November 10, 2005

Try integrated 3-D design for better buildings

  • Designers that use a collaborative 3-D approach will save clients money and time.

    Collaboration and integrated design are two fundamental elements that are required to create the most vibrant and intriguing places and spaces. A perfect example is Seattle University's $6.75 million Lee Center for the Arts, which is under construction.

    Lee Center, designed by LMN Architects, includes a performance space for the drama program. It was just recently announced that the center will also be the new home of The Empty Space Theatre, a nationally recognized innovator and supporter of new plays and writers.

    Performance spaces are very complicated to design and construct. In this case, challenges were added by the project being a remodel housed in a 1930s-era building that had been an automobile showroom. In addition, the budget was very tight and the program was complex.

    For the performance space to be effective, it was necessary to design and integrate the theater lighting and acoustics with electrical and sound systems. Early in the project, Sparling's electrical engineers got together with experts from Yantis Acoustical Design and Candela theater lighting consultants to brainstorm different options to optimize the systems design. These collaborative meetings with the designers and the Seattle University drama department used 2-D plans that were developed as part of the contract documents and elevations.

    Creative design approaches ensured that theater lighting feed points and sound system microphone jacks and speakers did not violate the acoustical envelope of the space or interfere with scenery drops and theater lighting.

    Real-time communications

    Recently much has been written about the barriers to integrated design and the lack of process, innovation and productivity improvement in delivering buildings. A 2004 book called "Refabricating Architecture" challenges the architecture and engineering professions to radically change design practices and project delivery methods. Other sources claim that current project design and delivery methods are costing owners up to 20 percent of construction dollars in lost productivity, wasted materials, increased capital and long-term building operation costs.

    Why is this? It's not the lack of expertise or commitment, but sometimes owners and design and construction teams fail to communicate in real time. This results in missed opportunities for integration and can lead to cost overruns, design changes during construction, schedule delays, and high operating and maintenance costs.

    Many architecture and engineering firms use newer design tools like 3-D modeling and BIM (building information modeling), but apply them in a traditional piecemeal fashion. As a result, communication and optimization of the design is disjointed and slow because each contributor uses software tools that are incompatible with the others' tools.

    There is a huge potential for stronger collaboration and integration through the use of 3-D design and BIM tools by the entire team. In addition, the 3-D model and all of the building information design parameters are embedded in the electronic documents, so they can be delivered digitally to the contractor and owner. The owner benefits by having all the information about how the building systems were designed and intended to operate in one place.

    A number of high-profile projects, such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, have expedited design and construction using this collaborative 3-D model. Another high-profile project is the Freedom Tower in New York City, which is being designed in 3-D and will be built using the 3-D model.

    Better projects

    In its most basic form, this integrated approach will not only change the design process but how we think from 2-D to 3-D; from analog to digital design. This will fundamentally change the way projects are built and will allow stakeholders and owners to communicate in a more effective way. Integrated 3-D design will foster better collaboration and, ultimately, better buildings built at less cost.

    In the Seattle area, there is a lot of enthusiasm and commitment to this change. Three years ago, the University of Washington College of Architecture & Urban Planning worked with owners, contractors and design professionals to form the Institute for Collaborative Design.

    The institute's mission is to support the development of "building delivery practices that will lead the nation in both economic success and community responsiveness." The institute is dedicated to doing research and education to enable a more integrated design and delivery process.

    AIA nationally is investing in research to demonstrate the value of 3-D design and building information modeling systems. Norm Strong, managing partner of Miller|Hull Partnership, chairs a national AIA Integrated Practice Strategy Working Group with a mission to demonstrate the benefits and accelerate the design profession's use of these new tools.

    There is a lot of work to be done and it will require more than just technology to enter the future. We must change the way we think and how we design. It will take a leap of faith to define new roles and responsibilities, and use 3-D models and building information systems to both design and build better buildings.

    While it will be a steep learning curve, these efforts will result in revolutionary improvements in both the design, construction and success of future buildings.

    Jim Duncan, PE, FACEC, is chairman and CEO of Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland. He is a member of the national AIA Integrated Practice Strategy Working Group.

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