Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Rock n’ Roll Lives of General Contractors: A Mini-Financial Analysis

In an effort to model the steps in a preliminary economic analysis of an industry and highlight the role of the general contractor in design and construction we describe below the economic characteristics of the general contracting industry:

On any given project of considerable size the flow of money to the general contractor will dwarf the design costs of the project. This has implications for the design fee structure negotiated which are usually ranges between 5-10% of total construction costs. From the Engineering News Record database we learn the top two international general contracting firms by revenue are France’s Vinci and Spain’s ACS Group with annual revenue of 53.7 bil. (in CDN$ 2011) and 55.9 bil. (in CDN$ 2012) respectively. These are massive companies grown through acquisition which glean most of their revenue through infrastructure projects but as one can see they are much bigger than even some of the world’s largest construction projects.

Moving toward more regional players for contrast, Edmonton’s PLC Construction and Calgary’s Graham Construction are two of the biggest companies in the province with revenue of $8 bil. and $2 bil. in 2014 respectively. For comparison, removing oil and gas projects, the top four infrastructure projects currently under construction in Alberta are the Valley Line LRT in Edmonton at $3.2 bil., the StoneGate Landing development in Calgary at $3.0 bil. and the Anthony Henday Drive Expansion in Edmonton at $1.8 bill. Falling just outside the top ten, the next architectural development down the list Calgary’s new airport concourse at $1.4 bil. As one can see, even a billion dollar company can be exposed to risks associated with a project representing a significant portion its annual revenue. After-tax profit margin is estimated to be in the single digits. Ultimately for these companies, controlling construction costs is central to giving gross profit margins the space to cover company overhead. 

Helpful Links: 

Thursday, July 07, 2016

REVIT Safe Mode

As complex a tool Revit is to build with, sometimes the problems encountered are even more complex. Throwing Revit power users a bone, design firm Stantec created a great problem solving tool that allows one to basically start Revit in Safe Mode. Third party add-ons and extensions are popular for increasing productivity but also have a history of creating discrepancies and conflicts which might freeze or otherwise corrupt your model. Stantec’s utility allows for the precise control of what’s on when Revit starts up. This can greatly decrease the number of possible conflicts when trying to troubleshoot a model. I posted it here because I thought the tool might come in helpful for some of our readers in the future and as a way to thank Stantec for sharing their work with the community. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Mini-Review of Proposed Architectural 3D Printed Home

Branch Technology recently announced the prestigious Chicago firm WATG Urban Architecture Studio winner of their Freeform Home Design Challenge. Leaving aside the debate over how The Perfect Architecture Company would have fared had we known beforehand, at least now we have the opportunity to reflect and compose a response much like we did back in April.

The challenge to design a “55 to 75 square-meter single-family home that would rethink traditional architectural aesthetics, ergonomics, construction, building systems and structure, from the ground up” sounds like one of many architectural studio assignments given in grad school. The winning proposal, “Curve Appeal”, loses a point right off the bat because of the pun in its title but that’s hardly a death knell for its architectural merits. I’m pretty open minded when it comes to radical design and applaud the extreme form though question its choice of materials; the exterior shell in particular seems hard and metallic, contradicting claims the form is organic in nature. Being somewhat familiar with the classification of curves and surfaces the form to my eye moves away from organic shapes and is better defined as hyperbolic.

There’s also some practicalities to consider: the extreme form leaves no straight lines for art or books which makes this house truly outside the mainstream. The extreme form also depreciates some of the exterior spaces around the structure creating inhospitable voids. I’d probably turn to Feng Shui to flesh out these ideas more fully but ultimately the sustainability goals of modern architecture dictate these sorts of uninviting non-functional areas be avoided in favour of excellent multi-functional design. I will reserve final judgement, however, until I see some floor plans since maybe this design really does offer a powerful interpretation of modern home life in architecture.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Euler Line in Computational Architecture

There are many connections between circles and trigonometry so when I found a great example of this in a new book I got I wanted to try it for myself in Dynamo/REVIT. The theorem, named after the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, can be constructed several different ways but in essence describes a line created by the following three points derived from a triangle inscribed in a circle:

