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Conceptual design: How a new digital tool helps buildings engineers work better

September 26, 2023

Automating the repetition out of day-to-day engineering frees us up to iterate better design. It also saves time and money.

A version of this blog first appeared as “Cutting down on cut & paste,” in Design Quarterly Issue 18.

The workflow by which engineers perform their conceptual design calculations has remained unchanged for decades. Drawing sheets became PDFs. And calculation pads became Excel. But the process remains a disjointed conversion of visual information into spreadsheets, prescriptive design standards, and then back out into visual information or Word reports. This clunky process offers us a vast number of ways to innovate away some inefficiencies in the day-to-day, nitty gritty, practice of design.

We can build our own software applications to solve process problems; minimize drudgery; and unleash innovation, creativity, and design. These new tools may not appear revolutionary. Ultimately, they mean better buildings that are more efficiently designed. They free up our designers to dream bigger and quickly share and validate their solutions with data. More efficient engineering in early design phases can save our clients time, money, and even reduce their carbon emissions.

Heating and cooling loads calculated in a building using GeneSys, a software application that is helping our buildings engineers move away from the laborious processes of design.

Targeting a laborious process

Conceptual design—the early design stage in architecture and buildings engineering—is all about generating and evaluating ideas. The name of the game is getting results as quickly as possible so you can quickly test several designs. But conceptual design workflow for building engineers is quite laborious. It often involves an engineer tracing PDFs with information in one app and then manually transcribing that information into a spreadsheet or into an analysis model. The engineer can then run calculations based on that information. It’s awkward, unwieldy, and inefficient.

What if we could speed up that process? Automate it? Capture the data in their drawings? And use it?

In our Buildings Digital Practice, we strive to build customized tool sets for the workflow our engineers use daily. So, we look at the exact workflow needed and build fine grained, bespoke tools that help our people do their jobs more efficiently. We looked for ways to empower our engineers in the conceptual design phase and came up with GeneSys.

A flexible tool harnessing the power of data

Reduces drudgery: The core concept in GeneSys is that engineers can perform quick and easy document markups in an intuitive user interface. They also can perform their engineering calculations in the same spot. It’s an alternative to relying on copy-and-paste to move between different tools. 

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The GeneSys mechanical model of Shellharbour Hospital in Oak Flats, Australia. The design includes about 2,000 ducts and 60 air networks.  

Creates exportable 3D data: GeneSys turns that markup task described above into a powerful cross-platform, data-rich modeling process. This app allows our engineers to generate 3D models from what they draw and automate complex calculations. It enables the engineer to look at design data instantly. GeneSys empowers the engineer to export the model and data into other design and modeling tools seamlessly. The platform speeds up mark up in the early phases and turns the engineering model into live, usable, sharable data.

Flexible platform: GeneSys is not constrained to one discipline or workflow. It’s a flexible platform. Our team is continuing to expand the GeneSys platform with new tool sets for engineers tailored to their specific workflows. We’re also looking at building GeneSys’ solvers as plug-ins for existing tools to empower our engineers in building information modeling (BIM) environments and during the detailed design stages.

Good news for clients: What does this mean for our clients and their projects? GeneSys speeds up the conceptual design phase, reduces errors and inaccuracies, and optimizes our team’s unique skillsets. It enables our engineers to iterate more design options and evaluate them quickly. This way the design team can compare possibilities and present the best solutions available early in the process when the big decisions are made. It can potentially shave weeks of labor off a project.

Here are five ways we are using GeneSys to create more efficient workflows. 

1. Engineering mechanical ductwork (air conditioning/heating/HVAC)

The conventional workflow is tedious. It requires engineers to draw each duct on a PDF, measure lengths, and manually input the data into a standalone “ductulator” calculation tool. Then they solve for the dimensions of every duct manually before importing that data into either their 3D design software or a spreadsheet. With GeneSys, the user uploads the PDFs, draws their duct layout, and hits the “solve” function. The app sizes all ducts to the proper national codes and standards. GeneSys also calculates air pressure drops throughout the duct network, which is necessary for choosing an appropriate fan size.

2. Modeling building structures

Similarly, structural engineers mark up structural elements in their PDFs, declaring where columns, beams, and walls should be located. But that document is static. To bring that design data into the realm of BIM, the modeler needs to reinterpret the shapes, markings, and color coding from the static document—then build a 3D building model from that manually.

We look at the exact workflow required and build fine grained, bespoke tools that help our people do their jobs more efficiently.

In the new workflow, the engineer marks up the structure in GeneSys and gets three model export options at the click of a button: (1) they can produce a 3D architectural building model in Revit; (2) an ETABS model; or (3) a SPACEGASS model. Those last two are analysis software platforms for structural engineers. Thus, for the same engineering labor cost, the engineer gets three models that ordinarily would have each taken days to weeks to create. It makes our teams more efficient and allows them to leverage their design skills and explore opportunities for innovation versus gobbling up time and resources with tedious processes.

3. Sizing cold water pipework

GeneSys’s capability builds on similar tools for sizing cold water pipework and other tasks we built in its predecessor. In this workflow, hydraulic engineers draw their water supply lines, fixtures (basins, toilets, showers), pumps, and valves in sketch form onto PDFs. GeneSys sums all flow requirements of fixtures and size all pipes according to one of several solver methods and industry standards.

The automated workflow saves an engineer time compared to measuring lines manually in their PDF app then sizing each pipe one by one. GeneSys also generates schematic diagrams for engineers to review. We are working on a similar toolkit to support mechanical pipework design.

4. Creating acoustic simulation models

The simulation software our acoustic engineers use lacks a user interface for creating geometry. Users must manually type out a text file of coordinates and line and plane connectivity. Using GeneSys, engineers can draw space geometry and assign acoustic surface treatments from a library. They can then export the simulation model file automatically, saving them time.

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The GeneSys structural model of the Sports and Aquatic Centre in Burwood, Australia, where there is a large span structure over concrete floor level for four basketball courts in a mixed-use building.

5. Creating electrical building models (lights, wiring, conduits)

A significant pain point for engineers in the current process is that when they draw the electrical elements (for example, lights and power points) on a PDF, someone must reinterpret this drawing and manually create the elements in the 3D building model. We are currently developing a tool in GeneSys to connect electrical mark ups with 3D building models. This way, the engineer’s mark ups can be directly imported to the BIM software, saving time and reducing errors.

Guided innovation means better buildings

From the engineer’s perspective, the main value of a tool like this is in being able to iterate faster in the early design stages. Fundamentally, it is a time saver. But it also reduces inaccuracies in complicated workflows involved in transferring data from drawings.

Increasing the efficiency in our engineering workflow and automating repetitive tasks equals improved quality and better coordination. It allows our engineers to spend more time focusing on our clients’ big-picture goals for sustainability, flexibility, resiliency, and modularity. It’s about shifting high value time toward efforts that require engineers to solve problems that advance client business goals.

Learn more about our Digital Practice Team and digital solutions.

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