Aurecon’s Douglas Sum says façade engineering has an opportunity to step into a new and exciting future, but asks: “will the industry embrace the technology and processes needed to bring it to life?”
Meg Whitman, the former president and CEO of eBay, once said “the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of a mistake”. It’s a quote that summarises my feelings about façade engineering. Across much of our industry we are still working in the same way we have for years as if scared of making a mistake by changing or updating. But what’s most frustrating is we have the capability and technology to do things better.
By taking a new approach to technology, processes and skillsets we can deliver what I call façade engineering 4.0. What does that mean? Well, to put it in context, I categorize the other phases of our industry’s development like this:
• Façade engineering 1.0: hand drafting
• Façade engineering 2.0: AutoCAD
• Façade engineering 3.0: 3D modelling
To understand why I believe it’s important to shift to façade engineering 4.0, perhaps we should examine the current points of pain. Almost any architect or contractor will tell you one of the biggest headaches on a development is the façade. And the reason for this is that so much of the work is still done in 2D – with many still using AutoCAD for their design (essentially working in façade engineering 2.0).
This is out of sync with the rest of the construction industry. Today, on a development, there will be multiple collaborators working on the same BIM model to coordinate thedesign, minus the façade engineers. If you’rethinking this is a missing link, then you’d be right. It means that changes made in the BIMmodel will not be accommodated in the façade design. This leads to problems down the line for both fabrication and installation of the façade, adding time and expense to the project.
Another point of pain centres on the issue of design vs fabrication. Historically, the façade engineer creates the design which is passed to the contractor for specifying, ahead of fabrication and installation. But there is often a breakdown in communications at this stage. As façade engineers we have our own ideas of what the finished product should look like. From the contractor’s perspective, they want to optimise and re-design it to fit their budget and timeline. Unsurprisingly, this often clashes with the façade engineer’s original vision and while this disagreement is sorted out, time passes and work stands still.
Moving to façade engineering 4.0 can remove these points of pain and take our industry forward. There are four key components of this new working method, each of which offers tangible improvements over the way work is currently conducted. The four key areas are:
In this article we’ll look at each and review the improvements it offers.
The digitisation stage involves both shifting to BIM for all elements of design and giving façade engineers a design-to fabricate role. There are a couple of important advances we achieve with this step. Firstly, when the project reaches the construction stage, we no longer need the contractor to specify the façade based on our design recommendations. Instead, we handle the design and specification at the same time, and these are agreed at an early stage by the client, architect and contractor to avoid roadblocks later in the process. Secondly, the manufacture and installation of façades becomes much easier as we eliminate the errors that creep into this stage as there is no back and forth with designs. Instead we prepare designs in a format that plugs directly into the CNC machines used to manufacture the façade.
For the client, there is buy-in at the design stage and once this is agreed we can run comparative models to select the most cost-efficient option. We also cut out the potential for errors by having the design, BIM modelling and fabrication data handled by a single supplier with each phase interlinked. This is in contrast with the current system where all three phases are handled independently. Best of all, this new way of working fits perfectly with the trend to ‘design and build’ projects, adding greater speed and transparency to the process.
A crucial element of optimisation in façade engineering 4.0 is the technology we use. At Aurecon we no longer use AutoCAD or other traditional design technologies for façade design. Instead, we create our own programs and scripts which allows us to start from scratch, looking simply at the concept. We can also interlink the elements together so changes in one part of the design are accommodated in the specification, manufacturing and installation stages.
In addition, optimisation is about harnessing the latest techniques, including Generative Design. This new methodology is already delivering success in other industries, such as aerospace, and we are now harnessing it in our engineering work. After setting parameters inside a program, Generative Design utilises software to run multiple iterations and develop an optimum design. It ensures that every element is sized correctly and there is no wasted material or energy. While the software does the heavy lifting, we can enhance or alter the design by changing parameters within the program.
As I said earlier, in façade design much of the visualisations are still happening in 2D, requiring the viewer to bring the design to life in their mind. This makes little sense in today’s age of virtual reality technology. So, in façade engineering 4.0 we want to harness technology to deliver the best possible visualisation. At Aurecon, we use software to render BIM models and present a highly realistic view of a finished design. This goes above what is currently available with BIM because while BIM allows us to understand a project as engineers, it’s only when you render it that you truly appreciate what it will look like once built.
The other great thing about harnessing this technology is how it broadens your audience. So, I can sit here in my office in Dubai, put on my VR gear and connect with colleagues or clients in their VR gear anywhere in the world. We can ‘walk through’ the design, zoom in, zoom out, take pictures etc. Walking through a virtual model allows you to see it differently. You pick up on things you might miss in a 2D drawing or even when looking at a 3D model on a screen. It makes everything more practical and clients get a better understanding of the project while it’s still at the design stage, avoiding any tension later on. This year’s COVID19-related shutdowns really underlined the value of this use of collaborative technology.
While technology is rightly at the heart of today’s collaborative working it’s not the only factor. In Aurecon’s façade engineering 4.0, collaboration is also about the people and process. For us it means having the right mindset and understanding the project not only in our role as consultants, but also from the contractor’s, architect’s or client’s perspective. We want to work with our partners to help them solve their problems.
So, we need that understanding, particularly with the contractors and so we’ve made a point of building a team that has experience on the contractor side. All our team members have spent some of their career working for contractors, and personally I have spent over half of my career at the contractor level. To be a successful consultant you have to think about the other stakeholders for your project and understand what is achievable. To me, this is one of the central elements to project success and, of course, to façade engineering 4.0.
Modern day master builder
With any change in business there can be reluctance to do things differently, and façade engineering 4.0 will be no different. We have to build understanding and gain acceptance from clients, architects and contractors. In a way, façade engineering 4.0 is also a return to an older way of working – the oldest. At the earliest origins of the construction industry there was a master builder, an individual who would manage all aspects of a project. This ensured consistency, coordination, and efficiency but as projects got more complex, it became increasingly impractical. With façade engineering 4.0 we are going back to that in some ways, because instead of having designers, architects, engineers and contractors at odds with each other, the façade engineer can take on the role of overseeing the entire process.
I believe that in future this will pay dividends. It will bring us up-to-date with other design functions and make it easier to interlink the work we do with other areas, such as environmental modelling. Using new tools and technologies will also allow us to take on more complex designs and develop exciting new dynamic façades and other innovations.
The technology and structure are already here to move to façade engineering 4.0. We should know — at Aurecon we have already applied it to a number of our projects. We have the tools, technology and the talent, so there is really no reason for our industry to feel like we can’t advance to this. As Meg Whitman also once said: “you can always go faster than you think you can”.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Summer 2020 USA Special Edition: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Having worked in the Middle East for over 11 years, he is one of the region’s most experienced façade engineers. With over 16 years of global engineering consultancy and contractor experience, Douglas has played major roles in a variety of world-class projects such as Hong Kong Disneyland, Macau City of Dreams, Dubai Metro, Burj Khalifa and The Tower at Dubai Creek.