Digital Design: Empowering Innovation and Environmental Response

May 14, 2008 · by Carrie Byles and Nicole Oncina

Three-dimensional modeling allows team members to push ideas to new levels while getting fast feedback that allows them to optimize all aspects of a building.

As this year's Pritzker Prize winner, Jean Nouvel, said, "Architecture is the petrification of a cultural moment." If buildings reflect the social, economic, and technological changes of their time, then structures from the early 21st century will express the dramatic and exciting boom of the information age and our newly invigorated focus on the environment. Technology and sustainability have redefined the way people choose to live and work, necessitating a shift in the way buildings are designed and constructed.

With the human population growing at ever increasing rates, innovation will be an important factor in our survival. Urban planning and building design can take a primary role in promoting the meaningful interaction and collaboration necessary for innovation. Buildings will be much more porous at the ground level, becoming part of a continuous urban network and more connected vertically and horizontally to bring people together.

At the individual building scale, our need to protect and regenerate the environment will lead designers to continue exploring the potential of biomimicry. Buildings will be designed to optimize their relationship to the wind and sun and will have a bi-directional relationship with natural resources such as water and energy. The buildings themselves may twist, transform, or dynamically alter their form or skin to adapt to the influences of their microclimates, much the way moss grows on trees or the feathers of a bird expel or trap heat and shed water. A particularly others' ideas to new levels while getting rapid analytical feedback that allows them to optimize all aspects of the final building. Because changes are more efficiently applied and studied, the team has time to explore more ideas, which often leads to new levels of innovation. Much like a seedling responds to the environment as it grows, the conceptual idea, unique in itself, continues to evolve in response to its own particular social and environmental influences.

Advances in construction technology have become instrumental in taking projects from a 3-D concept to reality. The intelligent 3-D model of the building or individual components can be sent to 3-D printers, used for cost estimating, shop drawings, and detailed coordination. This level of representation leads to enhanced understanding and commitment by all members of the client, design, and construction teams. However, the ability to apply the model directly to the construction process in either the manufacturing of components or formwork will be the most recognizable advancement of this new generation of buildings.

This intersection of technology and environmental design will result in a range of architectural expression as diverse as the clients, sites, and design teams that create them. The following two projects are examples of how far this multidisciplinary innovation is being pushed today and are intriguing representations of where the future may lead us.

Al Hamra Firdous Tower, Kuwait City

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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Al Hamra Firdous Tower is a 412-meter-high speculative office building in Kuwait City, scheduled for completion in 2010. Its design is driven both by the needs of a developer — to optimize the value of the property — as well as the context of the building's environment.

The design team, led by New York partner Gary Haney, began with the simple premise of maximizing Gulf views to the north and minimizing solar heat gain from the south. Formally, the tower began as a hollowed square mass to which the team applied a simple operation of subtraction. A quarter of each floor plate was removed starting from the southwest corner at the ground level and rotating counter-clockwise to the southeast corner over the height of the tower.

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Though the tower appears to twist, it is really an absence -- the courtyard-like center -- that is rotating. The building offers optimal transparency to the north, east, and west to the Gulf and a nearly uninterrupted stone façade to the south, protecting the building from the harsh desert sun. The typical office floor achieves 2,400 square meters of gross office space with a total area for the tower of more than 195,000 square meters.

The project team used two digital modeling software programs — Rhino and Digital Project — in addition to AutoCAD. Rhino, a program the team was already familiar with, was used to create basic massing models of the tower quickly. Unlike Rhino, Digital Project is parametric modeling software that allows designers to establish relationships and set key parameters; this was employed in areas of particular geometric complexity and where issues of iteration and testing were anticipated. While it is conceivable to use Digital Project to design entire buildings, SOM used Digital Project to execute the design of a few key areas efficiently.

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Perhaps the most poetic application of Digital Project was in the design of the 25-meter-tall lobby, which is spanned by an intricate concrete lamella shell. While the tower provides ample 12-meter lease spans on every floor, the client wanted a grander lobby entrance to the building exceeding 12 meters. Knowing the design of this structure would require an iterative process with constant input from the structural design team, the contractor, and the client — and that remodeling the structure each time would be an arduous task — the design team opted to use Digital Project.

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Advised by the structural team to brace the columns against each other and then brace those to the core shear walls (to avoid buckling of structural members), the design architects were quickly able to create an architectural response to the client's request in Digital Project. The software made it easier for the team to explore rational ways of expanding the lobby using the geometry of the building. The structural engineering team then tested this model for structural performance and fine-tuned the solution.

