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Building Information Modeling takes a leap forward with layered 3D computer models that can be walked through in VR masks, and can output files straight to fabrication.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Robert Smith, VDC (Virtual Design and Construction) Manager for the Skanska construction company, navigates through the virtual PSU Business Building. The architect built the model in 3D and  Smiths job is to manage each layer added by the different subcontractors, and make sure they match up.

You can really move around in the halls of the new Portland State University business school.

Shuffle in and out of classrooms. Leap like Spider-Man from the floor to one of the diagonal walkways inside the glass atrium. Pick a Google Map-type marker in the sky and soar above the whole building. Then look down on it, isolated in a sea of white space, like a Minecraft castle.

Wait. That's not real. That's just a rendering.

Skanska, which is building the new structure, designed by SRG Partnership and Behnisch Architekten of Boston, Massachusetts, has built a three dimensional model of the final product. Everyone who builds anything does that these days. It's just that users can immerse themselves in this one by wearing a Vive headset, made by HTC the phone people.

The Vive looks like the usual bulky black goggles of a PS4 or Oculus Rift system, but it triangulates with two lasers on tripods and gives the viewer that feeling of looking around in 360 degrees.

Ultimately, the headset isn't much more than a gimmick. According to Matt Noblett, a partner at Behnisch, potential donors like it when they are considering which room or staircase will bear their name for a big enough cash gift. Owners like to get a feel for a building, how walls of glass soar dramatically, and how finishes such wood and steel match up. However, some serious business gets done. When it came to where to place the fire strobe, it was useful for the owner, the contractor and the fire marshal to walk around and see if its flashing light was visible from wide angles.

COURTESY: SKANSKA - 3D modellig shows the angled glass as it leans against the old building. The model could translate two didffernt types of coordinates so that builders could exactly mark with paint where the glass would connect.

A boring block reborn

The new School of Business Administration at PSU is not a simple site. One part, at Southwest Harrison Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, is an old box that used to house the School of Education as well as the biz school. It's been radically renovated, with thick insulation, big windows, new common spaces and shiny steel siding. A new building with dramatic overhangs and cedar siding has been added on the same block just to the north. The two are connected by a glass atrium, a little touch of I.M. Pei n a world of bus stops and pizza franchises.

The old concrete skyways remain along Montgomery Street in part because when hundreds of students exit classes all at once it's the safest way for them to cross those busy roads. And partly because they're part of the accessibility planning — they're the only way people in wheelchairs can get between buildings. (Also, when the college added a new heating system a few years ago, the steam ducts were bolted to the underside of the walkways, so they can't take them down without major headache.)

The real value of this virtual reality thinking, however, is in solving headaches like that one, only inside the building.

COURTESY: SKANSKA - The many-layered computer model of {SU's new business school, which can be viewed in HTC Vive virtual reality.

Tacos to HTC

Architects have drafted on computers since the 1960s, Wiener points out, sitting in the Skanska field office, a former taco joint whose Tex Mex mural is still visible.

Wiener says that despite that, everyone else in the chain then either worked on paper or, more recently, made their own computer models which did not talk to others. So, the contractor might construct their own rendering, and the heating and cooling designer make their own, the glass company theirs and so on.

"The question has long been, from design to fabrication, what will happen when it is all digital," says Wiener. "For the last 10 or 15 years everyone has been involved, but it's been duplicative. People were replicating what was on paper."

Navisworks, it does

Now, however, it's finally becoming more "seamless," he says, relishing the word the way only a maker can.

So with modern programs such as Tekla Structures, the model of the duct work can be exported as a usable file to the sheet metal workers. They can use it to manufacture the ductwork and have it fitting perfectly in a lot less time.

People in construction use various 3D design packages, such as Autodesk Revit, AutoCAD, and MicroStation.

Navisworks allows users to open and combine 3D models, navigate around them in real-time and review the model.

On the PSU business school, it worked well when it came to the glass atrium.

The glass installer used real word coordinates, which are different from those normally used on a construction site. Skanska staff used Navisworks to convert those coordinates such that the installers could walk around and spray paint them into place. The glass, which is diamond shaped panes sloping at many different angles, was ordered and cut to size months ahead of schedule, while the metal frames that hold it were still being made.

Skanska Senior Superintendent Jason Koski, who is there on site every day, estimates the glass was ready three months earlier by this method. It didn't save three whole months off the schedule, but it did leave more time for perfecting some of the other work, such as the finishes.

Part of the time saving came in eliminating human error that happens in day-to-day work: corner cutting, forgetting, bad typing and swiping. It also allowed them to measure and work around a slightly saggy older building. The structure is a new set of boxes connected by a glass atrium, to a building that has settled by a few inches over the years, so not every corners aligns in the real world like it does in a computer model.

BIM, meet VDC

In case it sounds like all this automation will make certain people redundant, so far, Wiener says, it is not. "We're doing more work than ever, we just do it quicker. The time from the owner saying how many rooms they want to handing over the keys keeps getting shorter."

