Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Facilities Management in Digital Design

Constantly promoting a building design management perspective, in this article we start by taking a 30,000 foot view of the BIM process and then focus in on how digital design is changing facilities management. Bringing this type of information forward into the design stage is an important step to understanding the requirements of modern owners in all their specifics. Facility operations is ultimately a characteristic of a building's function. With that in mind, I wanted to introduce a publication from ARUP which contained some insights which will be of interest to anyone responsible for increasing the value of architecture through digital design.

It's true designers could ignore these insights, but then specifications helpful to creating a valuable building would go untapped. The target one is aiming for would stay blurry and be much harder to hit. On the other hand, the ARUP document is long and therefore not so easily digestible. The goal of this piece is to communicate good ideas which represent low-hanging fruit designers can start implementing right away. To date, the field has been characterized by many individual strategies, and there is much to be gained from promoting the unified approach suggested by ARUP. 

The two main reason to consider digital facilities management and big data:

  • More end user control and flexibility, leading to better health and wellbeing.
  • Tracking methods to ensure the high performance building stays high performance.
ARUP outlines six categories of digital benefits across an asset's lifecycle which I've summarized below for convenience. These categories should be checked on every project going forward. 
  • A digital Portfolio strategy embraces a data-driven investment strategy. It helps improve the decision making process and creates a framework under which to analyze operational performance across an investment portfolio. Both of which can lead to higher returns and operational cost savings. 
  • Faster, safer, and more accurate project delivery during the fit-out stage is supported by process virtualization, enabling a smoother transition between design/engineering and construction. 
  • Project planning can be supported digitally with new forms of stakeholder engagement. The data can also be applied during the planning stage to facilities optimal site selection. Ultimately, using digital for project planning can differentiate oneself in the marketplace. 
  • Asset operations is shifting to rely on digital infrastructure and processes. It helps to understand the occupant's experience and increases flexibility through integration. All sorts of other digital services can be spun off at this stage which can increase building value. 
  • When architects and engineers approach an existing building, digital design allows faster, cheaper and more accurate existing conditions modelling. Furthermore, simulations can be done to help understand and improve the experiences of future users. 
  • Lastly, when it comes time to renew assets, portfolio-wide intelligence means a smarter and better informed plan. A digital platform promotes the streamlining of whole renewal process. 
A short but interesting case study included in the report is from Microsoft's I.T. and real estate department who makes the claim that even though only about 70% of their global campuses currently leverage digital dashboards, they've definitely come to rely on the technology to make better decisions. 

Lastly, introducing one last layer of depth, hopefully without adding too much more detail, I wanted to connect this shift in facilities management to where some of the best research on the topic is going on. This gives us insight into where the technology is expected to go so that architecture and engineering firms can try to get there first. Here we extend our thanks to the work of Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering. This is where the most complex custom approaches are currently being studied but also where the topic of digital facilities management is being discussed almost philosophically. Reading about the center's research and accomplishments, one thing I appreciate about their approach is their steadfast dedication to integration. This follows other industry trends toward more focus on collaborative and interdisciplinary skills. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Relaxing Postmodern Architecture of Asia

There's something irresistible about traditional Japanese architecture when I feel anxious and am trying to relax. One of my calmest experiences with Japanese architecture occurred in 2007 when my brother and I visited Kyoto's Daitokuji Temple complex during the New Year's break. Established in 1329 and made up of 24 sub-temples, we hit the day of our visit nearly perfect (in some ways). Pouring rain and frigid cold, at least the holidays kept visitors away and downpour traffic noise to a minimum. The result was a shiny and hyper-saturated environment that shared much in common with travelling back in time. Stately and meditative temples and gardens stood under an ancient canopy of cedar, maple and cherry trees. Fully illustrating and narrating the characteristics of traditional architecture of Japan deserves a much bigger effort someday to do it justice, but many readers might be seeking the same sort of reprieve from the constant daily news this travel storey represents. In that vein, the following piece about the relaxing architecture of Asia focuses on six contemporary projects sure to move, inspire and calm.

