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Getting inside the building

3D design - Three dimensional design is about to supplant 2D CAD as standard practice. John McKenna and Mark Hansford speak to some early adopters.

There are some buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Turner Contemporary in Margate, which use such complex geometry that they are impossible to design traditionally, ' says Whitbybird associate director Stephen Melville.

Ambitious architecture, he says, has a natural bedfellow in 3D design software.

Whitbybird is the structural and geotechnical engineer on the £17.3M Turner Contemporary which is due for completion in 2006. The firm used Bentley Triforma & Structural to create its model of the art gallery, while those working on Frank Gehry's Guggenheim design used IBM's CATIA software.

But soon it will not be just the outrageous designs that take place in 3D - it will be everything.

All it needs is impetus from a few big projects, says Mott MacDonald simulation team leader Nick Waterson.

His rm has been working on Heathrow Terminal 5 where client BAA has leant heavily on 3D design. 'T5 has been a real showcase for 3D in the construction industry, ' says Waterson.

'The use of 3D design is now standard in industries such as aerospace and automotive. But because the construction industry is so project driven it has taken longer to latch on. That is why T5 has been excellent - BAA is a very far-sighted and innovative client and it is a big project to get stuck in to. It feeds out from there.' Waterson is clear on the advantage of 3D over 2D.

'The fundamental advantage is that you really get to see what you are building before you build it. This allows you to pick up clashes which even CAD experts struggle to do in 2D.' Zisman Bowyer & Partners head of research and development Chris Hindle agrees that this ability to iron out the creases in the construction process is a key reason why 3D design will oust 2D.

'I don't know what the contractor wants to see on paper, so why produce a piece of paper-' he says. 'If I create a model then they can extract what they want from it.' The advantages go a long way from the simple 3D drawing.

'We now build one model for a building and extract many uses from it, ' says Waterson.

'You link it to databases so that every single component in the building is identified with details of what it is made of and who manufactures it. We take the model and run a CFD analysis for wind movement around the building and smoke movement inside it. We use our STEPS software to simulate how people move through it. We do thermal analysis and shadowing.

The list goes on, ' he says.

'Two dimensional CAD drawings are still the bread and butter for most projects but this is effectively just the same as a 2D drawing on paper, ' says Waterson.

'Moving to 3D is a much bigger change.' But Waterson is confident the change will happen fast, particularly as myths surrounding the cost of 3D are expunged.

'We have more or less reached the tipping point and when it comes it will come quickly. The products are there and it is a widely held misconception that 3D design is more expensive than 2D. A well trained operator will be able to design in 3D as quickly - if not more quickly - in 3D than 2D, and products are available for not a very large amount of money'.

Building Design Partnership director Michelle McDowell agrees. 'Two dimensional drawings take 40 days to produce, whereas 3D designs only take 10 days, followed by a couple of weeks to produce the drawings from the model, ' she says.

'It took four technicians to draw an office building. It now only takes two technicians to do this job, or four to do it in half the time, ' she adds.

Hindle says it actually takes his firm longer to produce 3D designs than 2D drawings, but despite this he is committed to working with the software because its advantages far outweigh this one disadvantage.

Some engineers complain of contractors' reliance on the old tried and tested 2D drawings methods, but with building design becoming increasingly complex, Melville argues that there is only one way the industry is going to go, especially if you consider the engineers of the future.

'School kids are being taught parametric 3D design and when they feed through to us they will expect to work in 3D day to day.' McDowell shares this outlook.

'In my view 3D design is the key to unlocking our imagination to create wonderful buildings.

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