Computational Tools for Design Development – A Case study of Building the ITHRA project
By Mohamed Naeim A. Ibrahim
- Computation for Design Realization
- Realization role of an Architect
- Step-back capabilities
- Computation for Construction
- Intelligence Embodiment
- Orientation & Referencing
- Data Management
- Machine Control
Images and Illustrations
Figure 1: Building near completion…………………………………………………………..
Figure 3: Shading Devices above the Cladding system…………………………..
Figure 4: First Digital Model Rendered…………………………………………………….
Figure 5: Step-back capabilities 01…………………………………………………………..
Figure 6: Step-back capabilities 02…………………………………………………………..
Figure 7: Wall Unit after Data Embodiment………………………………………….
Figure 8: Difference between Site and workshop Coordination………….
Figure 9: Wall unit contents……………………………………………………………………
Figure 10: Referencing Points of interest……………………………………………..
Figure 11: Precision, between Mockup and Reality………………………………
Figure 12: machines, similar to our used machines……………………………..
A paper describing the process of using computational tools in the realization process of King Abdul-Aziz tower for world culture, a project I worked on as an Architect.
In this paper, I will share my experience in constructing King Abdul-Aziz Tower for world culture (ITHRA). In this project, I was working on the process of fabricating and installing the facade and roofing system. ITHRA project is one of the most prestigious architecture built recently in the Middle East; a great building designed by the international office of Snohetta of Norway. ITHRA is a giant center designed to host cultural activities and events, it consists of a tower, and a couple of other buildings containing auditoriums, halls, and many other spaces. The building is designed in a creative way, where all its surfaces and volumes take a free form theme. The whole building has the shape of a cluster of rocks merged together in a homogenous way. This project is expected to be one of the most famous architectural masterpieces worldwide, not only for its beautiful appearance but also for its avant-garde technology used to design, build and operate.
In this project, my work was engaged directly with the production process of the building envelope, that include the facade and roofing units, as the building was mainly made out of two things, structure and envelope. The structure was made out of typical concrete floors and columns, plus mass-customized steel structures, which were created to support roofs and walls. Our part was the most challenging part, where we were facing a lot of issues related to the realization of such a great building. The challenges started with the design itself, the complexity of its form, and the way the intelligence of design was miss-embedded into the digital data, and how we needed to deal with that, then the difficulty of fabricating a unique structure and its tectonics in a less advanced construction environment, and finally, the challenge of working with the other team, where they used a very primitive way of working.
- Computation for Design Realization
I had a number of responsibilities on this project, but before I describe my role in the process, I will address the issue of computation for the design realization. When realizing a complex structure, especially if that includes freeform surfaces, it’s very important to use the computation power to automate the digital model creation. The first reason is because that is the main challenge; it’s almost impossible to use the manual way in following and understanding the non-linearity of the architectural form. The second reason is that the designing and building process of a project requires a lot of details and drawings, and the time/budget are very short to be able to produce thousands or millions of these data, especially because it requires an army of designers and drafters, who are not reliable or even possible, especially with the high skills required to work with such problems.
In that project, the part which I was not involved in, but was very important, is the process of generating the full set of the three-dimensional detailed model of the building, which was rationalized into over three thousand units, each unit is provided with every single detailed part, with the exact shape and size, that includes hundreds of parts, such as structural steel frames and their supporting mullions, C & T section holders, folded panels, curved runners, lifting hooks, shading device supporters, and finally all bolts and fixtures. All that parts are placed on its exact location using a custom computer program, built especially for this project, to automate the modeling process, in addition to many other processes such as programs of rationalization of elements counts and distributions, and also programs of evaluation for structure reliability and wind resistibility.
- Realization role of an Architect
My role started on the project soon after that sophisticated 3D model comes to life, after it was tested, accredited and finally approved. Then it was my role to use it. As an architect, my role is to communicate design ideas, concepts and information to all team members participating in the construction project, otherwise, it is impossible to them to use the data, unless if it was translated to each participant in a language he, she or it (machines) can understand. In our case, the model, even it was created in a generative and intelligent way, however, it was inform-less, it was CAD model, however, construction need BIM model, a model with all information and data embedded into each part of the tectonics, to be callable, reachable and categorize-able. The interesting part is that the model had a little bit of invisible embodiment, actually, it was filled with some kind of classifications using some deep digital formats, but still was not recognizable for many people, like other architects brought to do the job, and then that what I was able to reveal using the computational tools I developed especially for this project. That was my initial part of the job, which I will explain in details later on within this paper.