Tainan Tung-Men Holiness Church, Taiwan.
MAYU Architects, 2015.
The simplicity of bare concrete and primarily white fixtures might overshadow the genius spatial organization of this church in Taiwan. Many projects will never have clients daring enough support this type of radical building programme, even if the end result succeeds on many levels. Worshipping a creative God through creativity is something we should all be able to get behind regardless of beliefs. The interior is calmed by the use of a perforated aluminum facade on the exterior, creating an atmosphere of soft light and contemplation inside. The sparse interior focusing visitors' attention on the activities within. Details are well executed, especially the stairs which connect the levels through a light filled column beside the sanctuary. The overall form of the building is nearly cubular and knits itself into the fabric of the surrounding community extremely well.

Oasia Hotel, Singapore.
WOHA, 2016.
It's not healthy to assume we can only relax in remote natural settings. That would limit most people to only feeling truly relaxed a couple times a year. A better approach is to bring that relaxing atmosphere to the city. To that end, hotels – filled with tightly wound tourists after their long flight in a steel tube – especially need to invite guests to relax through the built environment. The Oasia Hotel in Singapore hits all those points. Adding to the city's reputation for arts and culture, it's a great looking building to see down the block. The interior design of the rooms is above average but staying with the building's big ideas, it's roof top patio sets a high bar to follow. It looks like it would be a very relaxing place to sit and have a drink.

Dream Stream, China.
West-line studio 2004.

This project had a very interesting design development process which I think accounts for its excellent relationship to the site. The team first constructed a 1 to 1 scale bamboo model to develop the main structural elements of the design. The reason for this unorthodox method was a lack of construction skills in the region. This allowed everyone on the project to agree on and see what the final structure would be before the concrete was poured into the bamboo model. The development of the interior spaces and travel paths in this project when studied shows real genius. One really has to credit the open mindedness of the owners for executing such a radically creative design.

Bamboo Gateway, China.
West-line studio, 2008.

Gates have a long history in Asia. Having lived overseas, I've come to love their meaning and symbolic application in all entrances. This gate for a national park in China shows a modern interpretation of one by West-line Studio. The shape of the building when viewed from above reveals this sort of unique four-point organic shape, but it's the verticality of the design activating the surrounding bamboo that visitors remember. Bamboo is also the main structural support for the gate. The gate appears wonderfully welcoming and seems to be at peace in the pond as the seasons change around it. It's easy to imagine heading out from this point with family or friends to have an adventure in the sea of bamboo.

Ribbon Chapel, Hiroshima, Japan.
Hiroshi Nakamura and NAP Architects, 2013.

The Ribbon Chapel in Hiroshima, Japan, is a great achievement for architect Hiroshi Nakamura. The from is restrained enough to capture some of the stillness and balance found in classical Japanese architecture, however, at the same time, there is a great dynamic motion to the structure. One that draws the visitor's eye even at a distance. The building photographs very well at sunset. The spiral, though sharing so many visual characteristics with a delicate ribbon, houses a staircase visitors can take to the area's main lookout point toward the bay and more mountains beyond.

Gangwon Holiday Apartments, South Korea.
IDMM Architects, 2016.
The architects write the sort of random and faceted nature of these holiday apartments are to allow the structure to have many different relationships with the surrounding nature. Completed in 2016 by IDDM Architects, by all accounts these are very high-end units. A minimalist-style should always be complemented by extra focus on materials and build quality, which are much more likely to be noticed in a minimal environment. The quality of the structure shows everywhere. For example, the edges of concrete are very cleanly executed and glazing first-rate. Returning to the exterior, all the different angles achieved in this building reveal a strong contrast with mainstream architecture for sure, but also depth and meaning. Someone really cared about placing these pieces. Not every structure can claim that care in design leads to a deeper meaning for a building.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Local Materials in Postmodern Architecture

Mexico, and South America more broadly, currently lead in several fields of sustainable design. So many of our projects in North America and Europe use materials that are high-tech, and while this might edge them ahead in terms of absolute energy efficiency, Mexican projects seem to be able to effortlessly show respect toward the architectural customs and traditions of the region their projects are located. A further benefit of using simple and honest locally-available materials is their excellent thermal characteristics. The following four projects highlight the integration of sustainable materials and local processes. 

