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From the Design Quarterly: Embracing new technology to improve design

October 17, 2018

By Daniel Massaro, Jessica McNamara and Tammy Adolf

Parametric design, virtual reality, and integrated 3D are changing the approach to design—and it’s resulting in better buildings.

Parametric design, virtual reality (VR), and an integrated 3D process are revolutionizing the way buildings are made. We spoke with four practitioners about their approach to this new technology, how it enhances the design process, and ultimately results in better buildings.

Daniel Massaro: ‘You can see the changes happen … in real time’

It is all data driven. When you are working in programs such as Grasshopper or Dynamo, you plug in your numbers, adjust your sliders, and watch your model take shape. You can increase and decrease window sizes and counts. You can utilize it to generate multiple fenestration patterns—refining the amount of light you let into a space. You’re playing with numbers, but the advantage is you can see the changes happen quicker and in real time. It all comes down to designing a script for the application. You have to invest time to build these scripts, they don’t happen overnight. But, once you have the base script, you can create multiple iterations faster than building a new model each time.

With my team’s recent Northern Lights competition entry, I could control the length, height, shape, and rotation of buildings, adjust the number of perforations in the building, and the position at which one volume of space intersects with another building. And I could develop multiple schemes before choosing to refine the final scheme. With Grasshopper, I can see all the design possibilities in real time, evolving the design solution faster and cleaner than in a traditional 2D design approach.

I get excited working in this data-informed manner, but what also interests me is how I can start applying this technology to the reality of architecture, automating the simple tasks that are usually time consuming—driving efficiency into my craft. This is where we can really start to excel in our profession. These programs can give us more time to focus design effort on solving critical client design challenges. I like the idea of using these tools more creatively at the onset of a project as well. Whereas architects once used sketching and physical modeling to generate ideas, we now rely on the digital realm. But we can still explore that creative freedom of sketching and physical modeling with programs like Rhino, SketchUp, Maya, and 3D Studio Max. I’m a firm believer in using every tool in our arsenal to help us create the best design solutions for our clients.

By shaping buildings more organically, like we did with the Lucas Museum project, you can start to read a building as more inviting—a more natural environment.

While it didn’t start with my last project, The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, my interest in organic architecture was strengthened by having the opportunity to work on it. I’ve always loved being outside. Outside has a freedom to it, you don’t feel locked in or closed off. By shaping buildings more organically, like we did with the Lucas Museum project, you can start to read a building as more inviting—a more natural environment. For example, perforations bring in light, like a tree canopy, to create a soft ambience to the interior, while double-curved walls echo the shape of a canyon. This type of approach to design makes people more aware of their physical surroundings and enriches their experience of place.

Design technology applications have created more opportunity to be inspired by nature and its natural forms and spaces, they open the door to application of complex geometries, patterns, and a better understanding how they will interact with the sun, artificial light, rain, and wind.

Architectural designer Daniel Massaro works on projects in the Civic, Hospitality, and Sports and Entertainment markets from Stantec’s Chicago studio.

Where once we were working in silos, now we’re achieving true integration

In a traditional design process, the engineers typically enter the design discussions during the schematic design phase, when the conceptual decisions such as the massing, program, location of MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) areas, and façade elements have been made by the architect. As engineers, we are charged with figuring out how much cooling, heating, power, and water will be required to operate the building. I call that a 2D process. It’s very simple.

But things are changing rapidly. Today, I’m collaborating with the architects that are using parametric analysis and rapid iteration processes to discover a multitude of design solutions. We are quickly moving towards a 3D environment where the architects are creating their initial design concepts, and testing concepts in 3D, simultaneously the engineers can communicate how these concepts will affect the building’s operations—how much heating and cooling will be required. With AI (artificial intelligence) coming into play, this process will include a programmatic analysis that can show designers options for placement of patient rooms, a courtyard, a lobby, or core services. We can link these decisions to architectural building efficiencies or building processes, but also to energy performance, comfort, equipment capacities, shaft sizes, and so on.

Now, rather than arriving at a meeting with a spreadsheet, our engineers are using tools that graphically represent engineering solutions, that reflect performance by color.

Now, rather than arriving at a meeting with a spreadsheet, our engineers are using tools that graphically represent engineering solutions, that reflect performance by color. Visually simple and easy to understand.

Previously, engineers were not advising the architect on those decisions early enough in the design process. In this emerging process, the designers have the benefit of continuous feedback from the engineers before they commit to a design approach or concept, and they can have confidence that the best engineering solution is reflected. We don’t have to reverse-engineer building systems into an untested design concept. From my perspective, it’s about bringing our disciplines toward the 3D environment. It’s about the ability to speak the same language. Where once we were working in silos, now we’re achieving true integration. And, the project and clients greatly benefit from this integrative thinking.

