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It's time to unleash the power of the virtual world

Information technology is having a profound impact on the way the built environment is planned, designed, procured, constructed and operated and this has huge implications for building services
The more closely the different disciplines in construction work together, the better the prospect of making the process more efficient by reducing build times and costs.

A number of developments are making this possible, not least computer modelling, which is changing the way buildings are designed and built. Indeed, information technology offers designers a significant engineering opportunity according to Tristram Carfrae, leader of Arup's Global Buildings Practice, principal and Arup fellow. Speaking at a recent conference in London organised by research organisation BSRIA, he said that, although sustainability and climate change are driving us in the right direction, there is a bigger picture - the job of the designer to create what Mr Carfrae calls 'delightful efficiency'.

He explained: 'Delightful means trying to make the world better for people and efficiency means reducing resource consumption, costs and time.'

For Mr Carfrae, there are six stages to creating delightful efficiency:
  • Virtual design - using computer simulation so that buildings no longer require physical prototypes.
  • Construction - which needs to be more like manufacturing.
  • Asset management - managing information effectively to boost maintenance and servicing efficiency.
  • Smart infrastructure - optimising the operations of the built environment.
  • Behaviour - changing the way people act without forcing them to change.
  • Feedback - Gathering information about how people want to behave and live in the built environment.
The first stage - virtual design - is probably the most important, according to Mr Carfrae: 'When I joined the construction industry as a structural engineer, we built buildings as physical prototypes. We really didn't have a full understanding of how they were going to behave when we built them so each one was a learning curve. We were pretty conservative in getting from the beginning to construction because the last thing you could tolerate was a failure of your prototype.

'At the same time, the car industry built a dozen or more prototypes before they went into manufacturing. They tested everything and optimised to ensure the best possible efficiency.

'Nowadays, the car industry doesn't work from prototypes to anything like the same extent. They build 'virtual prototypes' inside a computer to check out the car design and see that it works. We can do the same with buildings and we are beginning to do so.'

Tristram Carfrae: 'The job of the designer is to create 'delightful efficiency''

An example in the structural engineering discipline is a new stadium that Arup has constructed in Melbourne, Australia. Mr Carfrae again: 'In this case, we built a three-dimensional parametric model (see top photo, left) where the red lines on the left of the chart are the control lines. As we adjusted those curves, the whole geometry of the stadium changed. From that, we automatically generated a structural model and could tell whether we were using less or more material and the structural performance was better or worse. The architect could also look at it and ask whether it was a better stadium visually and would offer people a better experience.'

Experiment and play
The same principles can apply in building services engineering: 'You can experiment and play in a virtual environment. It is not something you use to analyse and check something that you have already worked out. You can do the working out in the machine... And you can look at what you're going to get with a computer rendering of the finished product. So you can check it all out in this virtual world before committing to construction.'

And, once a virtual design has been completed, smaller components can be 'manufactured' using a 3D printer or 'rapid prototyping machine'. Says Mr Carfrae: 'You can buy one for US$1,000, so anybody and everybody can start making things. This is bringing the tools of the industrial revolution to individuals and to any scale of operation.'

He believes the next step will be getting analysis inside the modelling: 'I imagine a future where I can play in virtual space; I start putting a building together and little 'robots' at the back of the program are reporting to me how much structure and energy I'm using, what the building looks like, and so on - reports coming in in real time as I fiddle with different parameters.'

The second stage to achieving Mr Carfrae's goal of delightful efficiency is construction, which, he says, is roughly 10 per cent of the GDP of most developed countries. Yet, he adds, productivity in the construction industry has hardly shifted since the second world war.

'It is horrifying to me that we haven't really changed since we invented reinforced concrete. However, the opportunity is there now; if we model everything in detail and accurately with all the relevant information, then we can change construction into a manufacturing process.'

This, of course, begs a fundamental question - who will invest in the mechanisation of construction? In other words, who's going to put in the enormous amount of capital required to build the machines that make the parts?

Mr Carfrae has this answer: 'Typically, contractors don't have large capital assets so is it going to come from the building product suppliers? Are the manufacturers going to move into our space? To a certain extent, it's already happening in Japan - for example, Toyota and Mitsubishi will make you houses, as will IKEA.'

However, Mr Carfrae does forsee a problem with 'construction as manufacturing' in terms of supply chain management: 'It is no good us producing models from which you can procure objects directly if the object suppliers can't understand the data they are being passed. Or vice versa - it's no good if the object suppliers do understand it, but the designers aren't providing the information for the procurement process. In other words, there is a whole lot of joining up to do and there aren't many forums where that joining up happens. We are still stuck in our discipline silos.'

The third stage - asset management - is the point at which the construction team can move information into managing and operating the built environment. Mr Carfrae again: 'So the design information that has been used for construction is used again; information isn't thrown away and then recreated. It is harnessed from beginning to end. That can make things more efficient.'

He offers the example of the Sydney Opera House where the owner wanted to engage in a major redevelopment. Since the opera house had been constructed over many years, no clear picture of its assets existed: 'So, one of the first things we did was build a 3D model of what they [the owners] had.'

Much of the asset data relating to the structure was paper-based and in the form of spread sheets. 'So we put it all together and connected it to the 3D model we had made.

Great organisational tool
'A geometric model is a great organisational tool. If you can give yourself a 3D environment, you can visualise and find the information you want.

'But [with the opera house] we went further and looked at what would happen if we also connected all the operational and maintenance information so we knew when any plant was going to expire, where it was, its energy consumption, what maintenance was required, and so on...

'So we had records of everything that had happened and also predictions of what should happen. We could then compare them to discover whether reality was meeting expectation.'

However, he warns, there are several reasons why asset management can be inefficient. 'There aren't many tools or systems in place that let it happen; the beneficiary is often unknown when we are designing a building and we don't know who's going to be owning or running the asset long-term because the construction industry and commercial property are completely disconnected.

'The developer is often an arbitrage person - they just want to get planning permission and sell the building on. So who owns the models? Who's going to maintain the models post construction? Who's holding liability for the information? There are many questions that need to be answered.'
1 February 2012

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