Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tour of Canadian Cancer Lab

We change topics somewhat this week to learn a little bit more about the author of this blog. Regular readers not interested are invited to return next week for more architectural and structural engineering news and opinion.
Readers can catch themselves up on basics of the Birdsell Family and Friends Brain Cancer Research Fund through our team page, included is a YouTube video summarizing the fund’s mission.
I had the pleasure November 23rd of touring the lab of Dr. Mahoney, a immunology microbiologist at the University of Calgary Heritage Medical Research Building, by invitation of the Canadian Cancer Society. Though his research is not directly supported by the BFFBCRF’s initiative, our efforts in turn are supported by the Canadian Cancer Society which endeavors to connect donors with the fruits of their labour. 

Oncologic Immunology uses viruses, both natural and genetically modified, to 1) kill cancer cells and 2) trigger the body’s natural immune response to fight cancer. Much of Dr. Mahoney’s research focuses on the how of this chain of events occurs and he does it, in part, by leading an absolute all-out assault on the state-of-the-art in medical imaging. The tour unfortunately did not include what was described as the “Cadillac of microscopes”, even though it’s capabilities far exceed what one remembers from high school science class. Kept in the basement in a bio-secure area, along with the intrepid mice of science, it has the ability to stain different tissues in the sample different colours and film the response in real time (or time lapse). The images feel slightly abstract seen against a black background but with practice one can start to understand the behavior of the virus toward cancer in a live mouse model. It seemed with every new video clip presented Dr. Mahoney introduced a new discovery never observed before.

Next, touring the wet lab, outfitted just like a movie set would decorate a science lab, the theme of state-of-the-art technology continued. The automation of experimentation appears to be a boon for Dr. Mahoney’s lab, not only in the breath of testing possible but also in its exactly repeatable nature. So yeah, robots. The non-descript black box seen at the beginning of the clip is actually an automated microscope, something heretowith I’d been ignorant of. It can track, in total, over 20 000 tests. This is important when testing against the human genome. If I’m understanding the presentation correctly, there is a process by which each of the 20 000 genes is suppressed in sequence and then the whole thing run twice more for verification. The influence of big data and analytics was the biggest thing not seen on our tour. 

The BFFBCRF thanks the Canadian Cancer Society for organizing the event and wishes Dr. Mahoney and his lab the best of luck in their research!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Architectural Features Featured In 3D Printed Book

We celebrate this week a project which brings together a few this blog’s favorite things: architectural 3D printing, art history and books. “Twenty Something Sullivan” is a retrospective of ArchitectLouis Sullivan’s early work by Tom Burtonwood and Tim Samuelson (both of Chicago) who took examples of Sullivan’s architectural ornamentation in the public domain and 3D printed them in a unique book (pictured below).

I find this project exciting for a couple different reasons: Firstly, Sullivan’s work is beautiful (as typified by the above image of his Flatiron Building ca. 1900). Sullivan’s work marks the establishment of modern building techniques like steel framing but still retains the luscious organic ornamentation of age borrowed from neo-classical and beaux-art trends. I accept not everyone in the 21st century - with our clean lines and pure volumes – values rich ornamentation but hopefully that can be addressed somewhat by my second point: As stated previously on this blog I think the first wave of architecturally 3D printed products will be architectural features. This book is mostly there, falling short only in two areas; it’s a book of ornaments not used architecturally and it’s 3D printed in plastic – a fancy space age plastic to be sure – but with different materials now available for 3D printing, as referred to on this blog, other options might have been more desirous and interesting. I, for one, would love to see these reproductions completed in a cementitious material. 


