Design Software: Innovation vs. Economics

22 February 2011 (Last Updated February 22nd, 2011 18:30)

On design-build projects beset by complications and economic uncertainty, software can be a help or a hindrance. Chris Lo talks to David O'Connell, director of McCauley Daye O'Connell Architects, about leveraging technology to coordinate a complex project.

The squeeze is on for the design-build industry. Competition is stiffer than ever, and being able to hit the ground running is often the difference between being awarded a contract and missing out.

When gearing up for a major contract, designers, architects and contractors must strike a delicate technology balance. In these straitened times, the most advanced 3D modelling software can sometimes prove to be more of a burden than it is worth, as a longer amount of time, and therefore more money, is required to create full 3D models - time and money that the client may not have. But even in the most cash-strapped market environment, intelligent use of software can simplify the design-build process, both in the planning stages and on site.

Design-Build Network talked to David O'Connell, director at architecture firm McCauley Daye O'Connell Architects, about the use of technology on the massive Grand Canal Square development in Dublin, Ireland.

With its origins in 2004 and stretching right up to today, this mixed-use scheme, involving a 181-room hotel, theatre, residential complex and office space, required the firm to coordinate the activities of a host of architects, contractors and subcontractors.

Chris Lo: What's the status of the Grand Canal Square project at the moment?

David O'Connell: The first to go was the hotel and the residential. We started design work on it in mid-2004; it started in early 2005. The initial scheme was designed by a Portuguese architect called Manuel Mateus. They would be unfamiliar with the construction environment in Ireland and England in the way that the contracts are run, so the client needed a local office to collaborate with them to deliver the scheme. So that's how we started out. In reality, they didn't do much beyond the concept stage. The original concept design is theirs, but pretty much everything else is ours.

CL: Are all the different elements of the project now complete?

"I'm a big believer in appropriate use of technology - there's no point bringing in an aircraft gun to shoot a bird."

DO'C: The residential is completed; the hotel is about 85% completed. They had an operator signed up but it didn't work out so well in terms of the economic change. So they've moved on to something else now - they've re-tendered it and they have two operators they're still negotiating with. So in theory, the hotel should be open in the next six months, but it's just taking a bit longer than we'd all like!

The theatre and the offices are different, of course. The initial concept design was done by Daniel Libeskind. The way that broke down is we started on that in late 2006, and started on site in early 2007, so there was very little time between the instruction to proceed and the project going ahead.

Again, they felt that the international architect was essential to get the iconic design across, but in terms of actually delivering it, Libeskind were not going to set up a local office in Dublin, and as they do on a number of their schemes, they were happy to partner up.

CL: At the outset, what were the main challenges involved in this mixed-use development?

DO'C: I suppose one of the challenges was the different people working on different parts of the project, from all over the world. With the hotel being collaborated on, it was being mainly designed in Ireland once it hit the site, but some of the prefab designs were being done in Poland. Some of the panels were made in Ireland, some of the slabs were made in Poland, some of them were made in Germany.

The theatre and offices were more complex, in that some of the initial design was done in New York, then handed over to Libeskind's office in Zurich. The prefab design was being done in Germany initially, the theatre consultants were from London, the venue consultants were from London, and the project was all in Dublin. So there was quite a bit of collaboration of information required.

CL: What software did you use to help with the logistics of the project?

"It was essential that the information issued to site had a level of filter on it, which was us."

DO'C: We used 2D PowerDraft; we also used 2D and 3D MicroStation, in relatively simple forms. This is going back to 2004-2005; I'd looked at them at the time in terms of 3D work and…they've moved on a lot recently, to be polite about it. I'm a big believer in appropriate use of technology - there's no point bringing in an aircraft gun to shoot a bird. There is a general view of people who like technology and progress, that they want to do it all in 3D. I work for myself, so I know what it costs to do 3D, and certainly in 2004-2005, it was more expensive to do it in 3D.

If we have to hit the site quickly, we don't really have the time for something that will only benefit us later on. There's no point if the first thing you do is incur a delay and cost the client money, no matter how pretty your drawings are. So there's an appropriateness of technology discussion to be had in the industry - what do you use and when do you use it.

A good example recently is that we were tendering for a project for a structural engineer, and one guy could do the initial stages for a certain price, and somebody could do it for half the price. The reality was the guy who was more expensive does everything in 3D so his upfront cost is more expensive. He didn't get the job, even though he would produce a better set of drawings and might save us lots of headaches later on. That was the mindset with which I approached and still do approach things.

CL: So you used software primarily to coordinate the incoming data?

DO'C: We had a coathanger-type arrangement in MicroStation, so every time information came in from the consultants and ends up with the contractors and subcontractors, we used MicroStation to fit it in and check it against what we had. It meant that we could keep a base drawing, which was a coordinates drawing based on the OS map, we could bring in the piece of information in MicroStation, or in AutoCAD, or Libeskind used Vectorworks.

Essentially, we could reference stuff correctly in and check it against where we believed it to be, because one of the things in the DDDA [Dublin Docklands Development Authority] is they're all using GPS coordinates to set things out. So even though most people work in isolation, somebody else has to sort it out! Checking everything actually fit on site was partially our job as well.

CL: Did it also allow you to be more flexible when planning changes?

DO'C: The client wanted a credible answer when they asked if the building fit, because we were continuously redesigning the building as they were sticking the piles in the ground, so we were working out if it fit and how high we could make it; we were applying for planning changes at the same time as well. It was essential that the information issued to site had a level of filter on it, which was us, to make sure that it did fit on site and met the grid that was established, because one of the buildings is semi-detached to an adjacent building, the office building is attached to the theatre, the north block is standalone but they share a basement with adjacent buildings. Never mind legal requirements, fitting in was essential for it to physically work.

So there was a level of comfort there that you're using a program which deals with coordinates correctly and deals with referencing problems very well. If we used AutoCAD - and we don't, for anything - one of the problems would have been the variety of software we were receiving drawings in. The fact that the big jobs don't prevent any problem to MicroStation is the main reason we went for it originally.

It's less used in Ireland than AutoCAD, so most people we hired had to be trained into it, but the stability and scalability of it, and the fact that you could start a job that's going to end up at a million square feet and it's running from 2004 to 2010 and we haven't had to change the file format is a big benefit. It's one of the reasons I picked that software when I was buying for my own firm.

CL: Can this kind of software cut ongoing costs and labour hours on a project?

DO'C: I think it can for a lot of people who use it efficiently, in that everything is only drawn once and there's a good, well thought-out file and reference structure. Beyond that, it comes down to the individual, as to how efficient you can be with the system. The next step in terms of efficiency progression will be a BIM model.

"[With 3D modelling] you're incurring a lot of pain at the beginning to make the drawings intelligent enough to benefit you later."

I'm trialling that on a project at the moment, to see how long it takes to get you to a credible set of drawings; how long does it take in a 2D environment and how long does it take to catch up in a 3D environment? Because if it's going to take longer it's going to cost more; even if just costs a couple of weeks, that can be the difference between getting the job and not getting it.

But the payoff is enormous when you get to the construction stage, because one of the biggest issues on site is information coordination. It's not usually coordination between the base drawings, it's coordination between your drawings and the subcontractor's drawings and the schedules. There is a lot of scheduling and specification done to define what it is we want to achieve, and the stuff that's drawn a year prior only shows up as a problem when you're on-site.

So certainly, BIM models make an awful lot of sense for that, but you only get that benefit at a certain point in the project. You're incurring a lot of pain at the beginning to make the drawings intelligent enough to benefit you later.