Experience Music Project
DJC.COM Special Issue © June 15, 2000
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Three-dimensional documentation is currently at about the same stage.
Eventually, all buildings will be done this way.
By JON MAGNUSSON
There is absolutely no doubt that the technology needed by the architects, engineers and builders to create Experience Music Project moved into territory never before explored. Yet the team goals were not to create new technology simply for technology’s sake, but to develop the tools necessary to bring Frank Gehry’s vision to reality.
The new demands of EMP came from the fact that the building is a total "free form" shape. Most curved structures of the past use flat planes that, at any point, are curved in just one direction. Or, they use curves created by one of a family of forms that are symmetrical in some aspect (such as the orb of the Boeing Imax Theatre at the Pacific Science Center).
However, at any point on the surface of EMP, non-symmetrical curvature occurs in ALL directions. It is this free-form aspect that necessitated new technologies to design and build.
EMP’s electronic exchange
Frank O. Gehry & Associates led the technological effort to deliver the sculptural geometry of EMP. The company's first step was to create a small-scale physical model. Next, digitizing probes traced the surface of the model, generating space coordinates for use by the three-dimensional computer program called CATIA. After capturing the coordinates into CATIA, the geometry was tested visually on workstation computer screens and physically through the creation of computer-cut models. This confirmed that the CATIA geometry matched Gehry’s intent, and the information became the database for all geometrical control on the project.
If the contractor needs to know the location of a steel baseplate, it is not found on the drawings, but instead is located by looking it up in the CATIA model. In fact, the drawings for the curved portions of the structure contain virtually no dimensions at all.
These steps, while highly advanced, had been done by Gehry on projects prior to EMP. One of the biggest steps forward on EMP was the level of integration between the computer geometry database and the actual manufacture of the components used to construct the building.
One example was the creation of the steel ribs that stiffen the concrete shell of the EMP curved elements. These steel ribs were created by welding three plates together to form an I-shaped member. The vertical part of the "I" was created with a curved plate that matches the shape of the shell. This plate was cut with computer-controlled torches. The top and bottom of the "I" were made with flat plates, which were passed through computer-controlled rollers to mold them into the correct shape. These pre-bent pieces were then all welded together to form the rib.
Basically, the steel was literally shaped by the architect’s hand, as the original physical model was preserved through a series of electronic "baton passes." This kind of process demonstrates the advances that were made on EMP.
New technologies and conventional construction
The current state of the architecture/engineering/construction process has very little continuity in design databases between those who create the design and those who build the project. The form of information that flows from the design team to the contractor is virtually unchanged from that which was used decades ago. It is true that some of the methods of transporting the information have changed, moving toward the use of FTP, fax, e-mail, etc. However, the basic content being conveyed remains the same: two-dimensional drawings and specifications.
There is a valley between the elevated plateaus of the computer visualization capabilities used by the design community and those used by the contracting community. That valley is created by the choke point of the contractual interface. Each side has concerns about what bridging that valley may mean for their own liability exposure. On EMP, the bridge was built through the facilitation of Paul Allen’s team. Tremendous advances resulted. The first time through, they were difficult to develop. But the industry can now benefit from this work.
It is now possible to think, not dream, that an entire building can be built in virtual space by the design team. All the elements of the building would be there for anyone to look at. The advantages of this approach should be obvious. For instance, a duct that is interfering with a beam can be moved with the click of a mouse, instead of two or three days of labor in the field.
This concept could be advanced to the ultimate state of replacing the two-dimensional drawing set with a three-dimensional virtual building given to the contractor for construction of the real building.
The human element of change
It is hard to predict how long this transition will take. Two years? Five years? Ten years? The technology is essentially here now. CATIA and other three-dimensional software packages are faster and more economical than ever before. The hardware and software will not likely be the rate-determining step.
The most significant obstacle to implementation is the perception that the design team will have more liability exposure because of the level of detail that must be presented in the documents. The reality is that exposure will ultimately be reduced. Fewer disputes will develop, because everything is defined.
Ron Klemencic, president of Skilling, has already led some experimental three-dimensional efforts on real projects. The result was that several aspects provided real advantages, while other aspects are not yet developed to the point of practical use. The industry needs to move forward with universal three-dimensional construction document standards so that all parties, including contractors, subcontractors and building departments, will have the capability to review and use the documents.
Jon Magnusson is the chairman and CEO of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire.
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