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Thinking 3D down under

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Architect David Sutherland, of Fender Katsalidis in Australia, is enjoying the benefits of working with 3D design software

It is not often that an architect is prepared to stand up in front of a large audience and discuss how badly a project has gone. So it was surprising at the UIA congress in Berlin in July when Australian architect David Sutherland did just that.

Sutherland is director of planning at Fender Katsalidis, a practice based in Melbourne, where its 90-storey Eureka Tower is under construction.

When complete this will, claims Sutherland, be the tallest residential tower in the world. Not surprisingly, he is very proud of it, but he contrasts it with the preceding project.

'The project before Eureka was a nightmare, ' he told delegates. 'Everything was late. Relations were terrible.' In contrast, on Eureka, despite using the same team and the same consultants, 'we worked normal hours. It is on time, and everybody loves us.' The difference between the two projects is the practice's decision, on Eureka, to adopt three-dimensional design software in a thoroughgoing way.

The practice used ArchiCAD from Graphisoft (originally version 6.0, later 7.0) to create a complete three-dimensional model, using other software to create visual representations from the model. If the model changed, so did the spin-off productions as well.

Take-up of 3D design in a way that is more than tinkering around the edges has been hesitant in the UK, yet Sutherland does not see it as an issue.

What is more, he believes it could be vital to preserving the role of the architectural profession. 'Other participants in the building process are appropriating our responsibilities, ' he said. 'This is accelerating through the use of IT. Subcontractors and builders have the same design documentation software as us.'

If architects are to retain/regain their central position, they must keep hold of the entire process, Sutherland argues. 'Other people would love to do our documentation for us, ' he said. 'If we can hold onto it, we can do it.' This, he believes, is essential, if architects are not to be sidelined into an airy-fairy role as mere concept designers. The problem often is time, but with 3D designing the documentation arises out of the design process rather than having to be a separate activity.

And, of course, there are other enormous benefits. 'The office is not broken up into tribes, ' Sutherland said, with some doing concept design and others the detail. Everybody is a designer, and there is time for the iterative process of refining and rethinking, which too often is squeezed out.

And everybody, including the architectural team, really understands the design, Sutherland argues. Issues that otherwise might arise only at the stage of post-design review are tackled much earlier.At the Eureka Tower, where the position of columns as they wind through the building is crucial to the disposition of spaces, the 3D approach has been a godsend. And as the building takes form, there are no surprises because the architect has created a 3D prototype.

Value engineering, too often a fancy term for a contractor taking all the best bits out of an architect's specification, can be done in the true sense, and done by the architect because of the greater understanding of the building and the ability to try out alternatives.

But how completely has the 3D ideal been realised? Sutherland says that 'we have gone rather further than we thought we could'. One potential problem is information overload if you are designing at a macro level yet also trying to realise detail on a small scale, but Sutherland says his drawings work down to a level of one to 10.

The team used the 3D process, for example, to design the bathrooms, importing sanitaryware as 3D intelligent objects.

There are still issues to iron out, but Sutherland is confident that 'we are on the cusp of all this happening', and that architects must grasp the nettle before it is wrenched from their hands by contractors with a crude balance-sheet agenda.

Ironically, the one part of three-dimensional design that has not worked so far for Fender Katsalidis is working on a single building model with other consultants. This is partly because of translation software, Sutherland says, but mainly because too many of the larger consultants are too protectionist to embrace the idea.Much more than architects, they have vast arrays of CAD technicians who are just number crunching or generating documentation, and they can neither bear the idea of making them superfluous nor see a possibility of turning them into fully-fledged designers.

It is reassuring that architecture is not always the profession most resistant to change.

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