First we touch on the Casa Zirahuen in Querétaro, Mexico by Intersticial Arquitectura. The project is based in an urban area where the context is high surrounding walls for security. The firm has created a little oasis around two courtyards with the living quarters on the second floor. The interior design is a bit sparse, even for someone like myself who likes minimalism, but this project is definitely worth study for its use of sustainable materials. I will draw the reader's attention to the use of a locally sourced brick. A lot of brick I can take or leave, especially if its been sourced from across an ocean. This brick is made locally and given a chance I would love to use in Canada but resist knowing it would have to travel so far. It has this sort of elongated soft quality to it I find very attractive and its thermal properties, as mentioned above, are welcomed in any home.

Jorge Bolio Arquitectura completed a restaurant in the Yucatan in 2016 which had at its core the restoration of an old textile factory. When the firm needed to reinforce the structure, they creatively used touches of modern structural elements to also define new spaces within the building itself. What really stands out to the visitor – and indeed supports our study of materials in this piece – is the excellent use of textures throughout the building. Stone and ceramic are used extensively, which leads to unique and natural textures everywhere. The high-contrast patterns are great. The interior never goes overboard and on a whole the approach is so balanced the final space is quite calming. Very welcoming exterior and probably a great place to have a meal in. 

A post shared by XXI Magazine (@xxi_magazine) on
Next we turn to the BRUMA winery in the Baja California wine growing region of Mexico. Completed in 2015 by Taller de Arquitectura Contextual (TAC), we have an excellent example of the use of wood in architecture. I find it helpful to contrast this work with traditional Japanese wood architecture since that's my main background. The simplicity of the Japanese design requires an excellent a source of high-quality wood. The same effect can be seen in action here, and the eye is drawn to the unique characteristics of this locally recycled wood, but instead of Japanese stillness, we have a much more joyful approach to the material. Much less reserved. Wonderful to see used wood getting a second life.

Lastly we come to the rammed-earthed School of Visual Arts of Oaxaca, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Completed by architect Mauricio Rocha in 2008. The pattern of earth caught in the walls is sublime. The material's inertness and natural tones do most of the work defining the structure's characteristics. Another notable feature of the building is better perceived from a high angle. The design is a masterclass in how to integrated a building into a site. It's sort of carved into the landscape. And although a visitor might not notice it during a casual meeting at the school, these qualities of integration filter down into the interior spaces as well. Between the materials and settings, it would lend the galleries and classrooms a wonderful calmness derived from its structure's timeless strength. On a final note – this building turns out to be not so timeless. Learning from their mistakes: It's reported the rammed-earth walls are deteriorating in several places. Even my vivid imagination stops short of considering the pain of repairing rammed-earth walls after occupancy. What's worth learning? Spending top dollar on excellent sustainability advice is never the wrong choice early in a project. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Designing Super Complicated Buildings

Not wanting to waste anyone's time with a how-to post about gable roofs, we jump right into the deep end to consider three factors which influence the design of complex buildings. This subject does not get addressed enough compared to the importance these buildings play in our economy. One thing that needs to be set aside before proceeding are the details of the final fit out. Finishes can represent a significant amount of the final budget but rarely multiplies the complexity of the design or design process. Taking the 30,000 ft. view, we are much better off focusing on the coordination of the interior design team than if the carpet in conference room 8A should be fire engine red or poppy red. The following three fields represent three sources of complexity in designing structures:

  • Constructibility
  • Building Codes
  • Project Management

Constructibility. One of the main characteristics of the adoption of BIM in the design studio has been that construction phase can now be addressed earlier in the design process through the use of prefabrication, modularity and 3D. It's up for debate how much a design should be modified to make construction easier, what isn't up for debate are the efficiency gains that result from constructibility being explicitly addressed earlier in the design phase. Financially, the focus needs to be on the structure of the building. Firstly, because the superstructure interacts in complicated ways with the function of a building. And secondly, the superstructure tends to take up an average of about 40-50% of the total budget of a building. This means getting the structure of a building right can have a significant impact on the value of a building and the success of its architectural programme.