"The brilliance of 3-D is that it almost lets you engineer the design in situ," said Aaron Mazeika, the project structural engineer. "It's a lot easier to test a model that has already been made." Digital Project gave the designers the flexibility to set new rules and relationships each time there were changes suggested by the rest of the team and quickly implement those changes in the model. The resulting lamella structure is both a high-performance structural element as well as an important aesthetic element of the building.

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In terms of construction, 3-D project delivery was an invaluable tool in the communication between SOM and the general contractor, Ahmadiah Contracting. Certain forms were so inextricably linked to the way they were created — in 3-D — that 2-D drawings would have been an unsuitable means of communication. SOM provided Ahmadiah with complete 3-D models of the building and supplemented this information with more specific 3-D documentation where necessary.

The lamella structure in the lobby was an architectural idea crystallized by parametric analysis done continuously in 3-D. SOM gave Ahmadiah 3-D digital models of the structure as well as 3-D prints, to explain its complex form and integral structural elements. Ahmadiah sent SOM 3-D shop drawings for review, and the lobby formwork was produced from fiberglass molds that had been fashioned from the digital models.

Qatar Petroleum, Doha, Qatar

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The headquarters of Qatar Petroleum is a project that exemplifies the interdisciplinary opportunities afforded by a new era of digital practice. The complex, located in Doha, Qatar, is being entirely designed in Digital Project, allowing full 3-D coordination, structural analysis, and thermal modeling to optimize the building's response to its context.

The project consists of an office tower, three large office buildings, an auditorium, a conference center, medical facilities, a ballroom, recreation facilities, a stadium, professional and industrial training centers, and a masjid over a site of approximately 550,000 square meters.

The building forms and materials echo aspects of Middle Eastern architectural traditions and culture, including spatial elements such as the oasis, courtyard, and labyrinth, while recalling some of the great Middle Eastern spaces such as the souk.

The core of the project, the office tower and office buildings, are designed almost inside-out — the cores of the buildings are moved to the exterior, where they can shade the office spaces within.

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The courtyard garden spaces between buildings also benefit from this shading. Fair-faced concrete and other materials provide these spaces with a moderating thermal mass.

The Digital Project model was imported into RadTherm, a heat transfer analysis software, and it was demonstrated that the mean radiant temperature of the courtyard spaces was significantly lower than the external environment, effectively producing a moderated and much more comfortable microclimate.

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The team used Fluent, a computational fluid dynamics program, to examine the effects of the prevailing wind through the space to influence the microclimate at the ground level and maximize pedestrian comfort.

The structural team imported the complex geometry of the buildings into Strand, a program in which they conducted the structural analysis of the form. A process of iteration between the architectural and structural teams then produced a more efficient and ultimately optimized structural solution.

The mechanical teams were issued with 3-D backgrounds of all buildings and in turn supplied SOM with a modeled central plant and ducts, which were used to ensure full and exact coordination with the complex form of the buildings.

Ultimately, the client insisted that the project, while being modeled in Digital Project, still have a standard drawn output. The team developed protocols to enable a full set of plans, sections, and elevations to be produced from the model and which seamlessly integrated with the AutoCAD platform.

A New Era of Digital Practice

Al Hamra was a testing ground to explore the capabilities of 3-D modeling and has inspired a new generation of projects at SOM, such as Qatar Petroleum, that will be entirely completed using advanced parametric technologies. These projects represent a significant portion of our work today. Parametric modeling will allow us to take performance-based design to the next level, enhancing the optimization process for structural, MEP, and sustainable systems. We are able to work more collaboratively across disciplines than ever before because the tools of the Information Age are blurring the boundaries between architecture, engineering, the sciences, and technology. In the future, the success of architecture will be measured by how well buildings respond to the needs of their inhabitants and culture with innovative solutions that also protect the environment. This will be the difference between buildings realized with software and software realized in buildings.

Carrie Byles, AIA, LEED AP, is a managing director of SOM’s San Francisco office. She has more than 20 years of diverse experience in design, technology, and management, with special emphasis on projects with complex programmatic and technological requirements. Byles is a member of the Design Futures Council Executive Board.

Nicole Oncina is the special projects communications leader at SOM San Francisco. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the Corriere della Sera, The Architect’s Newspaper, Line, and Make Magazine.

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