Hesitating to give a full review to a book I have not read, I would love to see this book up close, especially given its ability to bring a tactile quality to presenting architectural ornamentation. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Foster and Partners Integrated Design Approach for Structural Engineering

I recently read the linked Institution of Structural Engineers article with great interest hoping to learn about Foster + Partners’ internal structural engineering program. Sadly the article was a bit thin on grand strategic vision instead focusing on Foster + Partners’ recently completed Ch√Ęteau Margaux in France. The wine making factory - given its Sir Normal Foster design credentials and nomination for a 2015 Structural Award in the commercial or retail structures category - make it one of the most expensive and elite wine-making facilities in the world. Custom details provided for the project like the “tree” columns (an image of which accompanies this post) must make the building a joy to work in. Unfortunately the subject of the article, Roger Ridsdill Smith, structural engineering program lead, had little to say on the topic of integration.
To be fair, Smith might have been very forthcoming during the interview but, for “journalistic” reasons, the interesting bits cut. The article for me boils down to Smith’s claim the best projects arise from a “totally integrated approach”. It’s 2015 and I just don’t think that statement is groundbreaking anymore. Isn’t multi-disciplinary integration assumed to be a best practice in building design? Are people making arguments to the contrary I’m not aware of? What I was really hoping for from the article was insights on how to best bring the project team together for common cause and what obstacles can normally be expected.

To that end, The Perfect Architecture Company blog invites Roger Smith to be interviewed here about integration in the building design process should he wish to share his thoughts on this important matter to a grateful audience. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

5 Challenges Facing Structural Integrity and Systems Performance

Lloyd’s Register Foundation - yes that venerable insurance company’s charitable arm – offers us their vision for future issues facing the structural engineering industry. Though the path to this information seems contrived - coming via Jakarta, Singapore, and Peru - some of the highlights I’ve pulled together below are legitimately insightful. As one reads the list I certainly believe the concerns of an insurance company do come through but real foresight is also contained within. The report frames their claims thusly: "The Foundation’s Foresight review of structural integrity and systems performance identifies the key safety challenges that exist in structural integrity and systems performance".

1. The safety of systems containing 3D and 4D additive manufactured parts, including:
  • The new field of 4D printing, where the shape of a 3D printed item can change by a self-activated process triggered by the environment.
  • Research into the mechanisms of in-service degradation to ensure long-term integrity of additive manufactured parts.
  • Ensuring appropriate recognized training exists for those operating and creating parts by additive manufacturing.
2. Engineering science challenges: advancing the state-of-the-art to maximize safety, including:
  • Complex loading – modelling how force is transmitted between environment and structures.
  • Residual stress engineering to increase fatigue life.
  • Assurance of long-term performance of coatings.
3. Development of an economic whole-system approach to demonstrate safety and integrity.

4. Data-centric engineering, including:
  • Designing for data, recognizing that embedded sensors, intelligent systems and data management will form part of engineering design requirements.
  • Promoting data availability for public use including academic research and system improvements.
  • Data analytics, coordinating with the work of the Alan Turing Institute to analyse data quickly and identify actions.
5. Minimizing the risks associated with maintenance and inspection, including:
  • Use of drones and robots to conduct inspection and/or maintenance.
  • Developing assets and systems that are able to monitor their own condition.
  • Design and build structures and equipment that require no maintenance or inspection.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Moving The Use of Building Information Modelling in the Construction Industry Forward

Writer Jeffrey Pinheirol’s has an interesting post up about what contractors are looking for in the BIM models they receive. I’m actually already sold on the benefits of looking forward in the building process for how best to structure the building data but his post contains some good practical advice about how to best approach this goal. The first take away for myself was that we should all be using REVIT’s build-in assembly code parameters in our models. Having each model element associated with its matching UNICODE format data greatly facilitates the estimating process (and by extension the tendering process). For myself, I think tagging model elements with assembly code data represents easy low hanging fruit which any firm can take implement of with very little investment.