  1. The center point of the circle;
  2. the intersection of each side’s midline bisectors and;
  3. the orthocenter created by each side’s altitude line when each side is split into two right angle triangles. 
If it’s hard to explain, it was even harder to code for a novice programmer like myself. This geometric proof holds for any 3 points on a circle. I can’t image how long one would have stare at a triangle to uncover a relationship like this but it does indeed hold when experimenting with the code as shown in the images accompanying this post.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Software for High-tech Structural Engineering Applications

While I’m still struggling to understanding Dynamo for REVIT gracing the blog yet again is the good work of structural engineering software consultants Oasys Software who I’m sure would be happy to instigate a full-scale engineering attack on your next engineering mega-project. AEC Magazine highlights two projects featured in the 2015 Structural Engineering Awards which showcase custom applications of advanced structural modelling software.

SSE Hydro is a 12000 seat sports and entertainment complex Glasgow, Scotland with the roof geometry parametrically defined by Oasys GSA software and the remaining structural modelling done by Bentley Solutions. I’m not sure how common it is for the same high-profile building to use different two software approaches but the finished structure is stunning and I’d love to see Radiohead play live there (should the opportunity ever arise). 

Recognized in the Arts or Entertainment Structures category, the second featured structure is the Vegas High Roller described as the “tallest observation wheel in the world”. Because of the pun in the title I will spill the beans and admit 1) it’s just a ferris wheel 2) I’ve never been to Vegas and 3) I’m not particularly drawn to designing novelty entrainment structures. That said, the structure is notable for two engineering reasons: The wheel resists horizontal forces with a single graceful arm to the side and secondly note the lovely use of delicate spokes brace the rim. The total effect of which is a transparent, light and delicate structure, all of which screams innovative high-tech design.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Architectural 3D Printed Ceramics in California

Amazing company, Emerging Objects, just introduced a wonderful new innovation in 3D printed ceramics with their project GCODE.Clay. They were previously involved in another successful ceramic 3D printing project at UC Berkeley I blogged about. This time the resulting pieces are smaller but experiment with several different mediums - porcelain, bmix, terra-cotta, and recycled clay – as part of an exhibition showcasing patterns. The article goes onto note: “GCODE.Clay was first exhibited at Space 2214 in its inaugural exhibition investigating Pattern, Predictability, and Repetition, which explored the themes of repetition, and rote action—a defining peril of modernity. In this project, the unpredictability is the fundamental aspiration of the object making. Patterns emerge and disappear in the variations of the experiments explored.”

GCODE is actually the design computer language used but I’m more interested in the results. Here the pieces capture subtle visual rhythms I quite like and the tiny imperfections (seen in the close ups) lend the pieces great warmth. The architect in me deeply questions the structural properties of said pieces in addition to their wear patterns over time. Setting these pieces in a gallery is very different than placing them architecturally in a busy public space.

So what do you think? Quirky experiment or revolutionary architectural feature? Leave your comments below!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

BIM-generated Real-time Architectural Visualizations and Photo-realistic Renderings

Following up on my post about the Gamification ofArchitectural Renderings the comes a great article from AEC Magazine of BIM-generated real-time visualizations and photo-realistic renderings. Though I personally forgo real-time digital renderings in favour of more traditional architectural renderings I will admit to liking BIM’s ability to extract line work for all sorts of architecturally communicative reasons. The argument the writer puts forward is that the period of high quality real-time visualization has arrived and is already being used innovatively by several firms mentioned in the article. Some of the more advanced renderings’ treatment of light is extremely realistic. The writer has kindly summarized the benefits in one paragraph referencing Abu Dhabi International Airport's new Midfield Terminal:                         
A money saving point of view BIM (Building Information Modelling) is in some minds just another way of saying “3D”. But when modelling takes centre stage it becomes easier to add visualisation into the workflow. When Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Consolidated Contractors Company were partners on the Midfield Terminal project for Abu Dhabi International Airport, they adopted a “4D” BIM workflow that used threedimensional visualisations and time studies to review construction and design issues from a holistic perspective. The result was documented savings of more than $5 million due to better clash detection and a visualisation study that validated early calculations on crane allocation.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How Building Codes Change

