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Smoothe operator

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ITpractice Smoothe has created an intriguing model that allows architects to view real products in action Modelling buildings is the bread and butter of architectural visualisation, but what is the reason for doing that modelling? That question may sound like a no-brainer, but IT practice Smoothe has turned the concept on its head. Since architects like to see building products in context (hence buildings in the AJ and AJ Focus, and on AJ Plus), why not show them real products in virtual buildings?

The buildings then can be truly virtual, allowing the modeller's imagination to run riot, and for the manufacturer there is a tool which is both intriguing and informative.

Smoothe has been working with Dorma on its range of architectural ironmongery and the result is something with which architects would certainly enjoy 'playing'. And, having played, would take away an appreciation of the products that they may not have had before. It is possible to open and close doors using the door closers, and even to take a cover off a closer and see the workings.

Ross Cunningham, who is in charge of 3D Web design at Smoothe, has 'designed' an attractively coollooking building with an enfilade of rooms through which one can stroll, turning off along the way to open and shut doors. The only downside is that, although the entire concept is Web enabled, the memory required is such that the interactive model will have to be sent to customers on CD.

Cunningham has an architecture degree, and is delighted to be using it to design virtual spaces. But how did he, and Smoothe, get to this point? The concept of Smoothe was a vital part in the setting up of architectural practice Piercy Conner, best known for the Microflats which are now edging closer to realisation. Stuart Piercy and Richard Conner both left Nicholas Grimshaw to set up the practice three years ago. They knew that, in order to develop projects that appealed to them, they would need another source of income beyond architecture.

So they set up Smoothe, defined as a 'digital representation company'. It is run by Matt Fairman, formerly an IT analyst for Flemings Bank. There is a holding company, Piercy Conner Fairman Group, that owns both Piercy Conner and Smoothe.

Not surprisingly, some of the initial team at Smoothe came from Hayes Davidson, the doyen of visualisation.

Cunningham describes the Smoothe approach as 'not to make it like a factory where images are churned out'. Equally important in such a fastchanging field is letting staff pursue avenues of interest - in Cunningham's case through 3D Web work. When he took his architecture degree at Nottingham his final-year project was on Internet shopping, involving the design of an online space. Since then, he has done a mixture of Web design, animation and visualisation.

This included modelling an 'operational' Fuji digital camera, an exercise that seems almost futile until you see the model. Then you realise it is so desirable that it would be bound to have a marketing impact.

On the work with Dorma, Cunningham is delighted to be able to use his architectural training again in the design of the virtual space. Longterm, he says, his goal would be to design online, creating for example virtual supermarkets (shades of that university project).

In the meantime, he says, 'the main focus at the moment is on product suppliers. The long-term goal is to develop this. We want to develop something which people who supply products would be interested in.'

Cunningham estimates that six or seven pieces of software were used in the development of the Dorma visualisation. The important thing is to have understanding of a wide range of software, and a knowledge of when it is appropriate. Smoothe has a wide enough skills set to be comfortable with this. 'Some people can do visualisation, ' Cunningham says. 'Some can do Web design. Some can do CDs. But to have all these plus an architectural input is virtually unique.'

Although this is an exciting area of development, Cunningham does not believe that the bread and butter visualisation work will go away. Although visualisation packages are making the work simpler, he does not expect every architect to take it in-house, away from the specialists. 'You would be surprised how many botched visualisations you get from architects, ' he says. And if an architect does want to do the work in-house, it will be so labour intensive that a member of staff is likely to have to dedicate themselves to it full time - so why not outsource the work instead?

In an ideal world, the visualisation company will become involved at an early stage. 'Once we went to a practice and did design development with them on CAD, ' Cunningham says.

'We ironed out a lot of design problems at the design stage.'

And at the same time, the practice is constantly looking at what the latest technology can offer. At present Cunningham is intrigued by a package that allows you to put a virtual environment up on the Internet and let participants in different parts of the world change it.

Contact Smoothe on 020 7490 4300, or visit www. smoothe. co. uk

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