Secondly, the writer touches on an issue central to the development of BIM. The coordination of the required level of detail in any given project has been a difficult goal to achieve for the BIM community. While the consequences of either over-modelling or under-modelling a structure are clear. Less well understood is agreed upon definitions of differing levels of development and detail within a project. Fundamentally this is a communications issue which manifests itself with inconsistences in the deliverables. This issue is an obstacle especially for distributed teams and integrated building design workflows which require a shared language to continually move the design forward. AIA’s Level of Development package is a good starting point for establishing agreed upon levels of development but certainly project partners have also stepped in to define the model’s level of completeness on a case-by-case basis.   

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fall 2015 Architectural 3D Printing Update: Reversible Concrete

MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, in collaboration with Gramazio Kohler Research and ETH Zurich, unveiled their new 3D printed architectural feature “Rock Print” at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. The 3D printing method utilized for the sculpture mimics some of concrete’s best characteristics such as its strength and flexibility in addition to the capability of being disassemblable. This property, achieved by cramming a bunch of stuff into a small space and thereafter relying the system’s inherent friction, is called the “jamming phenomenon” and in this example employs string, rock and a lot of material science to achieve the effect. The automated placement of the materials is done by robot arm and produces a structure of comparable strength to concrete but which retains the capability to be disassembled (just like LEGO). Andreas Thoma of Gramazio Kohler Research goes on to state: “The ability to digitally fabricate, disassemble, and reassemble structures with no material losses changes the paradigm of architecture as well as the view of permanent / temporary architecture." I’m actually not particularly drawn to the topic of temporary architecture – I’ll leave that to the retail specialists – I personally come done much more on the side of high-quality permanent structures but architectural 3D printing should at least fire one’s imagination in regards to the architectural possibilities. The design itself is pretty good. It’s solid public art that is both smooth and gracefully extends its heft up while showcasing innovation. I’m just not sure it falls into the rare and elite category of sculpture I’d want to own.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Architectural 3D Printing on Mars

NASA - by way of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Mars Society – bring us their vision of an architecturally 3D printed Mars habitat through a competition meant to “develop state-of-the-art architectural concepts”. Side stepping the technical depth of their submission – this is not like building with LEGO – I jump directly to the proposed structure’s architectural qualities. The article makes pains to stress the design’s “French sci-fi aesthetic” but when running down that angle in preparation for this post I was greatly confused: French sci-fi architecture is normally associated with the appearance the structure has always been there or, though futuristic, has been aged and distressed in some way. To my eyes, however, the proposed structure is pure Japanese modernism; non-threatening and simple. I find the concept itself quite strong, the linked article describing the habitat resembling “nothing so much as an igloo crossed with a large droplet of water sitting on the surface of Mars, contained by its own surface tension.” I can’t help but feel, however, that had I known about the competition earlier I could have taken a design even further. Be that as it may, I will withhold my final verdict until we see more renderings.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Engineering Marvel Being Built in Toronto

More and more often in our cities, the need for development clashes with the desire to save our shared architectural heritage. Our forefathers having inconveniently established architectural gems on land which would later become much more valuable than the buildings which sit on it. This conflict is addressed in the addition to Toronto’s Queen Richmond Center. In the images accompanying this post, one can see the proposed office building perched above the historic 4-storey masonry building.

But does this structure constitute an “engineering marvel” as the article suggests? Here I come down firmly on the negative. That this is being built this way did not confound my expectations of what is possible in field of structural engineering. However, I do wish to applaud both the client and architect for the boldness of their thought. I congratulate them for committing substantial funds to such an innovative and unique design. It is for these qualities I wish to celebrate the building, as it signals how a group of people value good design.

