How smart construction tech orchestrated Beijing’s Sub Center Theater

Designing Beijing’s new Sub Center Theater complex meant using smart construction technologies to perfect everything from architecture to acoustics.

a rendering of Beijing's Sub Center Theater

Betty Wang

May 19, 2023

min read
  • Designed to reflect China’s iconic Grand Canal, Beijing’s Sub Center Theater complex will feature three Containers of Culture: an opera house, a theater, and a concert hall.

  • Multidisciplinary collaboration was critical to realize the architectural, mechanical, acoustic, and ecological designs.

  • Achieving ideal acoustic attributes within complex structures meant taking advantage of smart construction technologies, including robots, 3D scanning and BIM.

The Sub Center Theater, reflected in a canal
When completed, the Sub Center Theater will be reflected in the Grand Canal. Image courtesy of Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

China’s Grand Canal is more than 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) long, spans two cities and four provinces, and has been in operation for more than a millennium. This ancient waterway was once an important channel for China’s economic, cultural, and artistic heritage. Today, though it may have faded from its former glory, signs of rejuvenation are emerging.

One aspect of this rejuvenation is Beijing’s Sub Center Theater, which was named as a building to watch in 2023 by architectural media outlets Dezeen and ArchDaily. With a total floor area of 125,300 square meters and approximately 5,500 seats, the complex (also known as the Green Heart Grand Theater) is actually three individual theaters: an opera house, a drama theater, and a concert hall. Inspired by the granaries and sailboats along the ancient canal in Tongzhou, China, these theaters are also known as the Containers of Culture.

Maximizing the impact of technology

A digital model of the Sub Center Theater
The use of 3D models has been essential in realizing the Sub Center Theater's complex structure. Image courtesy of Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

Due to their complex architectural structures and stringent requirements for finishes and equipment noise, theater construction projects usually involve multiple specialized fields covering materials, electromechanics, stages, and machinery, as well as lighting and sound. Collaboration among multiple disciplines can be a huge challenge. The Sub Center Theater project has demanded even more multidisciplinary collaboration—as a complex, heterogeneous structure with three individual units and a world-class theater with extremely high requirements for finishes and acoustics.

According to Fu Yadi, the chief engineer on this Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) project, a professional management team established by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has continuously followed up during the process of construction and operations management, from project initiation, design, and construction to completion. The NCPA configured the stage design according to its usage and interpretation needs. It optimized and improved the design scheme to ensure that the project’s design would be consistent at all stages, which has made everything run smoothly.

“We have genuinely achieved model-based design and collaboration in this project, as its complexity, as well as the number of professional collaborators and parties involved, made it impossible to meet the collaboration requirements with flat drawings alone,” Fu says. For example, in the stage area, where the staging and lighting systems comprise very thin steel cables and booms, if a purely two-dimensional model was used when building these thin structures, it would be virtually impossible to avoid collisions.

BIM and smart construction enable a leap forward

Inside the Sub Center concert hall
The auditorium in the Sub Center Theater. Image courtesy of Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

Complex construction techniques have helped achieve superb artistic standards, thanks to the rapid development of intelligent construction, digital technology, and building information modeling (BIM) in recent years. For the Sub Center Theater project, BIM technology provided strong support for digital construction, laying the foundation for the delivery, operation, and maintenance of the project.

According to Fu, engineering on the project relied heavily on BIM. In contrast to some of its previous theater construction projects, which lacked physical models for specialized needs such as stage machinery and seats, BCEG is now committed to exploring more comprehensive physical model construction with BIM during the entire construction period, as well as integrating other disciplines. BCEG is also investigating how to extract the value of data from ongoing modeling and ensure that valuable data can be used in future projects.

As a public building with an international profile—and one with complex structures featuring buildings within buildings and rooms within rooms—the project has required smart construction applications from the preparation stage through delivery, operation, and maintenance. These include in-depth design based on BIM models (mainly using Autodesk Revit and Navisworks), comprehensive construction organization and management, and full process-integrated site management.

The project used a large number of hardware, software, 3D laser scanning, and virtual-reality (VR) technologies at various stages, enabling them to reduce both costs and materials needed: Through design coordination in Autodesk Environment, more than 2,000 critical clashes were solved, avoiding design changes that would have added $1 million in costs. Model-based analysis and optimization of design and construction plans saved 1,650 tons of steel, saving the project more than $3 million and improving sustainability.

To achieve perfect acoustic performance within the complex spatial structures, the team used high-precision measurement robots for multiple rounds of 3D scanning on the site’s key areas. Regular 3D laser scanning of civil structures and review of BIM models using point-cloud modeling promptly identified consistency issues with models, drawings, and site construction. According to Fu, the team collaborated with multiple industry and academic partners to apply digitalization and information technology to the entire project. Two research institutes and three universities have participated in the Sub Center Theater project and provided technical support, turning it into a test case for collaboration and innovation.

Exploring the art of architecture

A simulation of building conditions
Simulations help achieve a more comfortable environment for occupants. Image courtesy of Beijing Construction Engineering Group.

The Sub Center Theater will occupy a large area in Beijing’s Green Heart district. Integrating community, architecture, ecology, and the concept of sustainable construction have been prioritized throughout the project process. According to Fu, the entire Green Heart district has demonstrated a great deal of foresight in planning the space. “Regardless of whether you’re talking about overall spatial planning, road planning, color planning, or green-energy planning, the overall requirements and concepts are very advanced.”

For the Sub Center Theater, open sharing and green efficiency are the guiding philosophies, and the three individual units that comprise the venue have adopted geothermal energy over a large area to share power consumption. The heating and cooling system for the project’s geothermal heat pumps has contributed significantly to the sustainability of the project. Fu says that when the system is running, the building can achieve environmental and economic benefits by not consuming or polluting water and not requiring a boiler, a cooling tower, or a site for storing fuel waste. The high degree of automation and remote management also greatly reduces maintenance fees and costs. The heat pumps use heat exchange in winter and summer, creating fewer emissions and helping maintain ecological balance.

For the architectural design, the Containers of Culture project has made the Sub Center Theater a work of art in itself. The impressive facade of the opera house will glow beautifully in the sunlight. Behind it will be a complex heterogeneous structure made up of 4,134 unique folding aluminum curtain wall panels.

Technology is shaping future design practices

Looking back on her experience during the project, Fu says that such large and highly complex projects will play a major role in promoting digitalization and information technology in engineering. She adds that the technology makes efficient communication standard, which will be useful for a range of application scenarios.

Within the next six months or so, the team will continue to complete the installation of specialist plant rooms and the finishing of stage equipment. BIM data collection for the entire Sub Center Theater project will be completed in 2023, enabling the digital delivery of this large-scale project.

When completed, the Containers of Culture will become a benchmark for green architecture in the city’s Green Heart and an important new landmark in Beijing. The Sub Center Theater will also be regarded as a demonstration project, serving as a model for future construction. The construction of the Sub Center Theater represents the Chinese people’s unremitting pursuit of culture and art. For the owners, designers, and contractors working on the project, it has been a challenging and rewarding journey, indeed.

Betty Wang

About Betty Wang

Betty Wang is a freelance writer who focuses on technology trends. She specializes in writing stories on technology innovations with rich cultural significance. Her extensive professional experience in technology consulting over the years has given her a deep knowledge and understanding of architecture, software, hardware, and data centers. Wang holds a degree in international journalism from the University of Sheffield, where she developed a forward-looking journalism vision and a unique cultural perspective.

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