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Building with numbers

By [email protected] - 11th September 2017 - 11:15

The construction industry is notoriously resistant to change through the adoption of technology. The idea of following tried and tested solutions is almost universal because ‘if it worked before it will work again’, and the industry believes new technology increases risk.

This attitude has restricted industry progress, producing waste of up to 50% on many projects. Negative environmental impacts caused by easily correctable inefficiencies persist as long as the building stands.

However, the industry is mistaken. In fact, the opposite is true – using technology including 3D visualisation it is possible to reduce risk while creating more imaginatively conceived buildings that use less energy, are more durable, look better and are more interesting to inhabit, all at a lower cost. They also take less time to make and on completion appear effortless.

This seemingly impossible list of advantages has been proven across the world where, in partnerships with developers, architects and engineers, collaboration over universally accessible visual data reveals absolute truths about buildings.

Much of this technology was developed to facilitate the highly complex structures of Zaha Hadid Architects and others who bravely defy convention. Such audacious geometry comprising curves and sweeping planes cannot be built using traditional methods. And by engineering these structures, new technology and practices have been devised that have revolutionised the construction of many buildings.

3D CAD building models lend themselves to collaboration since visual output is easy to ‘read’ and can therefore be comprehended by all stakeholders regardless of technical skills. In practice, architects and developers use their local knowledge to imagine culturally appropriate buildings. The universal truth of mathematics is then applied to minutely examine myriad details of the 3D virtual model. This is crucial because, in complex buildings a lack of understanding of those details adds cost and complexity at every stage of construction and operation.

Joist division

Traditionally, rolled steel sections or reinforced concrete are used to support structures. These often dominate the building, even though they are inevitably concealed behind panels. They make their presence felt at the design stage because the design must be worked around them. This restricts designers to using straight lines when curves could deliver a better realisation of the original intent.

In finished buildings, steel and concrete frames take up space, adding bulk, weight and as their name implies, inflexibility. This becomes problematic when other elements of the structure are more flexible.

At a technical level, the junctions between components must be understood to ensure predicable building performance. The physical properties and capabilities of structural components is well documented but often building designers over-specify ‘to reduce risk’.

Technology and methods now exist to precisely simulate not just the performance of these components themselves but also the interfaces between them and other components. Using 3D simulations, it is possible not only to test the virtual fabrications and structure but also to demonstrate results in easily understood highly visual ways.

Arcs in curved buildings are inherently rigid. However, their flexibility can bring many advantages to structures and the commercial ecosystem that produces them. They can be made from thin, light material that enhances structural integrity and sparks creativity from the endless possibilities that their profiles offer. That means completely new shapes can be developed and their behaviours precisely known before they have been physically made. The whole building can then be optimised to accord with any other functional parameters.

When design is freed from traditional industry practices, shapes and components can be based on the interpretation of physics and mathematics. And, they can be ‘generatively’ created – in other words, rather than being designed by a person, 3D geometry based on algorithms is created automatically by the CAD system based purely on its function.

In many cases the shapes have never been seen before yet they are perfectly suited to purpose. Generative designs are often the starting point for human designers to adapt these shapes and to be inspired to develop new types of façade and detailing.

Visualisations can be displayed on any device ranging from a virtual reality (VR) headset to a smart phone. That means stakeholders have access to the information they need in the format that suits them best. VR headsets can even be taken on site to ensure that what is being built exactly matches the designer’s intention. Data can easily be added to the 3D model providing extra detail for planners, contractors and other stakeholders to better understand their roles and the work it comprises.

Safety in numbers

Many landmark commercial and cultural buildings represent the aspirations and dreams of developers, architects, governments and owners. They want to build ideal structures with the confidence that projects will deliver in terms of design, performance and cost. They also want to fully understand risk. It is therefore crucial to find, explore and solve potential problems at the earliest stage. This is achieved when newly developed algorithms and methods are deployed and displayed as 3D visualisations. Based on sound engineering principles, these allow stakeholders to examine the physics of components and junctions allowing a realistic view of potential problems, their resolutions and outcomes.