“The obvious solution of using conventional columns would not work since a large size and number of columns would have been required. What consulting engineer Stephenson Engineering Ltd and Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects Inc decided to do was to use a series of 70-foot-tall “delta frames”, each comprised of one-metre-diameter tubular steel columns shooting up through the new development’s atrium (already a part of the four-storey structure) to support the new tower. With high lateral stability, the tubes that make up the delta frames are positioned at angles to intersect each other at midpoint for improved gravity and lateral force resistance. The key to the strength of these steel tubular columns is that they will be filled with concrete to increase load-bearing capacity.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

“Engineering Firm Acquisition not about LEGO Architecture” says No One

WSP Global continues to acquire high-quality private firms with news reaching us this week the firm has acquired Halvorson and Partners ("H+P"), a 40-person structural engineering firm based in Chicago. WSP has some kind words to welcome their new employees:
“H+P has completed structural designs for high-profile, award-winning projects throughout the U.S., as well as internationally through an office in Shanghai and a strong presence in the Middle East. Its portfolio includes the Burj Mohammed Bin Rashid Tower in Abu Dhabi, which won the "2015 Best Tall Building Award" for the Middle East and Africa from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Other prominent projects include: OneEleven, a 60-story luxury apartment tower in Chicago which recently won a "Best Project Award" from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois; Wolf Point West Tower, the first tower in a multi-phase US$1 billion development along the Chicago River in Chicago; and Vantone Tower, a 600-foot-tall corporate headquarters in Tianjin, China.”
This, of course, comes in the context of the much larger acquisition by WSP in 2014 of Parsons Brinckerhoff which extended WSP’s service capabilities around the world. The acquisition seems mostly to have been about expanding their position in land and air civil engineering services. WSP goes on to say about their current service offerings: The firm provides services to transform the built environment and restore the natural environment, and its expertise ranges from environmental remediation to urban planning, from engineering iconic buildings to designing sustainable transport networks, and from developing the energy sources of the future to enabling new ways of extracting essential resources.”

Trying to derive WSP’s growth strategy from its behavior is difficult. Not only because it’s not my area of expertise but also because from the preliminary evidence presented they seem bent on global domination through acquisition. Locally the firm has multiple offices in Calgary spread around the city but offers little information on its website on what distinguishes each office. I assume in Calgary each is rooted in different phases of oil production. But considering all the small offices located around Canada, growing to 500 offices located in 37 countries around the world, that means a lot of money being sent back to the mothership. WSP Global’s headquarters are in Montreal.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Creating Engineer and Architect Stories

It’s rather trivial to prove countries with more engineers per capita are generally economically better off than comparable countries and from this point flows all sorts of other positive benefits such as higher levels of education among the general population, increased resources for arts and sciences, better health outcomes, etc. Less easy to prove is that to increase engineering enrollment; engineering needs a PR campaign. This is exactly what are trying to do, except perhaps with even more ambition.
There is an established pattern of neglect for high quality engineer and architect narratives. Compare the portrayals seen of other professions like doctors and lawyers. There’s really no equivalent to Game of Thrones for engineers and architects. The long temporal nature of building projects is an obstacle to audience engagement for one. More surprising is the neglect of architect stories: Architects tend to be egomaniacs (full disclosure; I trained as one) and therefore when two meet in opposition, because of each’s inherent energy, more often than not, sparks tend to fly. Why this point hasn’t been leveraged as a source for architect stories is a mystery.

Ultimately I don’t mind these efforts to promote STEM professions, or “humanize” them as the Polar Media representative suggests. So long as we don’t get carried away by imaginary narratives and remember to address at the same time the real obstacles people have in entering the engineering field. Removing barriers to higher education, be they financial or academic, seems just as important as “sexying” up the engineering industry. But otherwise, good luck to Polar Media. If interested in helping them with their project, more information is available through the link above. 