After a short vacation I’m back in professional mode trying to keep abreast of the latest structural engineering and building information modelling news. Perhaps with my background in architectural history I’m more apt to take an interest in the evolutionary changes which slowly occur within the field of structural engineering. Though of slightly more relevance to civil engineering, a recently released report of a January 2015 subway fire in Washington D.C. noted - among the many other safety short comings of the Washington D.C. metro system - that a contributing factor in the poor emergency response was that the tunnel had been built in the 1970s to 1970s standards where controlling temperature and heat had been main priorities. In the 80s, cumulative experience shifted this view instead to focus on the evacuation of smoke in an emergency and codes subsequently updated. Another example of this is what engineers learned from 2011 Japanese Tsunami; my connection being I use to live there. The article notes, “The debris fields along the devastated coastal areas of northeastern Japan quickly became a laboratory for investigating not only the direct hydraulic loads but also many related phenomena, such as building buoyancy, backwash and scour.” Concluding, “Concrete structures with deep foundations and good shear bracing survived, but others with weak foundation connections lifted and rolled.” Ultimately this has led for calls to change the building code for essential structures in coastal areas which could be used as places of refuge in an emergency. The article conveniently summarizes the recommended changes in one paragraph: “The new ASCE standards were developed based on a maximum considered tsunami (MCT) that has a 2% probability of being exceeded in a 50-year period, or a ~2,500 year average return period. The MCT is characterized by the site-specific inundation depths, run-up and flow velocities during inflow and outflow—all based on probabilistic tsunami hazard analysis”.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Material Optimization in BIM

Myself in general and my firm specifically focuses on cost sensitive clients and while I love love love the sector always central to this goal is material optimization. I’m not an engineer and therefore can’t optimize the design through steel selection and so mostly concentrate on reducing steel through an excellent grasp of geometry. However, I often struggle to understand how our drawings are used downstream by the steel supplier to optimize the design and was happy to find information on the subject in a recen
Revit Structure Blog postOur firm is always specifying just such braces seen in the post but does not explicitly design them (though we can). Our firm’s role is to calculate all the loads which go into the piece and then the steel supplier can (if they wish) optimize the piece which, as the link shows, can significantly reduce the amount of material needed with no change in capacity. It’s a very interesting read and I hope the knowledge will lead to better integration with our building design partners.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Architecturally 3D Printing Art History

With a great title like “WinSun 3D Prints TwoGorgeous Concrete Chinese Courtyards Inspired By Ancient Suzhou Gardens” I enthusiastically clicked through to the article only to be immediately underwhelmed. I’ve come back to the piece several times in preparation for this post but my conclusion remains changed: Great technology, mediocre architecture. With a background in architectural history perhaps I was expecting too much (being somewhat familiar as I am with Chinese architecture from previous trips to the region). Perhaps the overcast skies drain the images of any sort of life. The project looks endowed with the wrong type of stillness; the kind brought about from non-use and loneliness. For comparison I’ve included a picture of a 12th century Suzhou Garden. One can see the underlying “blockiness” of the forms are similar but real 12th century gardens include a lot more detail and texture missing from the 3D printed version. These visual elements are key as to why people are drawn to historic buildings in the first place.
Real 12th Century Suzhou Garden
Stories about the art history angle to architectural 3D printing now routinely appear online - such as the SyrianPalmyra Arch - and for the most part I’ve past over them for recognition on the blog because I haven’t found them to be truly compelling examples, even if the technology shows great promise. WinSun executive Ma Yi He’s statement about the project - “I like the 3D printing technology, its science, art and simple culture” - draws us to the crux of the conversation: Should architectural 3D printing be leveraged to define new architectural forms or perfectly represent old ones? I’ve covered the debate before with Dutch designer Michiel van der Kley going way over the top to call for a whole new design language be established around architectural 3D printed forms. I like old buildings so I wouldn’t go that far but do think the Suzhou Garden project would have been more successful had the medium been explored further. From a technological standpoint I really liked the Suzhou Gardens project. The sweeping curves achieved and textured finish (below) have all sorts of great interior and exterior applications. 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

BIM The Mechanical Pencil

I’ve been following the excellent What Revit Wants blog for a couple of years now and appreciate its approached to BIM. So often when faced with answering hostile questions about why REVIT does things in such-and-such a way I simply can’t answer frustration with a shrug. I agree with blogger Luke Johnson’s suggestion from the article: ”You really need to commit to using Revit. Yes, it can be a difficult learning curve. The initial excitement quickly wears off, as you are faced with numerous choices you don't really understand, and this long list of "I don't know how to do this" tasks. But you will learn. You have to. Revit is not going away.”