One position it has created is Rob Smith's. He's Skanska's VDC (Virtual Design and Construction) Manager. His task is to merge the models and man the goggles. Pulling the model up on the big screen he shows its many layers: electrical, steel, plumbing, fire control, concrete and so on. Each has a different color. He can turn layers on and off depending on who wants to see what.

Building the model is a work in progress.

"What's been unique about the project is the number of meetings we've had to get he model constant," says architect Jon Wiener of SRG Partnership. "We've been meeting twice a week for a year with the contractor and the owner."

Even Smith — a young person at ease in the screen world — says he prefers a face-to-face meetings with the team, because it's easier to explain three dimensions. Since one of the architects, Behnisch Architekten, is in Boston, Massachusetts, however, they also use NetMeeting and video conferencing.

Wiener points out that SRG has two other big projects on the go right now, the Multnomah County Courthouse, and OHSU's KCRB. Both are co location, which means the contractors, designers and engineers all work together on site so they communicate better.

"The need to be face to face is still an open question," he says.

The final frontier

Walking though the virtual space does give a sense of volumetrics, although everything is shiny and quiet, like a mall after closing time, totally depeopled.

Walking around the construction site is more interesting. You duck through draped plastic sheets to where giant warm air blowers are helping dry out the towering space. One day this will be filled with students officially hanging out, as PSU would have them.

"You want the students to hang out in the building. They don't learn as well as when they can interact with their peers. If they stay in the building, then if they have questions they can go to their professors." Portland started as a commuter college but is always trying to house more people near campus "They don't have to don't have to rush to their job as much as they used to."

The college started using new classroom in November 2016. We look in one bright, airy space, where the fire strobe is perfectly aligned with the sprinkler and the black dome of the ubiquitous security camera.

SRG and Behnisch's design recently was approved LEED Platinum. To save energy it has been designed without air conditioning. Sensors will open windows on a summer evening to flush warm air into the cooler city. Much of the concrete mass is exposed, for heat modulation, but that means acoustic paneling has to damp down student noise. High ceilings are good for well being, but in the old days, a nice dropped ceiling hid all the water pipes and air ducts. Now that they are exposed they can't look like a tangled mess. Conflicts must be solved aesthetically — which is where the multilayered model comes in.

What will lead to wider adoption if VR fly-throughs? Will it be time shaved off the construction schedule, or its appeal to young people in a greying industry?

Rob Smith is in his mid-twenties and clearly is at ease with technology. He likes the Vive VR set up ($800) because it has the external lasers that track the headset and allow you to turn around in the space. But he admits of the $400 Sony PlayStation VR headset, "It's more of a toy, yes. But I still want one!"

COURTESY: BEHNISCH - Matt Noblett, a partner at Behnisch: VR fly-throughs are "just another way to get your head around what a building will look like."

An Architect speaks:

Matt Noblett, a partner at Behnisch, told the Business Tribune that VR fly-throughs are "just another way to get your head around what a building will look like."

However, he added, "Architects, engineers and builders, we're all trained in visualizing things in our heads, in translating two dimensions into three dimensions in our heads."

So, even for someone with that skill, the models help with things such as identifying conflicts (pipes crossing at the same height, for example).

"But it seems more applicable to the lay person, who doesn't read drawings. That seems to be where the benefit lies. You'll never walk into an architect or contractor's office and see them all in headsets figuring out how to build."

Legal hurdles

Noblett's a big believer in being there. "Nothing compares to being in the space. The experience goes to what you see, the tactility, the temperature, the environment, it's all part of the experience."

Again he stresses that VR is just a tool. "People will learn any software in two weeks, because all this software has grown together, the same commands, the feel for the digital environment...People go from Lightscaper to Rhino to Grasshopper to Maya...The holy grail of the digital revolution is to sit down as an architect on a Wednesday and design a doorknob, and send it directly to someone who can make it, and on Thursday it can be built."

The biggest hurdle to such instant manufacturing seems to be legal. "Liability: if I send a file with a flaw and it gets built, whose fault is that?"

Contractors embraced BIM before architects and pushed it as a service they offered. "Five years ago they were the Barbarians at the gate, telling client about BIM. Now the architects have caught up."

He compares the German company Behnisch to Frnk Gehry and partners in their love of using computer modeling. "But now subs are taking models and modifying them to wok ou the details, and working directly with fabricators. Even in regular practice I am seeing that gap close."

For example steel fabricators. The time it takes to bid an award, that used to be dead time of for the design team , but now they can say 'We'll make the connection designs, and they can fabricate them."

Noblett's bottom line: "Design always takes time. No amount of technology can make the human brain work faster."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PSU Business School Dean Cliff Allen. Bigger school, but less foreign applicants.

Dean Cliff Allen, on the effect a Trump travel ban from Muslim countries might have on enrollment at the newly expanded business school, which has room for twice as many students as the old one.

"The applications from the particular countries listed are not generally high in number, however the general concern from international students as a whole is much higher. We are spending more time advising and recruitment is more difficult for international students.

The new building will lead to higher enrollments due both the increased capacity, but also the

fact it is better suited for student engagement. The new building also represents a significant

investment in the business school, which is important for our recruitment into our graduate programs."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter

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