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CAD - The greatest advance in construction history

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After months of nominations from top industry figures and voting in our online poll, CAD has been named the greatest advance in construction

Six months ago, The Architects’ Journal, with sister titles New Civil Engineer and Construction News and in association with Corus Advance, embarked on a campaign to find the greatest advance in construction.

The magazines asked key industry figures for nominations, and readers voted online for the overall winner. Computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacture (CAM) have taken the top spot.

Alexandra Wynne talks to industry experts about why they champion the age of the computer

‘That CAD/CAM is such a clear favourite indicates that architects and engineers recognise the value of technology to help them achieve the aims of a modern and increasingly efficient construction industry,’ says Corus Construction’s marketing manager, Roger Steeper. ‘The whole process of steel construction – from manufacture, through fabrication to erection – fits perfectly with these new and improving technologies.’

In an era obsessed with bigger and better, it is easy to see why three-dimensional (3D) design software is so popular when it comes to designing bridges, roofs, stadia, tall buildings and more.

 ‘The obvious benefit of CAD is that we’re able to build structures with a more complex geometry than before,’ says Iain Hill, design director of fabricator Watson Steel. ‘Architects are more prepared to go for more advanced designs now, and increasingly more complex structures are being attempted.’

Hill adds that it might have been possible to attempt these complex geometrical designs before, but the birth of CAD has given designers the confidence to be able to see them through.

Recent years have seen countless examples of grand designs, and the London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, with its S-shaped roof, and the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower in New York by SOM are under-construction projects that promise to become beacons of computer-aided success.

The principal way that CAD enables all of this, according to architect and Make founder Ken Shuttleworth, is the variety of perspectives it gives. This was previously impossible with hand- drawings or cardboard models.

Rather than simply encouraging convoluted structural visions to be explored, the experts also laud the success of CAD and CAM in improving the design process. Charles Johnson, associate director at Atkins design engineering, says: ‘Any unusually shaped building is difficult to visualise and draw without CAD. It’s definitely allowed us to take a big step forward and has added to the accuracy of what we do.’

Shuttleworth and Hill both say that there have been fewer errors since people began relying on computers. ‘We don’t get anywhere near as many nasty surprises on site anymore,’ says Shuttleworth. Hill attributes this to the built-in clash-detection checks, which mean the design team knows what is going to happen with the structure in a 3D environment before it is built.

Shuttleworth says he wished it had been possible to use CAD when he worked on the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong, designed by Foster + Partners in the 1980s. Tolerance levels were at +/-40mm, compared to much higher levels of accuracy on Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe (2004) in the City of London. ‘The brackets and frame – everything was dead centre and dead accurate [on the Gherkin],’ he says. ‘No tolerance was used whatsoever.’

As well as eradicating errors and improving accuracy, CAD is being name-checked in the fight for sustainability. Greater accuracy means less waste of materials. ‘For structural engineers, one of the biggest benefits is the ability to make steel frames much lighter [leading to less steel being used], because every force in every member can be analysed,’ says Shuttleworth.

CAD/CAM will continue to bring more changes to building in the future – something that has started with the evolution of building information modelling and will continue with more innovations in software and technology.



Major projects would be impossible today without the role played by CAD. The authors of three of them describe the role that information technology has played in their work

Gautrain high-speed rail line, South Africa
Charles Johnson, associate director, Atkins design engineering

‘There were complex steel canopies above the stations, which would have been tedious to build without CAD’

Emirates Stadium roof, London
Iain Hill, design director, Watson Steel

‘We could have built it without CAD, but that would have meant greater potential for errors’

St Paul’s Cathedral information centre, London, by Make
Ken Shuttleworth, director, Make

‘It’s a little kiosk, but its success was being designed using complicated 3D drawings’

Editors from the three magazines participating in the campaign to find the greatest advance
in construction describe the great leaps forward that appealed most to their readers

Antony Oliver, editor, New Civil Engineer

To every young child, cranes have come to symbolise building and construction.

But their significance in the construction process goes way beyond the simple visual excitement of these iconic and powerful machines. 

They have enabled bigger loads to be lifted, manoeuvred to a greater height from greater reach, and they have enabled structures to be built faster, cheaper and in greater safety.

Although lifting machines have been around for centuries, it is the modern power-driven mechanical crane that has really advanced the industry. The whole construction process has been made more efficient and has changed the way that we plan and execute construction. It has removed the need for much temporary work and made the ‘sky-hooks’ dream an everyday reality.

But it is not just about buildability. Improvements in cranes on site have also made a major contribution to safety, health and welfare. More than simply a utilitarian tool, they are clearly one of the industry’s greatest advances.

Kieran Long, editor, The Architects’ Journal

It is no surprise that the most important advance in construction has turned out to be a piece of software. This is a nuts-and-bolts industry, but the thing that has changed the way that everyone in it works is the advance of IT, and the ability of consultants to draw faster, more accurately and communicate their ideas digitally.

 It has changed very practical things – we now spend most of our working day gazing at a screen and repetitive strain injury (RSI) is an occupational hazard – but its most visible outcome is the increasingly implausible shapes dreamt up by starchitects and the billions of calculations that computers can achieve each minute.

Building information modelling (BIM) will take this to a new level, with 4D drawings integrating structure, services and design intentions, which can be shared between consultants and updated in real time. The future is a computer system seamlessly integrating the complex forces acting on the design process. Whether human users can match this level of integration remains to be seen.

Health and safety
Damon Schünmann, associate editor (features), Construction News

It is testament to our readers that health and safety is considered one of construction’s greatest advances. And it’s perhaps not hugely surprising that the contractors who make up a substantial majority of Construction News’ circulation are the people at highest risk and who have, by default, benefited the most.

When the final tallies came in, Construction News readers considered health and safety to be a sliver ahead of overall winner CAD. While readers of magazines with more upstream readerships might feel advances in project design or execution techniques are of more importance, it’s the people on the ground delivering those solutions who gain from a safer working environment.

On-site safety has a proud record in recent years, which has come on leaps and bounds over the last few decades. Construction fatalities fell to an all-time low of 59 deaths in the UK in 2005-2006, and current intelligence suggests the number may fall back to nearer this all-time low in 2008-2009.

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