Building codes. No doubt many human lives have been saved because of the safety regulations placed on buildings. Building codes have been successful in protecting these expensive investments, the assets contained within, and their neighbours' investment. Beyond fire safety, structural and HVAC codes are in the mix to be considered and these fields require specific expertise to sign off on which contributes to the complexity of the project. Simple solutions to ease the burden of complex building code requirements beyond sheer human effort are rare, but two points do address this subject for our built environment: Hiring specialists to review the design at a couple crucial way-points in the process, while a luxury in some firms, can also save money in other situations by keeping the building design and construction schedule on track. Secondly, automated build code inspection systems are on the horizon through building information modelling which aim to complement the human effort. 

Project Management. This is one of my favourite topics in building design management because it so clearly captures the multidisciplinary nature of the modern practice of architecture. Everyone and their dog says they're good at project management. I take such care to elaborate on the topic for my readers because when the field is this flooded, it's an advantage for firms to be able to distinguish between the finest of PM characteristics. I try to set the bar super high but respect that readers can judge for themselves on what makes a good PM. Some subject matter expertise is required. There's a language to many subjects that needs to be respected. Hiring the producer of the Oscars to raise your skyscraper will only bring heartbreak (though you'll probably get a fantastic grand opening). In highlighting the importance of the social sphere in project management, I've mentioned author Stephen Emmitt before and his suggestion architects, engineers and industry professionals need "cross-cultural leadership intelligence" to fully support a building project at a high level. Briefly, two other sources of complexity in project management are, firstly, the way subdomains interconnect in the project as a whole, much like how juggling is complicated, and secondly, that within each domain lays another complex object, itself with many moving and interconnected parts. We should welcome here the application of good executive cognitive skills. The project manager might say "I don't know" often; collapsing dimensions of complexity within the project so they can be inspected and addressed one-by-one by the team.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Reddit's April Fools' Prank Teaches Us About Creativity and Collaborative Design.

I don't think many internet commentators were expecting such profound lessons to sprout from Reddit's r/place pixel project. The gist of how the project worked was that Reddit admins began by uploaded a 1000x1000 blank canvas and allowed any account created prior to March 31st 2017 to colour one pixel at a time from a standard 16-bit colour pallet. After a user placed one of a million pixels, there was a 5 minute cool down period. Therefore, creating anything meaningful required collaboration. Most commentators have noted the absence of hate-speech in the project but don't take its conclusions far enough. I agree with Ars Technica about the basic mechanics of why hate-speech didn't arise:
"As online social spaces evolve and become more acutely subjected to exploits and hateful activity, r/place serves as a rare, if brief, example of what happens when abusive voices require a completely different tactic to thrive. An individual social-network user can devote time to creating multiple accounts and carpet-bombing specific targets with emotional and psychological attacks. An r/place user had to unite an army of persistent voices over long stretches of time to preserve a minuscule bit of pixel real estate.Hate speech is harder for the recipient than the sender because it only takes seconds to rattle off a text attack that can be read, re-read, and remembered by the victim. But if creating and maintaining the abuse takes longer than reading it, maybe that flips the tables."
However, the project offers a far deeper insight into the character of these retrograde forces we see rising around the world and the nature of creativity itself. Briefly, the philosophy of these retrograde forces, where supporting others is anathema to their own cause, undermines their own effort to build anything of substance. Architecture can be a wonderful framework in which to contain contradictory forces to creative ends, but in this case, we see the retrograde force's contradictions melt into inaction. The collaborative design skills of this demographic have deteriorated to such an extent it can't even hold a candle to the silly creative streak of Nyan-cat or Star Wars fans. Experience and observations reveals destruction is easier than creativity. That said, it would seem creativity and collaboration are not as powerless as we thought in the face of wanton destruction. The results of this project emerged organically. People to a great extent want to create, and so the topic of building design management should let them.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

BIM: The Mechanical Pencil

Sparked by a conversation months ago on Linkedin, a recent ARUP article on building information modelling was the final piece allowing me to write this piece. Last year it was a suggested by many in an epic Linkedin BIM comment thread that hand sketching was fundamentally superior to CAD/BIM. A bit of an echo chamber developed reinforcing hand sketching's supremacy. It was not lost on critical thinking readers, however, that many expounding the supremacy of hand sketching admitted to having little experience, skill, or inclination to practice digital design.