Previously, it was a given that the plant room would be in the farthest and most obscure place within the building. Now they can see the benefit of a more sensible location. For instance, if we break out of the traditional plant-room approach and can instead serve utilities from top and bottom, the building core can be reduced, and overall building efficiency benefits. That means more useable space for the client.

Now, say we’re designing a high-rise building that would rely on renewables such as wind turbines. Through analysis, together we can find right solution so the tower is optimized to capture energy but that presents itself as a beautiful design—showcasing engineering innovation within the architectural language.

I believe when art and science work together to create an integrated and informed approach to building design, the result will always be a better solution—for our clients and will promote a healthy and sustainable future for us all.

UCSF Precision Cancer Medicine Building in San Francisco, California.

Jessica O’Regan: ‘VR has made it easier for us to demonstrate design intent’

The design industry has pretty much moved toward designing and modeling all projects in Revit. It is just standard fare now. Recently, we’ve augmented our design process with the addition of Enscape and VR software. By doing so, we’re able to bring those drawings to life in new ways. And, we’ve seen a huge benefit from the end-user perspective.

For years, we’ve shown plans and elevations to communicate design intent. There’s a lot of back and forth with the client and users. It’s difficult to get the client to understand what they're looking at and to sign off on a two-dimensional concept. It’s a language that they aren’t fluent in. VR has changed all that. Use of VR has made it easier for us to demonstrate design intent. In VR, users can look around and experience the space before they’re committed to it. It provides users a new sense of confidence in what they’re approving and the ability to communicate changes earlier in the process—when things cost less money to change. In turn, it frees up more time for the design team to focus design effort on creating beautiful and functionally efficient design spaces.

For University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Precision Cancer Medicine Building, we set up VR at the client site so that they could easily come and see the project develop—week after week. The client team would stop by and experience the project in 3D, and by doing so, they were able to notice things in VR that they didn’t see in 2D drawings—a column that was an obstruction or a computer too far away from where patient consultations would take place. When the client was immersed in the 3D model, they noticed those issues right away. At UCSF, we also showed the client how they could use VR to simulate the patient arrival on day one, so they could better prepare and train staff in the space before it opened—so our design model is helping the client not only achieve a smoother design process, but our model value extends into the building operation from a clinical perspective. It’s that kind of transformational impact that gets me excited to go work.

Based in Philadelphia, Jessica O’Regan is a designer focusing on healthcare planning and interiors.

Tammy Adolf: ‘Less room for inconsistencies between models and between documents’

The primary tool that I run, dRofus, leverages data for BIM purposes and to manage and maintain project information. The data can be leveraged in Revit to help us graphically, in particular by generating color-coded floor plans to provide detailed information, for all rooms that need slab depressions or require daylight. We used dRofus on complex healthcare projects, and often in alternative project delivery, where we are designing as they are trying to build.

dRofus ensures that project information is controlled, centralized, and sometimes visualized. It tracks changes, standardizes data, runs reports, links to Revit, and aids in compliance and project management.

Either we’re given criteria we must meet, or we’re given someone else’s designs and we have to achieve a completed project within a set of programming rules. With this technology, the designer benefits. When working in Revit, a designer can see that “Oh this room requires a sink, and this one doesn’t” and things like that without having to flip through a binder full of documents to see if they’re being compliant.

dRofus can also be used for building programming. You can create the functional program for the building within the tool and generate reports for room data sheets and project criteria. This technology allows us to have controlled information coming from a central place that can act as the source of truth for the whole project team. In the case of Calgary Cancer Centre, Stantec has people in four provinces and people in the UK working on the project.

There are models that designers, engineers, and consultants are working in, and they need consistent information from a controlled source. With this software, the team is accessing the most up-to-date information from the same source which leaves less room for inconsistencies between models and between documents generated by different team members.

You can use it for validating items from the program, services, equipment, and furnishings in Revit, comparing required items to design items. In projects that tend to be equipment-heavy such as healthcare, this is important. Now that everything is moving to the cloud, it’s crucial that everyone is looking at the same information.

Stantec Digital Practice team member Tammy Adolf focuses on BIM data management, standards, and document control.

  • Daniel Massaro

    A mentorship leader, Daniel volunteers with the Ace Mentor Program and Canstruction, and he was a founding member of Forum 2227, a young professionals group in his office. His main responsibilities are with the Digital Practice support team.

    Contact Daniel
  • Jessica McNamara

    A planner and interior designer mostly focused on the health sector, Jessica has been instrumental in incorporating virtual reality (VR) practices into our projects.

    Contact Jessica
  • Tammy Adolf

    Tammy runs and trains people on the use of dRofus and Unifi, and best practices, and insight into projects and procedures. Half of her work is with the healthcare sector, and the other half with our buildings digital practice solutions team.

    Contact Tammy
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