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3D Computer Modeling Is Becoming the Tool of Choice for Designing Steel Structures
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Despite liability issues, A/E/C teams are benefiting from sharing their 3D models

By Michael Bordenaro


Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Discuss what computer modeling can offer to the architectural profession.

2. Explain changes in business procedures that will result from sharing computer models.

3. Describe how structural-steel systems will benefit from computer

Architectural computer modeling is not just for Frank Gehry, FAIA, any longer, and he will be the first to tell you. Gehry Technologies has been established in Santa Monica, California, to offer digital products and services in support of the building industry [record, December 2002, page 167]. Gehry Partners has long provided formal training for its building team partners when they needed to incorporate advanced technology applications into their businesses in order to participate in Gehry’s projects. Now Gehry Technologies will make this type of education and related technology products available to all building-industry members.

There are other architects, who, like Gehry, have designed their own processes for in-house use. Still others are developing products to assist in creating parametric (intelligent) models, which expand or contract with a click and a drag, while maintaining predetermined proportions and producing new material takeoffs. Finally, many key manufacturers are already equipped to produce building materials based on computer models.

While the use of 3D computer modeling is still in its infancy, the signs of impending change are clearest in the steel industry, where numerous detailers and fabricators use computer models to manufacture structural members. Many fabricators have highly skilled 3D computer modelers and computer numeric controlled (CNC) machinery [Record, November 2002, page 187].

Approaches to modeling structural steel

Kimon Onuma, AIA, invented Webscape to help architects build intelligent object models. With offices in South Pasadena, California, and Tokyo, Webscape and Onuma Architects have worked together creating parametric computer models of building types such as aircraft hangars and gymnasiums for use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at various undisclosed overseas locations.


An intelligent structural-steel model of a hangar is viewed through an inventory of members needed to construct it. Created by Webscape, this parametric modelís database is preloaded so quick changes generate immediate graphics, design data, and cost analysis.

Using a Geometric Description Language (GDL) developed by Graphisoft, Onuma is able to create building models that can be instantly stretched and lengthened on a computer through simple mouse clicks and drags. The models are contained in a 50k to 100k file containing building material databases and complex “if-then” formulas that help determine parameters such as length of trusses, size of members, the number of bolts required, and the amount of paint needed to cover the surface area of the members.

“Working with structural engineers and using structural tables to set up the parametric model, we were able to design a variety of hangars in a meeting with the client and have the structural engineering 90 to 95 percent complete at the end of the meeting,” says Onuma. The hanger model also includes information regarding cladding, doors, windows, and other building systems and materials.


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