Technology

Stronger, Smarter Buildings in Less Time


When you think of the heroes of September 11, the people who first come to mind are firefighters, police officers, the passengers who brought down the terrorist-piloted plane in a Pennsylvania field, and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Architects are probably at the bottom of the list -- if they're on it at all. Yet architects played a significant role in saving lives at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into a "wedge" of the building that had recently been remodeled.

It wasn't only stronger doors and windows that helped protect most of the 2,600 Pentagon inhabitants when the plane struck, killing 125. Rescuers used sophisticated, digital 3-D models created for the contractor who had redone that section of the nation's military headquarters to help them avoid walls and passageways that were damaged in the attack. According to Walker Lee Evey, program manager of the Pentagon Renovation Program Office, some 50 people ultimately were involved in deciding how the rescue effort would proceed -- most of them architects, engineers, and planners.

It's just one example of how advances in technology are transforming the world of architecture and construction. Thanks to increasingly powerful computers and design software, architects and builders are creating lifelike, interactive models that are used for everything from constructing a building to maintaining it after it's up and occupied.

CHARTING THE CURVES. "Technology isn't just about saving architects time or money. We're focused on creating digital DNA, from the inception of a design all the way through to facilities management," says Paul Doherty, managing director of Digit Group, a (Germantown) Tenn., consulting firm that advises architects and construction companies on how to implement new technologies.

Architects began to use computers nearly 30 years ago. But early software, dubbed computer-aided design (CAD), was used by and large as a faster way to turn out drawings previously done in pen and ink. CAD proliferated in the 1980s as the cost of desktop PCs dropped and their processing power skyrocketed.

Then, late in that decade, architects, most notably Frank Gehry, began to use a more sophisticated program, called CATIA, to create innovative designs that would have been difficult and time-consuming to draft with a ruler and pencil. Gehry used the software, which was originally developed for the French aerospace industry to build Mirage fighter jets, to create the astonishing flowing curves on his groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Without CATIA, the design alone could have taken decades.

EASING COLLABORATION. Now, building-design technology is moving beyond form to function. The latest generation of software from companies such as Autodesk (ADSK), Graphisoft, and Bentley marries 3-D graphics with PC-management software (similar to Microsoft Project or Excel) to make simulations and models more intelligent -- and to improve communication in the highly collaborative construction process.

Structural engineers need to know how strong beams really need to be to keep a skyscraper standing -- both at a minimum and in case of terrorist attack or natural catastrophe. They also have to figure out new ways to accommodate sophisticated ventilation and heating systems. Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) engineers must understand the layout and the number of people to be situated on each floor to ensure that the right amount of heat is pumped out, say, on both the north- and south-facing sides of a building in mid-winter.

"Drawings of a simple four- to five-story building might total 200 to 300 documents 2 feet by 3 feet each. There are a lot of opportunities for someone to make a mistake," says Huw Roberts, an architect who works as a marketing director for software maker Bentley in Exton, Pa. "The simulated building allows these relationships to be automatically coordinated in the computer system before you begin construction."

BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE. Other companies, such as Disney, are experimenting with what they call 4-D -- the three physical dimensions plus time. By visualizing how long construction would take, Disney was able to better organize the arrival and placement of supplies during the building of its newest theme park, California Adventure.

Though this sounds like a small detail, it isn't. According to a 1998 report by Sir John Egan, chairman of a British government task force on construction, 30% of the cost of any building could be reduced or eliminated by avoiding what should be foreseeable inefficiencies during construction.

Innovative developers are also using 3-D models and simulations as sales tools to generate new revenues. The developers of Ford Field, the new home of the Detroit Lions football team, used 3-D simulations built by consultancy Screampoint.com to show prospective ticket holders the view from every seat in the still-unbuilt stadium. Partly as a result, skyboxes sold out in record time. The National Football League is also considering licensing the graphics to video-game makers, so they can better recreate the look and feel of stadium football.

FATAL MISCOMMUNICATION. Money isn't all that can be saved -- lives, too, can be spared. Most building collapses result from faulty planning or errors in a complex construction process. Take the collapse of two steel-and-concrete walkways that killed 114 people and injured 200 at a Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City in 1981. According to several independent reports, one of the main reasons for the tragedy was the lack of communication between architects, engineers, steel fabricators, and construction crews.

The drawings prepared by Gillum-Colaco International were preliminary sketches but were interpreted by Havens Steel Co. as finalized drawings, which it used to create the components of the structure, according to the reports. Because of a subsequent design change -- plus missing components that should have been added during construction -- the steel supports for the walkways were able to hold only half the weight required.

The latest generation of architectural software, which combines design and planning components, has the potential to eliminate many of these problems -- and offers important new tools. The new modeling technology can be an essential aid in heading off premeditated assaults, such as a biological or chemical attacks. Researchers from the Idaho National Engineering & Environmental Laboratory and from construction giant Bechtel are working on computational fluid-dynamics models to predict air flows. The idea is to help designers create systems that will protect building inhabitants should a substance such as anthrax be let loose outside a building -- or, worse, inside its ventilation system.

"MAKE-OR-BREAK ISSUE." It's easy to imagine that as soon as dangerous agents are released into the air, nothing can be done. Not so, says Jon Berkoe, manager of Bechtel's advanced-simulation group. In fact, it can take up to two minutes for an agent to spread across a medium-size room. If sensors detect the substance quickly, the contaminated room could be depressurized immediately, preventing leakage to other parts of the building. "In two or three minutes, you can save lives -- and save the building. This can be a make-or-break issue," says Berkoe.

Not surprisingly, funding for this type of research has increased since September 11. And Bechtel is now building a site in Nevada to test whether its air-flow models are ready for commercial use. Such projects aside, most architects maintain that most advances in design, building, and planning software were well under way before September 11. "There's increased awareness and interest in applying new technology, but architects all the way back to ancient Egypt have been concerned with safety," says William Mitchell, dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture & Planning.

One noticeable change can be seen, however, in the wake of last fall's terrorist attacks. Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is charged with rebuilding the lower part of New York City, is requiring that all blueprints for the new downtown be designed in 3-D. This will allow the wide array of stakeholders -- from victims' families and residents to government officials and commercial developers -- to visualize the rebuilding plans. On July 20, members of the public will gather to examine and debate six proposals for a World Trade Center memorial -- and in doing so, perhaps demonstrate how technology can help build consensus as well as better structures. By Jane Black in New York


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