- Step-back capabilities
While Exploring the intelligence and deepness of these project parts, I learned a lot about construction advancements in the era of digital age, When an architect designs a freeform building, with all curved and nonlinear shapes within its parts, he should put into consideration many issues related to its construct-ability, but what is more important, is to give the constructors a step back possibility to be able to keep the precision of the work, even when fabricators and constructors make mistakes, all that is achievable within very small tolerance chances. In construction sometimes, especially when they use primitive approaches, the worst which could happen, is that they miss-coordinate items, such like our project, where they placed a column 300 millimeters away from its supposed location. Sometimes, fabricated units are welded in a neglected way, a small item would be tilted or twisted in the wrong direction, not much, but that means for sure that neither of the hundreds of supports and holders or their fixing bolts would fit to their location, a holistic chaos, nobody want to spend the day trying to find what went wrong for such mistakes.
So the tolerance allowing techniques, as I like to call it, is permitting items to become adjustable and adaptable, that means each item has a number of axes for transformations, moving and rotating around a specific plane. So if the guys there on the site did not do their job properly, then the installer would have the capacity to install the part integrally without the need to prefabricate the item or demolishing part of the construction, but all that was only possible if it was within the set tolerance.
- Computation for Construction
To conclude my activities in this project, in 5 main tasks, embodiment of 3D Model, BIM Data Management, Fabrication Coordination, Precision proofing, Machines Automation. Each one of these tasks was a trip of it own, all of them were happening at the same time simultaneously. A long work day starts with computation, followed by running the programs, applying them to the elements, but then a process of data management starts, in order to make the fabrication possible, but then sometimes things get messy, and we then need to make sure everything is within the tolerance, every time we do this, and finally, machines need to be programmed, not the electronic programming, but the data-interpretation programming. That’s all my work in few words.
5.1 Intelligence Embodiment
The first task was concerned with creating a computer program, which can understand geometry created, by recognizing its elements, and then be able to locate specific points of interests within the piece. That was not an easy process. The model was designed using an algorithm, which uses modules of standardized construction elements of different types; each element is selected according to its suitability. Each element was coded in terms of color, and function. And that’s it – a dead geometry without single usable information, and even if we had the names embedded, still that was not what we needed at all.
So I started writing a program with the well-known tool of Grasshopper, a generative design tool work on top of Rhinoceros of Mcneel as a plugin, it allows the designer to create design programs through a visual programming interface, without the need for any deep programming education. But it was not enough on its own, I needed to use Python, an oriented programming language which works within Rhino and Grasshopper, and it allows the designer to use the syntax of the software and it’s behind the stage modules. This allows functions to be automated, and activities to be permutated, through programming, solutions can be iterated and finally it allows recursion, that solutions can be reused as inputs in computation.
5.1. Orientation & Referencing
We needed a lot of information when we intended to utilize this model in our construction process, as we can’t use drawings in such projects anymore, that’s because, in freeform buildings, there is no system of referencing, such as Cartesian planes (XYZ Plane) where it is possible to measure distances, or even calculate rotations. In free-form buildings, everything, every element is unique, every single one is located and oriented differently, and I am talking about over three-thousands units, each element we worked with, we needed to assign a self-referencing plane for every single one, and then altering its orientation between the original site-based plane (World Plane) and the Workshop-based Plane (Temporary Plane). Because of that problem, we needed to separate each element and exported them in an isolated environment. We used some simple algorithms which allow units to be projected and altered between the two planes.
In the Workshop, reality, orientation was a bit harder, that requires a unique adjustable stage, and each unit with its heavyweight, was lifted and placed in a specific setting, and we started the process of fabrication. Some other elements were prepared for the process such as a stage for monitoring.
