Giant Skanska Sweden Has Big Plans

The world’s fifth largest construction firm has set an ambitious goal: to go completely digital by 2023. This Redshift article by Blake Snow explores the pilot program Skanska Sweden has launched, and how their new Digital Construction Platform will combine machine learning, IoT, and real-time tracking to achieve a breakthrough in construction efficiency.

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