Llewelyn-Davies is finding it increasingly difficult to surprise its clients.
This is because, with its long commitment to designing in three dimensions, clients are apt to wander into a newly finished building and mutter in a blase fashion: 'Oh yes - it is just like the drawings.'
This is one of the few drawbacks that Gavin Urquhart, an associate with the practice and one of the people who is driving forward its use of CAD, can see - that, and a tendency by members of the team to become overenthusiastic. 'From a job-management point of view, ' says Urquhart, 'we need to get people as fast as possible through the 'ooh-er' stage where they build something, then spend days spinning it round and changing the colours.' The solution to this is to have a demarcation between design and visualisation. Anything that is design stays with the architect; visualisation is handled under the auspices of CAD manager Mark Humphries.
In dealing with this, LlewelynDavies is facing up to problems that few practices have because, until recently at least, they have not been taking three-dimensional design seriously. At Llewelyn-Davies, says Urquhart, 'the 3D element has always been fundamental to our design approach and to client understanding. It is a standard part of our service.
We would never think of going into a client review of a building without being armed with the visuals.'
Equally central to the practice's philosophy is the idea that it is the architects that do the CAD work.
Llewelyn-Davies does not employ any CAD draughtsmen. 'We do not have a CAD section as such, ' says Urquhart.
'It is very much part of our philosophy that the person who thinks about the solution puts it in.'
The practice has used MicroStation for about seven years. 'We have experimented in AutoCAD, ' says Urquhart. But until recently it has had very little 3D capability.
Humphries adds: 'MicroStation is very appropriate. It allows you to do all your 2D studio design, to do 3D, animation etc. It is good enough to get the presentation across.' And as the technology has improved, so has the ease of presentation. 'Things like hidden-line functions have evolved so much, ' says Urquhart, 'that we can just export from 3D drawings instead of spending hours cleaning them up, getting rid of double lines.'
At present, on a typical project, the practice tends to move in and out of 3D. First, a space-planning exercise will involve developing a 3D massing model. It will then review the design on a 2D template in terms of the plan layouts, and feed this information back into the 3D model. Both concept development and design development are pretty much pure 3D.
Most of the information exchange with other consultants and contractors is also in 2D. Urquhart says: 'We are on the cusp of change.Historically if you have a 3D model you need to run parallel 2D information. In the past the software has not been able to generate detailed 2D information from 3D models.' Now, with programmes like TriForma and Revit, it is becoming possible to work in three dimensions and generate the 2D information straight from the model.
But this next step is a big one. Llewelyn-Davies is at least far enough ahead to appreciate the problems that this kind of cultural shift will cause. 'We need the infrastructure in place so that people do not have to think about it, ' says Urquhart. 'We have to have experimental projects. We cannot simply lay it all out across the company tomorrow.'
Urquhart's own knowledge evolved not only from projects within the practice but also from involvement in the Teamwork 2000 and, to a lesser extent, the Teamwork 2001 exercises on single-building models.
He also worked with BAA when it was developing its Gateway sign-off system of providing a package approach to complex projects. He has fed this knowledge back into the company.
One project on which the practice's commitment to 3D design is crucial is the new airport terminal at Chongqing in China. This terminal has an undulating roof to reflect the surrounding hilly countryside, supported by a structure reminiscent of a series of ribcages. Llewelyn-Davies, working with Arup as its lead consultant, won the contract partly on the basis of the stunning images it produced, but it had to be able to back this imagery up with the answers to some searching technical questions.
Then it was given 15 weeks in which to resolve the design intent.
The practice is not wedded to using CAD just for the sake of it. 'We still do hand-drawn visualisations because clients like them, ' says Urquhart. For Chongqing, the illustrator drew over a 2D printout to put in texture, reflections etc.And where a 3D CAD image appears to be pinning the architect down too far at an early stage, Urquhart suggests using the 'glass block' facility which can act as a concept model with no commitment to materials.
Another project where the practice's commitment to 3D is paying dividends is on the new building for University College London Hospital in Euston Road. Fittingly for a highprofile project, the architect has designed a dramatic entrance with a large sail above it. 'The top surface is cut from a sphere, ' says Urquhart, 'and we believe that simplifies the geometry.' By demonstrating this simplicity, the architect has convinced the client that what looked like a luxury is actually affordable.
Within the practice, a number of designers have, says Urquhart, 'pushed the boundaries of CAD in terms of 3D as much as they can'. He names Catalin Dragomir, whose 'whole approach is to be experimental. 3D CAD is his mechanism for pushing it, making it believable to other members of staff.' But straightforward designing is not enough.
Urquhart says: 'My role is to take that into the production side of things, to approach that with the same enthusiasm. We are looking to review each project on its merits, to see where 3D should definitely be being used in terms of where you have a particular construction.'
Urquhart is also starting to make more use of 3D design to explain work to other construction partners, and, ideally, to get them involved. In the past, he says, pushing 3D has usually involved a lot of discussions and trying to get everybody to work on the same programmes. With increasing interoperability that is less of a problem. And he is not in favour of tortuous discussions. 'Using 3D, ' he says, 'you either sit down and talk about it for weeks, or get on and do it.' And he is prepared to work from a pessimistic position. 'With the engineers we tend to approach projects believing we will have to draw their elements, ' Urquhart says. 'That is the worst case scenario, and happens less often now.
We know through Teamwork 2000 that there are engineers who want to work this way.'
Llewelyn-Davies is committed to using the ProjectWise document management system, another Bentley product that it has bought through Cadac. Urquhart's experience across projects including PFIs and construction-management jobs is that there is rarely a well-established way of working, and that trying to get everybody to work the same way is a lost cause. 'It is appropriate that they all use something customised to suit themselves, ' he says. 'We are looking for vehicles that can accept multiple interfaces. It would appear that ProjectWise is one of the umbrellas that is capable of doing that.We have lived with it pretty much from its inception - so we have lived through a lot of bugs, moans, etc.' Indeed, when looking at any new piece of technology, one of the questions the practice asks is: will it be compatible with ProjectWise?
The practice is looking forward to the arrival of version 8 of MicroStation and looking at one or two other possible programmes. But new technology is not going to make it swerve from its underlying philosophy: a commitment to 3D design and preparation for that inevitable moment - the great leap forward into use of a single-building model.