5.3. Data Management
The second stage requires us to try to find the points of interest for us, points used to digitally locate frames and mullions, points used to placeholders, or their fixing bolts, and also the points of initial hooking and hanging, hooking the unit to the floor, or hanging the shading devices from outside. There are hundreds of these points, and we needed to automate not only the process of finding elements but also ordering process, data-structuring, layering, naming, annotation and displaying processes. We designed a system which builds a data structure for all elements we agreed to work with (F-frames, T-mullions, C-sections, I-sections, R-Runners, and H-hooks), then it finds a specific location within each part which can measure margins, and then precisely find points of interest.
Another algorithm was used frequently in this process to produce a list of naming, numbering, and clearly visible annotations, for helping in the afterword process of fabrication. And that process was one of the most important in the whole project, other team members are not like us, they are basic computer users, even if they have training, they suffer a lot while trying to find an element or reading an attribute.
Now, the model became a fully integrated BIM model, full of useful data, transferable, reusable and interoperable. We hand data to surveyors, to measure initial steel frame, In this stage you work with a real part of the project, in the heat of the desert, supported by a revolutionary total station, heavy duty laptop machine, and very expensive work kits, we used the laser locator to assign the new work plane, and then we started to check and retrieve the status of each point we annotate in our 3D model. The machine record the data, and then the data get back to me. I used another algorithm to compare the current status of the unit with the 3D model. In this process, we duplicate data structure again, for the new set, the points on reality. Then we apply a calculation algorithm which compares deviation for each axis at each point, and that would make a table or tree of data, at that point, we used another algorithm which can export all that huge data sets into readable excel files. With some settings, everything became readable, and then fixable and adjustable, for example, if a point is shifted forward, it’s brought backward while the unit is still laying on the workshop plane settings. All these processes were repeated through all other stages of fabrication and manufacturing.
5.5. Machines Automation
While fabricating the rest of the elements, some elements required to be produced with machines, such as the aluminum panels, and the aluminum runners, some need folding machines, and some need a bending machine, a bending machine is a tool which swallows a straight frame in, press and pushes it in a specific way long number of rollers, and spits it away curved. The curving process requires a special kind of data, which is organized in a table, each element has an adjustable level of accuracy and strength is required to change it, calculated mathematically using the coordinates of specific points within the element, and it was very easy to test its reliability, even without measuring sometimes, the new bent runners are placed perfectly on top of its holders, with no single gaps. And that was the goal – precision.
We heavily needed to use machines when we needed to build a mock-up, a one to one scale structure, representing a part of the building, in our case was the upper corner of the auditorium. We needed to produce a number of extremely curved units and install it to the structural portion placed on the factory. And the curved units were unique with interconnected curved runners.
Designers should really start to develop new kind of skills and techniques that allow them to understand their designs better, and help them realize its realm out of the digital model. A designer should be able to produce structural systems out of the shell he creates, and he also should be able to produce 3D detailed models, including all kind of details required for the project to be built, either using customized elements or purpose/location related elements. Especially that we are now in the era of digital design, where the 2D drawings are not anymore required or even useful in an efficient way.
A successful building information modeling, is not only the use of commercial packages found on the market in designing and modeling a project, but it’s more precisely, the efforts a designer makes to communicate and exchange his important design data and information with all kind of participants in the design and construction team, each according to his needs, and that kind of information should really put into account from early stages of design, otherwise it would be a problem for constructors and contractors to extract it out for use.
It is very important to use supporting digital kits in the construction process, which goes beyond the manual ways, for example, total stations and 3D laser scanners to document the existing status of the building or its elements. Other tools are also useful and important, but more importantly to develop a workflow or methods to integrate these tools efficiently in the process, and gain the benefits from its feedbacks.
Computer numeric controlled machines are necessary for the fabrication and installation of freeform projects. These machines can reduce the time required for producing loads of elements. CNC machines can also produce complex shapes that man can’t produce, at least easily. These machines can safely manufacture hazardous materials, which require heat, electricity, and mechanical forces, without one single accident to the construction team.
3D Model of the Basic Element