Offering a defence first, I hasten to add as I write this my sketching materials, fine-tipped felt pens and a sketchbook of good heavy paper, sit in the chair next to me. In the Linkedin comment thread, I raised the idea some might want to explore forms not reproducible by hand. Met by silence was my question of whether architectural designs should be limited to only those which can be generated by hand since hand sketching is so superior. Furthermore, the gains in efficiency computational architecture can bring to design or building performance can not be so lightly dismissed for those who love architecture and building. On the other hand, one of their criticisms is worth expanding on – in fact it's a position I've been advocating for years since I attack the subject from a building design management perspective – the benefits of BIM need to be quantified

One of the main drivers of building is economic. At every stage and scale, the economics of building needs to be understood, absorbed, and reapplied forward. While the criticisms of BIM in business are mostly anecdotal, it's also not so easy to dismiss them, or at least it would be unwise to so quickly dismiss the points-of-view of respected industry members. It's completely reasonable people are sceptical about the overall benefits of BIM when within their own firms they've witnessed BIM projects go awry. The tools of business analysis are here to help bring the larger picture into focus. From concept to production to facilities management, there are benefits to be gleaned from BIM, and an important step in capturing these benefits is recognizing there is a direction to the flow of information in BIM projects. The major benefits of BIM in the construction and occupancy stage can only be realized if implemented in the design stage. The fact building operators, and the list seems to be growing everyday, are paying for 3D models of their existing buildings for facilities management purposes should put a giant exclamation mark behind the value of creating a high-quality digital model at the design stage. 

Arup's suggestion of a BIM Maturity Measure is another good approach giving structure to the BIM feedback process. It's aim is to track key metrics for comparison across projects. Before letting Arup's director Michael Stych describe the program himself, it's worth pointing out the main value of such a system in regards to building design management is that it facilitates portfolio management across a firm's stable of BIM projects. 

"To date, BIM assessment has been complex, providing only a high level overview of its implementation and has been limited to high-achieving projects. Our BIM Maturity Measure tool aims to democratise assessment, enabling comparisons to be made across all projects quickly and easily. This will allow us to recognise where BIM has been used effectively, creating a code of best practise and helping to identify trends and training needs.  We have stopped counting the projects that are doing “BIM” and have started to measure the maturity of BIM application on every project."

The measure is a mix of passive data collection and structured feedback from participants. The program is obviously finding some success internally, with one conclusion worth sharing here and easily implemented in any design shop: BIM projects that have a BIM champion attached, an intense and passionate digital designer, do measurably better. Amazing!

No doubt myself and some of my Linkedin connections easily fit the description of BIM champions. The world is filled with designers and technologists just going through the motions. In fact, I would go so far as to say some managers, despite fancy HR websites stating the opposite, give the impression they would much prefer employees that just sit at their computer in a catatonic state. That's never a good foundation from to which start building a lot of valuable architecture. I've had the pleasure of being the office helpdesk and supporting teammates through their struggles with BIM. I completely empathize with their intimidation of sitting behind multiple monitors running a complex REVIT project. It looks overwhelmingly complicated. It can't be that dissimilar from sitting in a jet fighter cockpit. But not one that sends wayward missiles into hospitals. We get to master the tools which build hospitals; and warehouses, and skyscrapers and fire stations! Everytime we can reflect on the economics of our design process it opens the doors to building more. Being able to quantify our effort and track rates of change greatly helps in strategically distributing skills, monetary, and leadership resources across a firm's portfolio of projects. I'm not particularly good at gardening, cooking or line dancing, but sitting at my desk with REVIT open in front of me, I can build anything; and I'm so grateful for that opportunity.