Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How Digital Design Supports Modern Sustainable Infrastructure Projects

Waking up every morning wanting to improve one's knowledge of BIM is a welcomed characteristic in the AEC industry. Expanding the group of stakeholders who could potentially benefit from the use of BIM in their project is the focus of this article. "Building Information Modelling" has it right there in the title: we should focus on buildings. This misconception contributes to one reason why I've slowly been shifting from strictly describing the use of REVIT or Sketchup as BIM, and have adopted them as tools in a more comprehensive digital design strategy. Infrastructure projects are a good example of where this technology is expanding to. These tend to be projects where construction is going on, but it isn't necessarily building related. This field is an important area of application for BIM because these projects benefit from same positive characteristics of BIM as vertical building: that being better coordination, earlier visualizations, more streamlined production workflow, etc. (I'm assuming my audience is well-acquainted with the benefits of BIM.)

The AEC industry is therefore faced with a choice to either focus more broadly on digital design, or continue to distinguish between horizontal building projects, like rail interchanges and mining concerns, and traditional vertical building projects. My advice is to ignore the debate over whatever to call it – it's a question that doesn't need to be answered at this exact moment. The far better goal, which is also more difficult to achieve, is to make sure your organization is fully dedicated to capturing the value of digital design on every level of the project: that being mostly found in the characteristics of collaboration and coordination, and analysis.

Public Domain image

An example using computational architecture in a production workflow.

Say I've been tasked with laying out 300 km of pipe across some terrain in beautiful Southern Alberta (seen above). It's a very linear problem: There are not a lot of features on either side of the pipe to help orient oneself to the project. However, there is a good chance that despite the problem presenting itself as highly linear with many repeated elements, a great deal of engineering detail is subtly changing along the length of the pipe that absolutely must go on the drawings correctly. "Here the ability of computational architecture and programming skills to setup overview templates and routines which 1) automate the precise and equal spacing of views along the pipeline track and 2) cross-references engineering specifications contained within the view to some other human-readable format (the subject of data visualization). This translates in a production workflow as a nice cheat sheet that always references the important engineering data scaled to an appropriate layout of the project. This sort of script could be as sophisticated or simple as a firm's programming skill and project resources allow and benefits in terms of efficiency gains and increased accuracy will follow proportionally. In navigating these questions the topic of software development is the most likely source of information about the problems currently facing the AEC industry. 

The BIM Cycle. 

Lastly we come to Circular BIM which has implications for many firms wishing to offer the market a full suite of building services from pre-production to construction to post-occupancy facilities management. I don't remember where I first heard this idea but after applying it consistently for a period, the concept continues to shed light on how firms can attract projects at any stage of their lifecycle. Interpreting from within an economic framework of BIM, it's hard to ignore the many applications of digital design and data science to the field. Take for example the strong growth in the market for scan-to-model services of existing buildings. The real estate and development sectors see great value in digital models in the facilities management field. The decommissioning process is also another natural area to apply BIM. As counter-intuitive as it may sound to long time readers, situations arise where BIM for decommissioning and demolishing is the perfect digital platform for the project, supporting many automated quantifying tasks with only a little post-processing of the scan-to-model data. This is contrasted to how BIM was framed as just a building tool at the beginning of the piece. Firms wanting to expand in any market are going to want to invite clients to start their project anywhere on the BIM circle. Smaller firm might what to focus on only a couple of BIM phases to gain a competitive advantage in them. Larger firms will have an easier time establishing a complete tool chain to capture projects anywhere in the cycle. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Reuse Materials in Architecture with Help From Robots

Normally I don't write about this sort of topic, instead preferring slightly more serious subjects, but a new Sketchup plugging, Trussfab, caught my eye, and I've only now had time to look into the technology further. The research project aims to combine several technologies – 3D printing, structural optimization, and construction tracking – to build pretty much whatever you can imagine out of recycled/reclaimed plastic bottles. I found the playfulness of the project's aims really engaging. My creative side sees many useful applications for theses types of structures, all the while putting an exclamation point behind the awesomeness that is sustainable design.

