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The Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct – BIM played a vital role in the planning and use of the limestone cladding, which was virtually modelled and different pattern scenarios evaluated to minimise waste

The great convergence between virtual and built environments – By Jason Howden

Years ago, I never would have predicted that in 2020 we would be able to draw similarities between video games and architecture.

Gamers operate in a virtual world, defined by abstract environments designed to challenge and push players to their limits. Conversely, architects design for the real world, defined by forces of nature, creating built environments to enhance the well-being of communities.

However, when you look a little closer, the advances in technology within the design and construction sector have proven to us how similar each of these groups really are. Connecting and collaborating with gamers worldwide isn’t dissimilar to the Autodesk BIM 360 technology that architects and engineers use in project planning and implementation. Whether it’s using virtual reality to defeat the enemy or to build a detailed prototype of a high-spec building, both are using technology to work collaboratively towards a common goal.

In simple terms, BIM (building information modelling) is digitally building a design before it’s constructed. Many would have seen the complex and impressive 3D digital models BIM software can create. and have used these models to gain a virtual walk-through of how a design will look and function. The benefit of this is its ability to take stakeholders through the completed building long before the construction starts.

And this is only the start of our new digital capabilities.

Uncovering BIM’s true potential

As new ways to operate the technology are explored, we are continuing to uncover its true potential, such as how we can pull incredible data-led insights from buildings. Access to this data, like in any industry, is changing the construction sector as we know it. With data comes greater knowledge and understanding to solve the complex problems we face.

One of our greatest challenges is that buildings use vast amounts of energy throughout their lifecycle. In fact, a substantial volume of embodied carbon is created in the production of concrete, which generates about 8% of global CO2 emissions, according to think tank Chatham House. Data captured with technologies like Autodesk BIM 360 gives the industry a greater understanding about each building’s performance and allows us to collectively find smarter ways to build and reduce our carbon footprints.

But 8% to many is a meaningless number. By utilising the data, we can convert the information into a digestible and relatable format, which can help companies better visualise the impact a figure can have. For example, if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world – behind China and the US. Now imagine the size of such a country producing 8% of the globe’s total carbon emissions each year and the impact it would have on the world.

Technology is mobilising and helping people to understand these issues, bringing to attention some of the obstacles in the building industry and helping to switch to better environmental alternatives.

We continue to create more complex and challenging projects while leveraging technology to minimise the chance of error and additional costs. However, there is still a huge opportunity to improve productivity and efficiency in the construction industry by truly understanding how these systems work together.

According to the Modular Building Institute, US$15.6 billion per year is lost due to the lack of interoperability. As we continue to use BIM and similar processes, there is the potential for the industry to become more business-savvy and build better buildings with less.

Recently, BIM played a vital role in the planning and use of the limestone cladding at the Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, a project by Warren and Mahoney. The cladding was virtually modelled, and different pattern scenarios were evaluated to minimise waste before the 3D model was passed over to the contractors to assist with the pricing and procurement to manufacture the right amount of stonework. In creating a visual 3D roadmap of the layout of the approximately 1000 stone panels, BIM helped to eliminate errors and reduce waste.

The greatest gift

Accurate scoping, preplanning and data-sharing, all enabled by technology, have undoubtedly propelled us forward, but the greatest gift technology has given us is the art of effective collaboration.

Just five years ago we were struggling to unite architects across various locations in New Zealand. Now we can collaborate with architects from Melbourne to Queenstown, Auckland to Toronto – in real time. This extends to the wider industry too. We can pull together engineers, architects, builders and electricians across the country to work together, using one digital platform to problem-solve and ultimately create smarter buildings.

The New Zealand International Convention Centre in the heart of Auckland had architects from Warren and Mahoney assembling a virtual prototype, which was then passed onto the contractors to input information and is now being used in the construction process. This level of collaboration wouldn’t have been possible without access to the right technology.

This project also proved something else of great importance. Despite the rapid evolution of technology, just like gaming, there still needs to be a human component driving it all. I describe the investment in digital technology as pre-emptive risk mitigation, which allows us to make informed decisions based on the information that technology provides us. This is where human expertise and data-driven tech come together.

BIM might highlight an issue, but if we don’t have the expertise to understand what’s being highlighted, we can’t realise the return on our investment. It reinforces that we can’t underestimate the benefit of collaboration, especially between technology and people.

An exponential curve

As technology continues to leap forward, we have a large challenge facing the industry: to keep everyone working in step with these ever-changing tools.

During my six-year tenure at Warren and Mahoney, I’ve seen our practice and the industry evolve from 2D drawings to 3D models, to virtual reality, to laser scanning, to autonomous drones and infinite data capture. It’s an exponential curve that shows no signs of stopping.

As industry leaders we have a duty to engage, leverage and tap into the minds of the next generation, those who are already engaging with online virtual environments, who embrace technology and recognise its role in creating success through collaboration.

Perhaps someone playing Fortnite in their bedroom will design the next Commercial Bay.

Jason Howden is an associate principal of Warren and Mahoney in Wellington; over his 20-year career he has led teams on large-scale projects in the UK, Australia and throughout New Zealand warrenandmahoney.com

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