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Technology fuels move toward virtual modeling

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

A few years ago, if an architect wanted to give a client a three-dimensional perspective on a project, he or she would carefully build a scale model of cardboard or plastic, and submit the model, or photos of the model, for the client's approval.

Now, that same architect can sit down in front of a computer and create a 3-D model onscreen.

"This is an electronic version of the models we used to build out of cardboard. It really is a computer model, rather than a physical model," said Ken Stufflebeam, AIA, senior vice president at Gaskin Hill Norcross Architects/Engineers.

At different levels of sophistication, the firm has been using the computer-generated, models for about three years, Stufflebeam said, but each year the software has gotten a little better.

"We now have newer versions of software that make the process a lot less time-consuming," Stufflebeam said.

Tim Rosenbury, principal at Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, said his firm has been using 3-D rendering for even longer. "Off and on and I need to emphasize off and on we've been doing it for about 10 years. But the stuff we were doing 10 years ago was pretty crude."

Now, he said, his company is able to generate a 3-D image on computer that "people would swear was a photo."

David Beach, architectural intern with The Wischmeyer Architects, said his company has been using 3-D rendering for about a year. Significant projects utilizing 3-D design include Signature Bank, Cox South renovations, the Ecumenical Center of Southwest Missouri and others.

Three-dimensional images help both the designer and the client, Beach said. The designer can create a computer-generated model from the very start of the project, "allowing us to visualize space, try different materials and produce a design that is both intuitive and creative."

Seeing the project in 3-D can really help with troubleshooting. "You can see how something really looks from the street and maybe that that heating and cooling system on the roof needs a little more roof not to be seen from the street," Rosenbury said.

With a three-dimensional model, the architect can go into the program and "take a snapshot" from any view within the virtual model, Stufflebeam said. The architect may even find the computer-generated image helps him or her to augment a design.

"I was working on one project and I could never resolve some of its features until I began working on it on the computer in 3-D. It can really be of value to us," said Jonathan F. Tasset, an architect with Gaskin Hill Norcross.

Meanwhile the client can see what the finished product will look like, rather than trying to interpret two-dimensional information that is often difficult to understand, Beach said.

"It makes our design proposals more real to laypeople, and that's very important," Rosenbury said.

The program Gaskin Hill Norcross uses can create windows in a structure and offer an inside view of a room, showing the effect of daylight on that room. The same program can calculate the light levels of artificial light, Tasset said.

Beach said the program he uses can also simulate natural and artificial light, and he can plug in such details as color schemes, interior design elements and materials used.

Some architecture firms use programs that have a motion component, allowing a virtual walk-through of a building. Stufflebeam said his firm works with the client's desires, and tries to get something that suits the customer's purpose.

"If a client wants us to, we can develop as realistic an image as possible. We can often give them great still pictures, three-dimensional renderings, that they can use in marketing or fund-raising efforts," Stufflebeam said.

Beach agreed. Having something concrete to put in front of a potential donor or investor can make all the difference in obtaining financing, he said.

Three-dimensional drawings or print-outs give a client a much better idea of what the project will look like when it is complete than the traditional rendering, Tasset said, and the 3-D images can also be good marketing tools for the architecture firm itself.

In that vein, The Wischmeyer Architects recently presented a 3-D renovation of an existing hotel for a potential client in another state, Beach said. The animated virtual model shows a 360-degree view of the existing facility from above, then swoops in to show how specific elements would change a new restaurant facade springs out of the ground, an outdoor pool becomes an indoor amenity as glass walls and a roof sprout around it.

With the advent of 3-D design, the biggest challenge for most firms now is finding an architect who is also a computer guru, Stufflebeam said.

"It has been very difficult for us to find someone who has the creative abilities and also knows the software and the ins and outs of the computer equipment. We've had situations where we've had a team of two, one of which was an architect and the other a computer-type, and they've worked together to generate these renderings," Stufflebeam said.

Finding people who have mastered the technology is "fairly difficult because it does require a pretty large investment of your time to learn the software and keep up with" updates and upgrades, Beach said.

Tasset said architecture schools are starting to implement the software for three-dimensional, computer-generated models as part of their curriculums, and many graduates of those schools have at least a basic knowledge of the programs.

"They weren't teaching this so much when I was in school, but they are starting to now, so in the next few years graduates will be much more knowledgeable about this software," Tasset said.

Beach said that he had one class in 3-D design while a student at Drury's Hammons School of Architecture, but much of his knowledge has been acquired through a variety of resources.

There are many 3-D programs with many price tags, Stufflebeam said, but, in general, the technology is becoming more affordable.

Beach said programs for 3-D design range from about $500 to as much as $50,000. However, he added, most of the programs "basically do the same things, some just have more bells and whistles."

Rosenbury said the technology, and the availability of that technology, has improved significantly in the last six months. Where a design firm once would have maybe one person dedicated exclusively to rendering, now architects, especially the younger ones, are designing right on the computer.

Three-D design software has changed a great many things about the way Gaskin Hill Norcross does business, Tasset said, such as offering virtual walk-throughs of projects with its clients.

It has also dedicated a portion of its Web site to the three-dimensional renderings, and potential clients can look at sample projects and get a pretty good idea of what types of work the company can do and has done, Stufflebeam said.

"Using the software is a transition many architects have to make, but it's not new for architects to be thinking in terms of 3-D space. As the software continues to develop, more and more of it will be used and it will continue to change how we do business," Tasset said.

Rosenbury agreed, adding that he foresees 3-D design as part of a revolution in how architects and contractors communicate. "In the future, I see architects designing buildings on computer and maybe sending the whole computer out to the construction site for the contractor to work from."


This rendering shows a prairie-style home, as designed by architects at Gaskin Hill Norcross.


The new Boy Scouts Service Center, designed by Gaskin Hill Norcross, will be complete by late 1999.


This rendering, by Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, shows Springfield's First Card facility, now undergoing expansion.


A night-time view of the Seville Hotel as envisioned by Butler, Rosenbury & Partners.


This new restaurant facade is part of an animated 3-D design proposal by The Wischmeyer Architects.


This rendering by The Wischmeyer Architects was used in an interior renovation at Cox Medical Center South.[[In-content Ad]]


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