One example of this is the analysis of the relationship between concrete and steel building components. Because these behave differently under load and stress, and it is often at the junctions of these two materials that problems such as leaks in the façade or micro-cracking in the concrete can arise, mathematical methods have been devised to understand the real-life consequences of different design options. Using algorithms coupled with 3D simulations removes guess work from the design and construction of complex buildings. These risk-reducing solutions have a parallel with financial analysis models which find the ‘gaps’ inside data to solve problems and create new solutions to problems that have not yet been fully defined.

In a building, the forces of compression, tension, shear and buckling must be understood and controlled. And it is by visualising and solving these interrelated energies that unexpectedly elegant solutions arise.

When these aspects of the building are explained graphically to architects, developers, clients and city partners, creative possibilities expand and risks reduce because there will be no surprises. Also, because these revelations are made available to all stakeholders, including building component manufactures, they more fully understand their role and the levels of risk that they are undertaking. This increases confidence throughout the supply chain by removing the uncertainly that so often leads to disputes between stakeholders. It also has the positive advantage of realistically showing regulators, planners and the public exactly how the building will perform far in to the future. This is possible by simulating, wind load, weather events and energy consumption for decades ahead.

Seeing the light

Around 40% of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings. It is therefore important to understand how to reduce consumption. This can be done by modelling climate in relation to the building and analysing the structure’s thermal conductivity, weather tightness and airflow. Glazing is also a significant factor in controlling the inside temperature. By taking these considerations into account, a balance can be achieved that reduces energy consumption and makes the building a better place to be.

While it may be thought that more glass equals more light, it is possible to reduce the amount of glazing without affecting interior light levels to create interesting illumination, shadow and consequent cooling effects as a result. 3D visualisation is valuable for this work because it allows anyone to virtually experience the building’s light levels. This aspect of simulation has the great advantage that realistic illumination can be seen at any time of day or year to give a true impression of what the finished building will be like to inhabit, at an early stage of the design process.

In the hot climate construction projects that we work on, airflow and cooling are key priorities. In many cities, urban pollution levels mean that windows cannot be opened so the ‘standard solution’ is often to install more air-conditioning with all its inherent commissioning, maintenance and long-term operating costs. However, buildings can and do successfully operate as their own supplementary cooling systems by allowing filtered air to naturally circulate throughout the interior. This possibility stems from designing the building and its façade to maximise airflow.

When algorithms automatically generate designs based on air-flow, the outcomes are genuinely unique and often very beautiful as well as being literally cool. 3D visualisation based on predicted air-flows allows stakeholders to literally see the air moving the through the building and to know its precise expected temperature in any part of the structure.

An appealing future

It might be imagined that this way of conceiving, designing, making and operating buildings is exotic and therefore more expensive. It has been proven on many of our partnerships that the opposite is the case. A significant contributing factor to cost reduction is that quality assured and validated building components can be made in factories for onsite assembly. 3D visualisation enables component data to be shared between designers and fabricators. This allows them to be sure that manufactured parts exactly match the original digital design representations. Working this way is suited to cloud operation since it allows data to always be current across the extended enterprise workflow.

It has been said that the worst place to make a building is on a building site because the human, financial and waste costs of this way of working, often in hazardous conditions, is high. Quality suffers and previously unseen problems are revealed during – or worse, after the construction phase. Rethinking and then simulating every aspect of design, fabrication and construction processes along industrial lines so that as much of the building as possible is made under controlled conditions is the surest way to guarantee a successful outcome.

Some truly innovative buildings have been constructed in recent years and cities are clamouring for more. In this time of huge opportunity, it is the responsibility of the construction industry to examine first principles, explore more 3D visualisation options to build and share a better future.

Andrew Watts is CEO of Newtecnic


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