If anything the article focused too much on introducing beginners to Revit and not enough on exploring the power user’s mindset. And for myself, it’s this quality which advances BIM design the most. Though I’m in a bit of a privileged position in being able to both love drafting and adopt an iconoclastic position with no deep ties to AutoCAD. Every once in a while I come across someone in industry who prefaces my whole view of BIM as the software owning me. I’m not sure how I ever gave that impression being hyper-focused as I am on the constructability of buildings regardless of drawing medium but I’m in agreement when the writer states: “Revit can seem daunting at times, but in the end, it is a tool for accomplishing work. You are in control of it, not vice versa.”

REVIT is nothing more than a fancy mechanical pencil and it is there to do what I want. I would not want to be in the line of fire should someone suggest I have nothing left to learn about BIM because it’s a worthless advance in building technology. If I thought even for a second I could build more with CAD over BIM I'd be using it. But as desirous as I am to build a lot; What Revit wants is an excellent rallying cry to the cause. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Sharp Point of Proactive Design

Lots of good research comes from the real estate sector because they tend to be very sophisticated users of design services. This week's article on proactive design caught my attention because I’ve long held the value of a building is primarily established in the design phase. Being proactive about the structural system is central to this. 
In the end, however, I think the article missed key opportunities to provide evidence of why it's important for clients to engage the services of a structural engineer as early in a project as possible. Take for instance the authors' statement: 
“If the correct structural system is selected early on when concepts are still fluid, it forms the right bones for all that follows and inherently reduces costs due to its appropriateness and efficiency.” 
What makes it "inherent"? If I'm a critical thinker, I should ask myself if there aren't empirical ways to investigate this question. And what the authors gloss over as inherent I think actually represents a testable process which is predictable enough to save clients money. My hypothesis is that numbers exist which point to very specific reasons why the building design process is optimized when structure is addressed early. I actually just found the numbers in books at the University of Calgary library and on the internet. Had I written the article - the main thrust of which I agree with - I wouldn't have used the word "inherent" but rather more words instead. Ha!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Gamification of 3D Architectural Renderings

At first blush I probably don’t seem a likely candidate to support of the gamification of computer generated architectural renderings: I don’t own a TV nor play video games. I dislike the majority of computer generated architectural renderings I see, tending instead to prefer super high-quality photo-realistic renderings, a process I admire but have never found the motivation to learn. 

The Unreal Engine is probably best known as a first person shooter video game against science fiction monsters. I suppose one could populate their architectural model with monsters and aliens and invite the well-armed player to visit the structure but it might not give one’s architectural proposal the light-hearted energy normally associated with professional presentations. Minecraft architecture is more my speed but so few of my ideas translate smoothly into 1m x 1m x 1m blocks. Archdaily had an interesting article last year highlighting the steep learning curve involved in Unreal Engine renderings accompanied by some quality examples of the technology (as per the linked video).

The open source Unreal Engine 4 appears to be the industry leader in open-world architectural models and the website shows how mature the segment has become. The workflow appears to be somewhat straightforward for those already holding a passion for the field. There are many excellent examples floating around the internet and I find them all very compelling. The only thing I would find more compelling is letting the client themselves wonder around the model. Then this becomes an exciting and engrossing presentation of the proposed space which communicates many of the structure’s key qualities. The open-world nature of these models lends the process a sense of transparency and fun because stakeholders can wonder around and see whatever they like.

Lastly we turn to Engineering News Record’s article about how video games became design and construction tools who insisted on calling augmented reality “Mixed reality” throughout the article. The author even goes on to say ““Mixed reality”—another term for augmented reality (AR)—allows users to map images onto objects in their field of vision while wearing [specialized goggles or glasses].” This technology becomes helpful in construction because it offers a method by which to overlay the architectural model on the construction site. Especially for the mechanical contractors of a project - who often need to follow what must seem like random paths through a building with very specific pipes or wires - such a straightforward way of connecting the building system design to the real-world site becomes valuable.