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Mission impossible

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Computers change our lives only when they help us complete previously unfeasible tasks - CAD applications among them

Who would have thought that technology developed by a scientist in the 1930s and applied by Parisian Marc Gregoir in the 1950s to his fishing tackle to stop it from tangling would be in use in almost every home in the country today?

And how many people could work today without the derivative of a communications network developed by American forces at the height of cold-war paranoia? These two inventions? Teflon and the Internet, of course.

Not a day goes by when we do not benefit from technological advances made in completely unrelated fields.

I am inseparable from my Palm Vx organiser, a computer that fits in my shirt pocket and yet is more powerful than the computer used to put the first man on the moon.

However, while my Palm organiser makes my life easier, it does not enable me to do anything I could not do another way.

Computers can make everyday jobs easier and quicker to complete, but their real value must be when they enable you to complete a task or a series of previously impossible tasks.

It is no secret that, by using advanced CAD modelling tools, Boeing was able to prototype its latest airliner in a virtual environment before building the first one. It used the computer to design every part of the aircraft before assembling the constituent parts in the same environment. Design and maintenance problems were discovered and rectified before the first physical prototype was assembled for real.

Boeing borrowed the idea of CAD prototyping from the oil and plant industry, which for decades has constructed all oil rigs in a virtual environment before building them for real. In the same way, the construction industry - always the last to embrace change - is waking up to the idea of using computers to explore dynamically the impact of a design decision on the entire project.

Described as the 'Single Building Model' and hailed as the solution to the errors common during the design development and communication process, many software developers see it as the construction industry's equivalent of penicillin; curing the process of all ills.

Unfortunately, I believe that the benefits gained from applying the tools to architecture and prototyping buildings will not be as great as those wrought by Boeing.

Construction lead times appear to be getting shorter in an attempt to reduce costs and make the building start paying for itself sooner. In which case, without the savings from downstream mass production and with the tight design deadlines being imposed on projects, is it financially worthwhile to prototype buildings in this way?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word 'prototype' as 'an original thing', a one-off, the first working model of its kind. Aren't almost all buildings only constructed once? In which case each building is its own prototype. Surely, then, the issue is not to pre-prototype each building, but to capture effectively the knowledge gained from designing and constructing each one and reapply that newly acquired knowledge to the next.

Why, for example, do architects consistently try to redesign the same detail? When you find a threshold detail, which works aesthetically and performs well against the elements, do you then spend time redesigning one on the next job?

Reusing standard performancetested details will improve the longevity of buildings and may free up some of your time to spend on other design conundrums.

It strikes me that sometimes we grasp for the technology which is above us and try to apply it 'as is' before it has been filtered naturally and had time to trickle down to us.

We would be better off taking good technology and applying it intelligently, rather than taking intelligent technology and applying it without a moment's thought for its change in context.

Earlier I stated that a computer delivers real value when it enables you to complete a task or a series of tasks which were impossible.

One example of how the computer, and CAD in particular, has made an impossible task possible was highlighted in a recent episode of BBC2's Home Front. The programme chronicled the redesign of a flat in Shepherd's Bush, west London, for a chap called Rudi who is tetraplegic - paralysed in his arms and legs.

Because of his disability, Rudi is unable to draw and communicate graphically with the designers, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen and Diarmuid Gavin, since he cannot hold a pencil and draw accurately.

Rudi already used a computer to write letters, e-mails and faxes and to communicate with friends around the world. Teaching him to draw using CAD on a computer was the logical next step. After a few hours Rudi was able to visualize his ideas inside the computer and converse freely with the designers in a medium free from the ambiguities inherent in verbal design discussions.

Applying parts of the technology used by architects and engineers and customizing it to work in a userfriendly way, the computer empowered and enabled Rudi.

So what, I hear you ask, has the Frenchman's fishing tackle got to do with the technology trickle-down, knowledge capture and reuse? It was Madame Gregoir who suggested applying Teflon to pots and pans.

Joe Croser is a director with AdremDCX, a specialist in CAD consultancy and training. E-mail Joec@adremdcx. com or tel 07973 263360

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