Shape shifters

Architects are pushing their art to its limits by exploiting the design possibilities of MCAD programs such as CATIA V5, says Charles Clarke.

Many marvel at the taut, jumbled curves of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with its darkly wrinkled, pillowlike titanium sheathing. But few observers know that this iconic building also marks the start of a quiet revolution in architecture as the first building by renowned architect Frank Gehry to be designed using MCAD software, CATIA V5.


Some technical reports have glossed over the design capability of the software, emphasising instead its project management (PLM) characteristics. But the fact is such a free-form creation as the Guggenheim would have been close to impossible to document with 2D drawings. It would also have been a nightmare to construct had not a virtual 3D prototype been built with a solid modeller.


Gehry is such a fan of solid modellers that he set up Gehry Technologies to promote the use of CATIA in building design. And now, as if spurred on by Gehry’s example, the Sagrada Família Foundation in Barcelona is using CATIA V5 to complete Antonio Gaudí’s famous 19th century ‘shaggy Gothic’ cathedral. CATIA and CAM technology is being used to help cut locally quarried granite so virtual models of the complex sculpted textures can be converted directly into stone prototypes.


‘We’re seeing a move from mechanical to architectural engineering construction (AEC),’ said John McEleney, chief executive of SolidWorks.


‘In the US, there is a trend toward pre-fabrication of offices, homes, even ships. Contractors are building from Lego-style modules. We’re seeing activity in areas that were once considered AEC domains.’


‘A recent win for us is Permasteelisa, which makes mechanical curtain walling systems for buildings. It realised it was really a mechanical contractor that happened to serve the AEC market.’


Another innovative user of CATIA V5 is Canada’s HydroQuebec, which has standardised on the software for a major dam-building project. The company will use CATIA V5 PLM to help in the design,  management and fabrication of the endeavour.


A complementary application using the SolidWorks modelling engine is StructureWorks, a pre-cast concrete design solution for the building industry.


Solid modelling software can easily automate the time-consuming task of re-drawing a piece in multiple production drawings. With the building modelled totally in 3D, elevations, plan views, sections, details, piece drawings and slab drawings are a by-product of the model. If the model is changed, these erection and manufacturing drawings update automatically.


The next stage for StructureWorks is knowledge-based engineering (KBE) — again, previously an exclusive preserve of MCAD. ‘KBE, particularly in pre-cast concrete, could save a lot of time in the AEC market.’ said Jason Lien, president of StructureWorks.


‘The precast market is 90 per cent rules driven — and each company has its own rules. Since we sit on an SQL database we can employ business rules implemented through editable SQL scripts.’ Meanwhile, a less widely-discussed aspect of the architectural possibilities of mid-range solid modelling is still going strong — substantial ‘recreational’ use of the software in redesigning kitchens, bathrooms and houses. In fact, a school not a million miles from where I live recently had the tricky geometry of its new gates and railings reconciled with SolidWorks.’


 There have been whispers of hybrid solids and vector systems for AEC, but nothing has emerged as yet. For now, the availability of affordable solid modelling systems and relatively cheap high-performance computer hardware means even complex projects like the Guggenheim can be undertaken using standard solutions.