Friday, September 04, 2015

Architectural 3D Printing With Glass

I’ve had a lot of admiration for MIT since learning Noam Chomsky once taught there. But more recently its MIT’s engineering prowess which draws attention. Their work on drones - and the swarm mathematics which drive them - is especially innovative. But for this post I wish to focus on news this week MIT’s Material Lab has introduced a method for3D printing glass. A technology which they are calling “G3DP” effectively prints molten glass, which, when cooled, can be used for a variety of architectural features. Left missing from the article is specifications as to its strength. One of the architecturally useful characteristics of glass, if manufactured with a minimum of imperfections, can be its high compressive strength. Normally 3D printed materials can be assumed to be weaker than their traditionally produced counter-parts. If, in the meantime, only smaller architectural features are feasible with the technology I think the process will be a boon for great design. Vimeo Video

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Data Mining Application for Architecture and Engineering Design

An unusual place to find innovative architecture, engineering, and construction industry news, introduced me toBerkeley, CA based Vernox Labs, a Y-Combinator backed company which recently released an interesting data mining product for the industry. The tool shows great promise to uncover, predict, and streamline design and construction issues for complex projects. I have no connection to the company but have great interest in all technologies which help me build.
Vernox Labs product is, essentially, a private searchable AEC industry database. One can see parallels here with the recent emergence of private medical databases for doctors. The article reports the company has spent resources collecting and cataloging all sorts of reports and emails from the AEC industry and thereafter analyzes it for trends. Perhaps the value of such a database to the AEC industry is best shown with an example: While a project is in the design phase one could query the database about a specific product or material. The system would then return information about the product's performance and installation, including any issues which might cause delays.
The application of big data and data mining to the AEC industry is complex, probably worth its own seminar or university degree. But needless to say I can already identify a couple variables which could affect the usefulness of Vernox Labs' tool which are unknown to me as of this writing. For one, the size of the database is of paramount importance. A large comprehensive database could actually be quite useful. But a skimpy database would be next to useless, returning only shallow results for any one query. Traditionally the AEC industry has been very protective of their internal communications and data because it can have such a large impact on construction pricing, fee structures, real estate and future projects so it will be interesting to see where Vernox Labs got their data from. The other dominating factor is the analysis and searchability of the data. Well structured, one could always hope to find what they are looking for and uncover trends which are not readily available without using mathematics. On the other hand, unstructured data might as well be a spreadsheet full of random numbers for how useful it is.
A final overriding factor, which dips into the realm of subjectivity, is one's ability to ask pertinent questions of the data. Good data analysis and getting good results from the data really is more art than science and if one can look at their data and ask really creative questions of it sometimes very valuable conclusions come tumbling out. The AEC industry has long been waiting for the application of big data to construction and Vernox Lab's seems to be worth watching for further details.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The First Steps in Evaluating Your Digital Marketing Position

I quite liked this write up by Calgary-based digital marketing firm Though lacking suggestions for how to develop a digital marketing strategy, it serves as a strong introduction to some of the fundamental  indicators and questions of the field. It's unfortunate there exists professional service firms who still seem to be unaware one's digital presence acts just like a physical storefront in a consumer's mind. The visitor may react with distaste, confusion or engagement mere seconds after stepping into a store or loading a firm's webpage. Those looking in from the outside make instantaneous judgments about what the look of a firm says about its character.
The following four points from the article break down what one can begin to look at when starting to evaluate their digital position. For the most part they are very number-centric and technical in nature (Steps 1, 3 and 4) or carry with it a high degree of risk and uncertainty (step 2; to whom do you trust with the keys to your online kingdom?).  Though with step two, I hold the view that where ever there is risk, there is also opportunity. I think the best part of risk is that often it can be managed or mitigated; all the better to ensure the opportunity is successful.
Step 1: Know your Search Engine Ranking    
Step 2: Social Media Presence 
Step 3: Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Step 4: Website Metrics
Small businesses wishing to develop their digital marketing position may be better suited to a smaller digital marketing firm so their account doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Missing from the above list, however, is "big data", or rather the job of interpreting the data which has been passively captured, and this is something bigger shops may be more apt at executing. All sorts of interesting questions and insights arise from the processed data which is proven to lead to new markets or clients. Competency in analytics is absolutely a capability I would look for and here I think the big players in Canada such as Deloitte Digital and Accenture Go Digital have an edge.