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Building the future: how technology is advancing sustainable design worldwide

Technological advancements associated with human development have often been perceived as contributing negatively to the depletion of resources and the gradual destruction of our planet. But how are modern technologies now being harnessed to design more sustainable human environments that will reverse the environmental impact of our built environments?

The building industry, and the operation of buildings in general, is now recognized as being one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, resource depletion, and waste products. Great strides are being taken to make these sectors more environmentally sustainable worldwide. Several modern technologies are now available to assist in the design stages of more responsive buildings. Others can assist in reducing the impact during design and construction phases by, for example, enabling global collaboration without air travel and the associated emissions. We look at a few examples of technologies that are changing the shape of the industry.

Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a process developed to improve the digital delivery of building construction project information. It may harness a variety of software packages but always operates in a 3D environment. Dewlene Africa, BIM manager at an architecture firm, SVA International, explains that BIM has been gaining more traction locally. At the start of a BIM project, consultants will outline the goals and principles for the process. By applying these, Africa explains, “one will ideally improve project collaboration, coordination, analysis, visualisation and efficiencies”.

There are currently three levels of BIM, defined by the type of information included in the models. South Africa mostly operates between level 1 and 2, when BIM is utilised. Locally, its usage is usually consultant driven, while internationally, level 2 is often the minimum and is mandated by clients. The efficiencies and analysis potential are particularly useful to the process of designing more sustainable buildings. There are also the advantages of going largely ‘paperless’ and being able to collaborate without being in the same place.

Collaboration and Clash Detection

Advances in software and cloud sharing technologies allow collaboration on projects from nearly anywhere in the world, saving on time and money and reducing the carbon footprint attributed to travel.

Autodesk BIM 360™ is one such platform that has started to be used more locally. This cloud-based Common Data Environment (CDE), not only allows staff in different offices to work on the same model, but it handles document management, design collaboration, model coordination, project insight, site tools, and more.Clash Detection software, such as Autodesk Navisworks™, enables all the consultants’ models to be linked into a common environment where clashes between services are highlighted automatically. This ultimately aids design and avoids costly changes on site. Dewlene Africa feels South Africa lags slightly in this arena as many of the consultant disciplines are not yet operating at this level of BIM.

Building Performance Analysis

Advances in software have allowed energy analyses and building performance calculations that would once have taken days, to now be calculated in minutes, often with a multitude of different options factored in.”

Autodesk Insight™ is one such tool. Its advanced simulation engines harness the power of machine learning to infer information not provided. It can be used at all stages of design, from concept to detailed models. Using cloud computing capabilities, it can generate building performance analyses, even with various design options, in a fraction of the time a desktop computer can.

Parametric Design Analysis

Climetric, a Cape Town-based company, offering consultation on sustainable design strategies, is one of many specialist companies who can assist in developing a sustainable building design. They explain that traditional ‘Simulation Analysis’ would look at one aspect of a design at a time, as the window overhang, for example. If any aspects of the design changed, the entire analysis would need to be redone.

Conversely, ‘Parametric Design Analysis’ can adapt quickly to changes in design input and can run many designs simultaneously, offering results that can be compared to select the best options. This is extremely time- and cost-effective and produces complex graphs that can easily be filtered to highlight specific information. Insight into temperature comfort levels, energy costs and optimum passive design elements is quickly available, enabling the ability to adjust designs accordingly.

Environmental software

There are also various software plug-ins that work with parametric modelling packages and calculate environmental factors and how they relate to building designs. It is now much easier to design more comfortable and environmentally responsive buildings. Some of these are only beginning to be used locally. Ladybug, for example, can bring in sun paths, climatic data, radiation studies and various other calculations into your model in order to analyse a design. Honeybee™, a sister product, runs radiance, thermic, and energy model analyses to aid in sustainable design.

Visualisation packages

Visualisation software is becoming more and more accessible and easy to use. While there are still some very specialist programmes for photorealistic renders and videos, there are now several programmes that can produce realistic images and walk-throughs in a relatively short time and with no specialist knowledge.

Now that many projects are already authored in 3D packages, loading them into a rendering package and defining finishes, sunlight, landscape, and other environmental factors is much easier. Apart from being easier for clients to understand, it enables a better ‘experience’ of a space and can inform environmental design decisions.

Immersive technology

Paragon Group is known to push the boundaries when it comes to their buildings and the cutting-edge technologies they use to create them. Emile Maritz, Paragon’s 3D visualisation manager, explains that the terms Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in the architecture industry. He explains that AR is when digital elements are overlaid in a real-world setting through software and hardware such as mobile phones or tablets (think Pokémon Go). VR is when a viewer can be completely immersed in a created three-dimensional environment using software and specific hardware and equipment designed for the purpose.

Paragon uses VR extensively throughout the design process. Early on, it allows the designers to interact with the spaces and iron out difficult details without physical mock-ups and costly changes on site. It also allows clients to fully explore their buildings from every angle before anything is built. Created realms can be viewed on mobile phone with Samsung Gear™ or as a fully interactive walk-through using an HTC VIVE™ headset. Viewing and collaboration can happen from anywhere, provided you have the required hardware.

3D Tours

3D Tours, a Johannesburg based company use state-of-the-art technology to scan existing spaces in detail and create photorealistic, self-navigation walk-through tours that can be viewed in any internet browser or, for an immersive experience, through VR goggles. While this is not strictly a design tool, it is used by interior designers, the hotel industry, retail industry, construction industry, and galleries to allow potential clients or guests to experience their space without travelling to it.

Information can be embedded in the tour so that a viewer can click on an object and read relevant details or watch an embedded video. This technology can also be used as a valuable building management resource as rooms and spaces, including plant and machinery areas, can be scanned and accessed virtually. Maintenance information for specific elements can be embedded in the virtual space, making it easier to access the right information for each element.

Experience a tour of the GBCSA office by scanning the QR code.

3D printing

Locally, 3D printed concept models, display models, and detail mock-ups are already being used to save time, money, and materials by being able to test technical details without physical mock-ups. Special printers are utilised to create three dimensional objects, using a digital diagram, by building up layers of a base material into a required form. The materials, and the level of detail or colouring, can vary, depending on the requirements and the printer available. Objects can be created using plastics, resin, rubber or metal, among other things. Because it is an ‘additive’ method, there is virtually no material waste in the process.

Internationally, the same technology is being used to create real building elements or moulds for custom objects, and even entire buildings. Several prototypes of 3D printed buildings now exist in different parts of the world. Some use raw soil and rice production by-products as the base materials. Among the companies leading the way in this field is ICON, the first company in the USA to secure a building permit to 3D print a permanent house structure. The house, in Austin Texas, is a prototype for a system that they plan to roll out as a low-cost housing solution, starting with a community project in Latin America.