Paperless construction

Although dreams of the paperless office have been around for decades, designers and builders still rely heavily on printed drawing sets. The Species Niches Pavilion represents a small step toward a fully digitized workflow.

Digital organic

Commissioned to create a piece for the Omi sculpture park in Ghent, New York, the design firm Harrison Atelier set out to make a form that would appear both highly considered and chaotic. Their concept consisted of two main components, an arch and a half dome, linked by a veil-like trellis — all formed from 1,000 small pieces of oak.

After crafting their initial design in the modeling software Rhino, they reached out to Allan Olson, a structural engineer in Arup’s Los Angeles office, to help them ensure structural stability and safety. A quick review convinced Olson that the best way to complete the project within the tight timeline and budget would be to pull the Rhino models into structural software GSA Suite and finish the analysis there. “It was the easiest way to manipulate what was essentially an organic form,” he said.

Credit: Arup

The team used GSA to create axial force plots that allowed them to assess and adjust the flow of forces within the structure. In the final configuration, shown here, red represents tension and blue represents compression. The width of the red or blue lines corresponds to the relative magnitude of the force at that point.

The designers wanted the sculpture to be as transparent as possible, so Olson’s team used the model to determine where the loads would be weakest, then removed material in those locations. Areas experiencing larger forces were then densified or, in select cases, assigned thicker pieces of wood. (A similar technique was used for the structural design of Beijing’s CCTV Headquarters, whose seemingly random façade design resulted from careful deliberation about which areas would need the most steel reinforcement and which could do with less.)

Credit: Arup

At certain points, the team added connections among the arch, dome, and trellis to take advantage of the stiffness inherent in their curvature.

In regions of higher forces, the team densified the pattern as much as possible. Where that became visually distracting, they either specified thicker pieces of wood or took advantage of the strength gained by activating connections among the dome, arch, and trellis.

After both architect and engineer signed off on the design, Harrison Atelier’s staff assembled the structure in the field, viewing the model on an iPad.

Credit: Arup

Experimental today, mainstream tomorrow

From start to finish, the project required less than two months — and zero paper. The latter would have likely been impossible if the structure had been a traditional building, Olson said. “There were no building department sign-offs involved. It’s not a habitable structure. No PE stamp or anything like that, so we could be a bit more experimental with our construction processes.”

Credit: Arup

In the not-too-distant future, however, he’s confident that fully digital workflows will become more common for conventional construction. As technologies improve and new models for collaboration evolve, the inch-thick drawing sets currently sent between clients and designers for large, complex projects will become a thing of the past. “Eventually we’ll have construction methods which translate drawings and models directly into the physical environment,” Olson foresees.

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