I don't think it occurred to me that such a recycling program was ever executable, which I guess is what prompted me to learn more. Most of the process will be familiar to causal Sketchup users, and the plugin allows specially created forms in the shape of tetrahedrons and octahedra to be placed by users. The program keeps track of all the modularity for you. The plugin also has a built-in structural analysis tool which warns users about possible weaknesses in the design. The last step is to fabricate the connectors. Again, computation to the recuse. With another set of analytical tools the program figures out all the needs for hubs and connectors and outputs them to the 3D model file format of your choice for 3D printing. Installation is a breeze because the program tracks all the pieces and prints a unique ID on each. Below attached is a time lapse from last month's CHI'17 robots conference in Denver, CO. and shows how the structure was built and fills the space. 

In an effort to make architecture seem more dangerous and alluring, I guess we should point out some of the things to be careful of if attempting a plastic bottle truss project:
  1. Because of the inherent lightness of plastic bottles, there is little risk of severe injury or damage if a structure happens to topple over during construction. However, that is not to say there isn't a point where its possible to build a structure so large failure would be catastrophic. All that to say there is a point in these projects where an engineer's services will definitely need to be engaged. 
  2. Reclaiming a product for another use can absolutely be put in the win column. However, it's important to remember plastic is a diabolical substance, literately saving lives in certain surgical situations, but at the same time also slowly poisoning the environment. These projects don't so much as stop that process but hold it off. I think many are starting to make better long-term choices about plastics, but there's a heck of a lot in the environment now or on its way there directly, which I had no role in putting there. And while I'm not placing blame on whoever thought it was a good idea to just allow ships to toss there garbage overboard, nor do I really have a good idea about what to do about it. (But I would plead we please leave some fish in the ocean for my grandchildren.)
The connection between these types of applications and Calgary's Beakerhead events or any world engineering festival is easily made. This program so greatly lowers the threshold for constructibility on these types of structures that it effectively gives a much larger population access to this technology. This is a bit of a double-edged sword in and of itself. While these sorts of projects popularize and demystify the field of engineering for students, the ease from which these structures can be built and made to look infinitely complex can dilute their artistic impact. Hence the important role of architectural criticism in all this; to be always pushing for a deeper meaning and good designI also wouldn't count out some innovative uses for this type of technology in regards to low-cost structures like temporary or emergency shelters. The world is so big that I have no doubt creative people will look at this tool chain and imagine completely novel applications that haven't been considered yet.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

How Computational Engineering Supports Better Building Quality

News of Dynamo's achievements are starting to spread widely, but that's not to say it can't be helped further. I'm normally a bit more focused on the production side of computational architecture but this use case for computational architecture by ARUP and Populous really highlighted some of the benefits of using this technology. Populous is a small firm with a growing international presence but in this project's style and trends were not the only factors driving the early design phase. 

The linked case study explores how ARUP provided Populous with 12 detailed structural options in 12 weeks for Australia's proposed National football stadium. Without the computational support the article states they would have only produced 3 or 4 options in the same time period. From the perspective of the client, this increase in design options represents a better search of the total solution space. This translates for the building design manager as an increase in building quality. The source of this extra value is in the application of iterative design techniques. One of the characteristics of this application worth pointing out is the detail contained in the options. Dynamo was as much responsible for increasing the number of options analyzed but also, importantly, increasing the detail. In this data-intensive age where econometrics is replacing economics, the increased level of model detail drove more accurate cost estimates, certainly for materials, as ARUP's specialty is structure, but also I assume construction costs as well, which depends heavily on the complexity of the geometry. 

A last point to note is where ARUP stopped using Dynamo in the project: At the building performance analysis stage. ARUP owns a software company and therefore probably has little need for other 3rd-party software to analyze their projects to the quality they want. Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, Dynamo is not optimized for the types of calculations seen in structural analysis, nor its interface, giving 3rd-party products an advantage. That is beginning to change as Dynamo matures as a programming language. A team in Europe has spent a great deal of effort putting together an Dynamo-based structural optimization package called DynaShape. Considering its aim, the software is a bit complex to use. And I can't speak to the quality of its output either, that being a whole other complicated subject. But the code is open-source so those curious enough can find out for themselves. There are some videos included in the link as well which give a clearer idea about the capabilities of the package, though I wish they were longer.