Ahead of the curve

Frank Gehry has transformed the face of architecture. From the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the Seattle Centre’s EMP Museum and the residential Opus Hong Kong, his use of materials has been innovative, and he attributes part of his success to an increasingly well-used computer program.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) allows architects and civil engineers to simulate the entire construction and operation of a building before a single brick has been laid. As well as identifying cost and time efficiencies that could be made in the construction phase, BIM has, Gehry says, liberated the process of design.

Gehry, now 83, says he first turned to computer technology to help translate his challenging curvaceous designs into buildable specifications when he worked on the Vitra Design Museum in Germany in the late 1980s. “It had a curved stairway. I used prescriptive geometry and everything else that I knew but the contractor still built it crooked. That was when I said to the people in my office, there must be some way to do this. So they called IBM.”

He says that until then his experience with contractors – who he believes “infantilised architects” – had been adversarial: “You did the nice building and then you put it out to tender. The contractor, who didn’t know why it looked like that, said: ‘I can take 30 per cent off the cost if you just let me straighten it here.’ I’ve resented that and I have made it part of my work to not let that happen.”

Gehry experimented further with computer-aided 3D interactive technology (originally developed for the aerospace industry) when designing his Fish Sculpture on Barcelona’s waterfront for the 1992 Olympics and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The latter delivered extraordinarily precise budget estimates that helped to control project costs and minimise waste: “With Bilbao no two pieces of steel were the same so we had our fingers crossed,” Gehry recalls. “When the steel bids came in 18 per cent under budget with a 1 per cent spread, I said: Hooray – now I know exactly where to go with this.”

The curving columns of Opus Hong Kong, Gehry’s 12-storey building

Gehry recommended the nascent technology to a few friends, including Zaha Hadid, and then pushed the boundaries of engineering and architecture still further by co-founding Gehry Technologies (GT) in 2002. Today the company is recognised as one of the leading specialists in the BIM field: most recently their Fondation Louis Vuitton art museum project in Paris was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2012 BIM Excellence award. Last December, GT secured $10m in Series B funding from private investors to expand its services and systems.

It would appear to be a good investment. According to a new report from Pike Research, a market research consultancy that specialises in emerging technologies, annual worldwide revenue for BIM products and services solutions is estimated to grow from $1.8bn in 2012 to almost $6.5bn in 2020. “BIM represents one of the most important breakthroughs in building design technology over the past decade,” says senior analyst Eric Bloom.

Some architectural firms and developers are, however, reluctant to change traditional working practices or make the initial investment required, which can cost up to HK$30,000-HK$40,000 (£2,495-£3,325) per workstation per year to cover the licensing, training and the hardware, according to Hong Kong architects OMA. “In some ways Asia is easier than other regions,” says Gehry. “In places like the United States and Europe, companies sometimes feel they are up to speed and don’t need to change even when there is still substantial room for improvement.”

Gehry says BIM added value at every stage of the Opus project. The client, Swire Properties, was already well versed in BIM, having won a BIM Award from the AIA for their One Island East, a 70-storey commercial office tower in Hong Kong. Chief executive Martin Cubbon says the new technology proved particularly useful during the early design development stage of Opus where the 3D model helped the project team visualise the complex geometric structure, building services and architectural elements as one. The elegant 12-storey form –featuring glass-enclosed load-bearing columns that appear to “float” like reeds around the façade – has achieved BEAM (Building Environmental Assessment Method) Platinum (Provisional) Grading, Hong Kong’s highest certification of environmental performance.

“Co-ordination of all architectural, structural and building services elements of the unconventional building also avoided any potential variations during construction,” adds Cubbon. “In short, the building process proved more cost and time-effective compared to a traditional building process.”

The application of BIM in 3D mapping of land usage rights and the visual impact of the unusual-shaped building perched on the steep mountainside site was critical for building approval. “BIM also articulated more precise information for all the building connections,” says Gehry. “That eliminates the sorts of collisions you get from 2D drawings, like mechanical equipment bumping into a beam. When that happens, work stops.” 3D technology further helped reduce costs through rationalising Gehry’s initial complex façade design to reduce the number of types of curved glass used in the building, says Cubbon.

Opus is designed to lessen the ‘heat island’ effect

Gehry is quick to point out that BIM is not something that you can “just buy in a box”. Instead it is a change in the way projects are organised and in the roles, responsibilities and cultures of each party involved. “Adopting a new tool will get you part of the way there, but the really big advances come from using these tools to work and think differently,” he says.

One of the most significant benefits of BIM is encouraging a project team to work in a more collaborative way – by setting goals and improving co-ordination of activities. The technology also helps detailed pricing, which in turn reduces conflict between architect and contractor.

There is still room for improvement, says Gehry. “The current tools have been designed for production staff – the people who model buildings or produce drawings. This information is not easily accessible to decision makers – owners, project managers and senior staff who need access to information in order to make informed decisions. Our current focus of development is on this problem – getting information out of the hands of modellers and making it directly and easily accessible to high-level decision makers.”

As environmentally sustainable buildings become the norm, BIM is likely to play an even more vital role. “Designing such buildings requires a level of collaboration that only BIM software can facilitate,” says Bloom. One of the most visible changes the technological “revolution” has brought is a reduction in the amount of paper used (before 2005, all Swire Properties project information was kept in hard copy but by 2010, 98 per cent was maintained in electronic format). Does this herald the death of the sort of traditional architectural drawing for which Gehry is renowned?

“It is inevitable that the next generation of architects is going to draw right on to the machine. I am obsolete,” he admits. “If you look at it realistically that is the way it has to go; we are already working like that on-site. There will probably be some Michelangelo who will figure it out. Probably not me; although I would love to do it. The more I think of it, the more I think I should take a year off and tackle it, but I’m 83 so I’d have to do it pretty fast!”

High-end and low-energy

Gehry says BIM digital models were key to achieving Opus Hong Kong’s low-carbon objectives without sacrificing quality. For instance, it identified the best design and location of the building for the steep site to enhance natural air ventilation and daylight.

Using prefabricated window modules and façade panels – which BIM helped design – meant a much more energy-efficient construction and less waste than with traditional building processes. Half of the site is landscaped (with irrigation that automatically responds to rainfall), minimising the contribution to the urban “heat island” effect (where buildings absorb the sun’s light causing higher air temperatures). Inside, a computerised system enables occupants to control individual room temperatures while fresh air fans and navigation lighting in the car park are triggered by sensors, significantly reducing energy consumption.

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