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Digital Environment

Design communications key if you are to get buy-in to a concept. Arup R&D have come up with a solution.


02.jpg A perennial problem for architects and civil engineers is how to communicate their designs to the people who need to buy into the concept. Grand visions are of little use if they stay resolutely within the minds of the visionary. The conventional solution is to use a combination of plan drawings, sketches, scale physical models and computer renderings, but there are fundamental constraints in each of these approaches that ultimately restrict their ability to communicate design intent effectively. Researchers at Arup have come up with an alternative that may be just what the doctor ordered.

Digital Recreation
“The problem with most communication media is that they are implicit,” explains Alvise Simondetti of Arup Research and Development. “They are fine as far as they go – and can be very useful – but they still rely on the viewer to create the full mental picture of what it would be like to walk freely around the finished creation. To overcome this you need a fully explicit display medium that allows the viewer to experience the environment in all its glory. In most cases building a full-scale replica is not practicable so you have to try to recreate the experience digitally. That’s what we’ve been working on with our real-time visual simulation technology.”

The catalyst for the development of the technology was a high profile project with the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Anish Kapoor, who in 2002 was invited to create an installation for the huge Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. Kapoor was determined to utilise the full extent of the eight-storey, 150-metre space and knew that he would need specialist help in order to realise his dream. He duly enlisted the services of Arup who worked closely with Kapoor in perfecting a concept made up of a vast tensile membrane stretched between strategically placed steel rings.

It was naturally important for Kapoor to be able to get a realistic feel for the impact of the finished sculpture from the point of view of future Tate Modern visitors. Arup deployed the full range of engineering, visualisation and model making tools to prove the concept, but none of them could give a true feel for the Turbine Hall with the new sculpture in place. So Arup decided to invent a new tool that would.

“We developed a real-time visual simulation system which reproduced the sculpture and the Turbine Hall in full and allowed the viewer complete freedom of movement around them,” says Simondetti. “We wrote it in such a way that the ‘camera’ moved around at head height. This was the only way we could get close to appreciating the visual impact of the finished creation.”

True Feel
The resulting system proved to be so useful that Arup decided to invest additional development resource and make it a feature of more of its projects. It was immediately clear that the technology could bring significant business gains to any project where the interested parties need to get a true feel for how a building will perform in its working life. This is particularly important when there are hundreds of ‘interested parties’ who are in fact stakeholders in the future success of a project.

With the trend towards PFI private funding, the nature of modern public sector construction projects, such as new hospitals, means several companies working together as consortia (each of which must agree on a design), each consortium pitching to the tendering committee, one successful consortium being chosen and hundreds of contracts being awarded to suppliers while the finer operational details are being ironed out. Design communication is vital at each stage of this lengthy process as it all takes place before a sod of earth has been turned or a single brick laid. Arup’s real-time visual simulation technology has already shown what an important role it can play.

Informed Demo
“Hospitals are conceptually relatively simple – everything is fundamentally geared towards healing – but the infrastructure tends to be huge and packed full of important detail,” says Simondetti. “Some of these details can be the difference between part of the hospital performing properly or not, but they can be impossible to grasp properly through traditional implicit design communication tools.”

The real-time visual simulation tool is playing a vital role in the £300 million hospital development for the St Helens and Knowsley NHS Trust. Arup was advising a consortium bidding for the construction and running of new hospitals at Whiston and St Helens. The entire hospitals were modelled in Arup’s real-time environment, which has since been used consistently as a design verification tool throughout the project. “Real-time visualisation enabled us to give a far more informed demonstration to the stakeholders at the bidding stage,” explains Simondetti. “These are doctors and nurses, hospital administrators and local MPs – not people who could be expected to construct an accurate image in their mind of a 3D environment from an architect’s drawing.

“One consultant spotted what looked like a potential problem on the initial architect’s drawing,” he adds. “It appeared that patients visiting a specialist consultation room would have to walk through a general consultation area first. This would have been unacceptable. The real-time simulation, however, showed that there was in fact the required level of separation: separate corridors and separate receptions. This proved very time consuming to determine with conventional design communication techniques.”

Other potential issues the real-time simulation helped to deal with included concerns over the safety of nurses leaving the hospital late at night. CCTV naturally featured prominently in the design but it was felt that this did not really allay feelings of vulnerability. But real-time simulation (with accurate head-height and walking speed) demonstrated not only that was there a clear line of sight between the reception and the nurses’ dedicated car park but also that the walk between the two would never take more than sixty seconds.

Having helped the new hospitals consortium win the bid, Arup’s real-time environment will now be used for clinical sign-up and in the process of awarding contracts to the hundreds of suppliers who will help keep the hospital running. Demonstrating the facility management routes, where deliveries will be arriving, where the service lifts are likely to be and the layout of the wards, for instance, is vital when it comes to planning the logistics of catering, housekeeping and prescription delivery. Allowing potential suppliers to find their way around the hospital before it has been built not only eliminates nasty surprises and allows plans and prices to be drawn up accurately, it also provides the opportunity for feedback before the design of the hospital is finalised.

“Whereas others may adhere to code-based design, at Arup we use performance-based design,” says Simondetti. “So we’ll discuss with the client a performance criterion like an average waiting time of 30 seconds for a lift rather than, for instance, a code that says you must have an extra lift for every five storeys. The real-time environment is perfect for judging whether or not a building is performing as it should. There really is no other way.”

Working towards performance-based design also means designing for the disabled, and real-time visual simulation has a potentially vital role to play here too. Not only can Arup’s system be configured to give the view from wheelchair height, research is also underway into ways of simulating visual impairment. “We approached the Institute of Ophthalmology in London who have informally validated a mode of operation designed to mimic the experience of a partially sighted person,” says Simondetti. “This is partly in anticipation of the Disability Discrimination Act Part III – due to come into force later this year – but also because we believe that designing for the disabled makes good business sense. There are over two million disabled people in the UK, and when you take into account carers and include people pushing prams (who have similar access issues to wheelchair users) you’re looking at around £40 billion of disposable income. More fundamentally, though, a building that performs well for the disabled is likely to perform better for everybody. “And,” he adds, “the best way to test if your building is performing for the disabled is to put yourself in the disabled person’s position.”

Having proved the worth of its real-time visual simulation, Arup’s R&D team is now looking at what other areas could benefit from it. “We started with visual simulation because we needed to fulfil a specific requirement,” says Simondetti. “But there are other areas that we will be working on. We’ve already started looking at aural simulation, people behaviour movement and fluids simulation. But there’s a long way to go: in total we’ve identified some 80 different physical or performance characteristics that are currently simulated in Arup and could be demonstrated in real time.

Real-time is here to stay.” CT-E

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