Roundtable: Design technology in the Middle East

Regional experts explain how their companies are making the most of the latest design technologies


An increased understanding of technology can be a creative force across the entire design and build industry – and architects should not be frightened or over-protective when it comes to sharing expertise.

A roundtable organised by Construction Week’s sister publication, Middle East Architect bought together a software provider and members of the UAE’s architectural community to discuss the implications of emergent technologies.

Under discussion were subjects such as BIM, 3D modelling, attitudes to innovation and the way the future may look. The debate was informed by the results of a survey organised by MEA on the same subject.

The main conclusion of the discussion was that everyone would benefit as the use of technology became more wide-spread, provided the industry adopts an attitude of openness and inclusivity. The panel felt this has not necessarily been the case in the past.

Andrew Milburn of Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ) said: “BIM is a journey that takes place over a long period of time. Everybody is still working out what BIM is going to mean. For some people it is the only way to work. Others had a look and [were] put off by something.

“One problem that has been created, really by accident, is ‘BIM experts’. It’s a complex subject, but some people have been put forward as ‘BIM gurus’.

“This can put some people off. I think we’ve made a bit of a mistake [in] creating this special zone [that] some people feel outside of. We need to find a way of taking down this wall, because ultimately it’s not about technology, it’s about an openness, getting information flowing more freely. BIM is only going to be successful if the whole world works together to make it happen, over the next five, 10, or 20 years.”

Architect Ana D’Castro, who runs her own practice called BIA Design, said: “As a new tool, whatever it is, it’s always intimidating. Everything that’s new sets a barrier. But I have been confronted with a new, open-minded attitude [when it comes to technology].

“The interns and new members of staff I have been working with, they actually know more about BIM than I do myself as they have been studying it for the last five years. The whole region is making an effort to integrate BIM across the design process.”

Naji Atallah, head of manufacturing at Autodesk for the Middle East, agreed that young designers were the most aware of the potential of technology – so much so that his company is sometimes in the position of responding to their demands.

“Some young architects are actually driving the process of technology,” he said. “But it also starts at the top in many ways. A mandate can make people very aware of new technology. For example, 3D printing is a hot topic at the moment because of the announcement by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum [that 25% of buildings in Dubai should be constructed using 3D printing technology by 2030].

“But if that hadn’t been made, fewer people would be aware of the issue.”

The panel agreed there was some resistance to the adoption of new technology, with the survey saying more “accept” its use than are “enthusiastic”. But the members insisted that a collaborative approach was the best way forward. Milburn said: “Some people are alienated, it’s true. Early adopters have become a bit preachy about it and that puts some people off. The ‘sketchy, feely’ guys, they get put off and that’s a tragedy really.”

D’Castro said her university’s approach to study was traditional, with the emphasis on drawing, but she realised how important BIM was going to be – and has continued that approach in her management strategy.

“So I studied [design technology] myself by attending workshops as I could see its benefits, as it can include [fields] like mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP),” she explained. “Using collaborative design, something unique and fantastic can emerge.

“I want everybody on my team to be able to communicate when it comes to using technology. I can’t have only two or three people who have that ability and the rest of them not able to contribute. If those who can use it get sick, who is going to do the project?”

She added that her team would be far more likely to use BIM on a major project such as a tower, rather than on a villa.

Atallah agreed that there was no point in using technology where it was not necessary. “I wouldn’t use BIM to design a room,” he explained. But he felt that the intended final result should be the governing factor in its application.

“I would start with the end in mind,” he said. “Sometimes a client really needs to touch what is being designed and BIM can help to achieve this. But BIM is not the goal, it is an enabler of goals.”

The panel then went on to discuss the relevance of BIM to clients and how they can best be helped to withstand its advantages.

Milburn said: “I feel they are still in the process of trying to understand what BIM is, and there is a tendency to add it to a list as just another deliverable. In some cases it appears they feel the more deliverables, the more value for money, but that is not true at all.

“It’s about quality in the process of [designing and constructing a] building. What the average client needs to get to is: ‘How can I get involved?’; ‘How can I actively participate and get value for me and better communicate with consultants?’

“For BIM to work we need to get a cloud-based platform where everyone can contribute. But that is often where it falls down. Who is going to pay for this platform?

“Clients should be inside the project from its inception right through to operation. So it is not just a case of meeting once a month with all the design team.”

The panel all agreed that clients had picked up on aspects of BIM but may not understand its full potential. Members also agreed in most cases clients don’t see any involvement for themselves in the BIM process, beyond writing its use into the agreement.

Atallah pointed out the long-term advantages of BIM use for clients who will also end up as owner-operators. He said: “If you have an asset you are building, 80% of its overall cost will be incurred after completion. So the ability to take all that design information into the operational period is invaluable.”

The survey also looked at outsourcing and 3D printing – subjects that Milburn felt were interrelated.

“Outsourcing 3D printing is something we do,” he said.

“We’ve used 3D models for exhibitions where we have a stand. We have also used it during design development at quite an early stage. This is so we have something to look at and feel. Architects used to make models all the time. Even using sticks and bits of wood.”

The panel discussed how 3D printing is still an emerging technology.

D’Castro said she had seen a demonstration of a 3D printed building that had been constructed in sections and then put together, “not too different from using a mould”.

“It certainly wasn’t a case of ‘press a button and a building emerges’,” she told the group.

“You have to print piece-by-piece. Also, different parts of the construction need different properties, such as façades need insulation, thermal protection, and fire-fighting capacity – and these require differing technologies.”

The panel all agreed that a small in-house printer that “knocks out small models that you can put on the table when a design or construction partner comes in”, can give a good feel of a project in its early stages.

But cost is most definitely an issue, said the group. D’Castro explained: “I would love a 3D printer but the problem is they are extremely expensive. It would be really nice if we could use a common space, the same way that such things happen at university. Somehow an association of architects in the UAE should have a place you could go to use the equipment without actually having to buy it.”

The panel agreed this would be an interesting concept to explore.

D’Castro explained further saying such a centre would allow technologies to be employed alongside one another, thereby eradicating faults at an earlier stage than might otherwise be possible.

She said: “A technology platform that is open to architects would be great – not just a printing space. Sometimes you can be so immersed in your computer, whether working in 2D or 3D, you fail to see the bigger picture.

“So when you come to build a model, you realise that it may look perfect, but it doesn’t make any sense. You see the shape and you realise it’s wrong. The windows should be higher for instance, and this influences the entire shape of the building. So design should be a parallel dialogue between BIM and 3D-printed models.

“The computer can make for a very distorted image and the model is so much closer to reality. They need to go hand in hand.”

Milburn said that “a common space” that would connect firms would be a natural extension of the BIM idea.

He said: “BIM is all about collaboration. We think of it as facilitating collaboration between different people working on the same projects, but how about between five or 10 architects working in a particular city. Getting them to work together is an interesting concept.”

He cited the example of a conference he recently attended in Portugal, where a group of Danish architects from the city of Aarhus used the opportunity to get together to standardise BIM use in their hometown.

The panel asked if this was something Autodesk would be interested in getting involved with.

Atallah said: “Certainly, yes. There are some spaces in the UAE provided by the government, but these are workshops where creative students can go. So I don’t know if they are open to commercial users. We support some with our software.”

The panel all agreed that would be of great benefit to the industry, and that Autodesk has such a diverse range of technology that a collaborative facility could be put together.

The next item on the agenda was an issue that some within our industry see as a dying art – hand drawing. The survey found that, while many designers are able to sketch, few are actually doing so. Nevertheless, the panel all agreed that this skill still has a place in the business.

Milburn said he had recently re-ignited his interest in drawing by doing it digitally on a pad, which allowed a great deal of flexibility – even reproduction of pencil lead types.

D’Castro said: “Before, we only knew hand sketching; now we have sketching using an iPad. I have a small daughter, and the way she uses an iPad is the way I used pen and paper. The way young people see technology is so natural. For myself, I am still trying to [replicate] how I was doing it before [by using non-digital apparatus], and this is blocking my creativity. For younger people, it just comes naturally.”

Atallah said: “In just a very few years, people with goggles will visualise projects [in augmented reality], change them a little, and then send them to the next guy. It’s a chain. Anything created is then allowed to be usable by the next person.”

Moving on to the topic of collaboration, the panel explored the concept of sharing methods of design. D’Castro commented: “Architecture, locally, is a very small community so, naturally, we are doing collaborations – sending e-mails and our friends reply – and that is a small way of working together.

“But of course people can restrain from any form of co-operation and say ‘this [design] is mine’.

“[They may feel] ‘I took so much effort to create this work and I am not going to share it’. But the more you share, the more the industry evolves, as a dialogue examines how to do something better. Maybe a blog could be created where designers can all put across ideas and they can be downloaded by others.

“It’s a bit like a city hall public library, where the books are collected from all over. People can go there and obtain information, take it away and study it.”

Milburn is a frequent blogger on the subject of architecture. He said: “I’ve found having an open blog and sharing has been the best thing ever.

“BIM is a community and when you put ideas out, you get a response. I go to a conference and someone will come up and say ‘I know who you are, I’ve been watching your blog’, and to me that’s a fantastic reaction, being part of an open, global, community. At a user level there is a feeling of community and that you can learn from each other.”

Opening up design technology will make the business “so much richer” said D’Castro, and all agreed that being concerned with the theft of ideas was not too important an issue.

Milburn agreed: “Since I first got involved in the business, I have seen this. You would see a building and think ‘I designed that’. Architects from the Ancient Greeks onwards have used other people’s ideas that they have adapted. Designers need to adapt to situations – not think ‘I’m scared as I have one idea that I have to protect’.”

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