LA’s Disney Concert Hall. The Barcelona Fish. You’ve probably heard of the legendary architect behind these creations, Frank Gehry, but did you know that his firm spurred a digital transformation within the world of architecture?
Gehry founded his architectural practice, Gehry Partners, in 1962. By the 1980’s, he had defined a new architectural style characterized by playful geometric complexity and was infamous for creating his forms through freehanded sketches followed by “tearing scraps of paper, gluing and taping them together, crinkling cardboard, and adding apples and Perrier bottles”[i] to create crude physical models. His team was then challenged to construct these fantastical shapes in a structurally sound and cost-effective manner, necessitating extremely precise models.
While designing a 50 meter undulating fish sculpture for Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics, Gehry realized that the available 2D programs were unable to model the sculpture’s curvature. So, a Gehry employee turned to CATIA, a C++ software package developed by an aerospace manufacturer.[ii] The same program that was used to design the Mirage fighter jet was now being used to design a fish sculpture.
CATIA fundamentally redefined architectural digital modeling. Rather than using 2D drawings, CATIA “described digital models using parametric Bézier curves (or vectors) and 3D surface algorithms…[defining] a set of control points and the mathematical functions, or surfaces, that stretch between them.”[iii] By offering increased flexibility, the program minimized time and effort required for design changes, resulting in increased collaboration and understanding between the main designer (the architect) and other engineering-based collaborators.[iv] Utilizing this software, the Barcelona Fish was built in six months within budget.
Previously, architecture firms (with minimal collaboration) delivered 2D drawings to a contractor, who then then created its own set of drawings/models that had to be approved by the architect before moving to fabrication. However, with CATIA, contractors were able to (i) become involved earlier in the design process and (ii) refer directly to Gehry’s 3D digital models, saving time, money, and making the entire design chain more efficient.
To capitalize on this innovation, Gehry Technologies (GT) was founded in 2002 to facilitate visionary designs while keeping cost and schedule in line for clients.[v] Supplementing his architectural firm with a technology/software firm fundamentally changed Gehry’s value proposition to clients: working together, the companies were now responsible for the entire digital model (materials, specifications, and costs), removing this step from the contractor’s role and “bring[ing] fabrication expertise forward into design.”[vi] GT continued to innovate through a number of avenues, including:
Customization: GT addressed an untapped market potential by creating Digital Project, a CATIA-based software designed specifically for architecture firms that provided design support for construction scheduling and plumbing.[vii]
Project Delivery Service: GT provided consulting services to other firms, transforming designs into structurally-sound buildings (and saving ~10% of the building’s cost[viii]). As a result, GT advised on several projects (like the 2008 Bird’s Nest Stadium) which that provided insight into how other design firms operated.
Several future opportunities exist for this service: GT could potentially expand its consulting operations to applications necessitating accurate measurements and efficient space utilization, such as dam designs or electric grids.
Collaboration: GT developed GTeam, a project-based collaboration platform enabling players in the design process to share and consolidate data. GTeam incorporated elements of social media: “like a mix of GitHub, Google Docs, and Facebook, but for design and construction, GTeam allows collaborators to simultaneously edit different models within a project.”[ix] The implications of this platform were immense—never before had the full design chain been digitally integrated into one dynamic system. GT also addressed a major industry concern: “given the financial and legal structures that conventionally discourage architects, engineers, and contractors from sharing information so freely, the software also logs each move for legal record-keeping.”[x] As a result, subcontractors and fabricators were able to work with architects and contractors during the design phase, which reduced errors, minimized redundant communication, and enabled the design team to incorporate feedback from various trade experts and specialists.[xi] Increased collaboration led to the completion of groundbreaking projects on time, under budget, and with fewer change orders.[xii]
GT could potentially go a step further by integrating raw material sourcing into the GTeam platform to optimize design specifications and costs, and by expanding the GTeam collaboration platform to other industries necessitating the sharing of information in a track-able fashion, such as law firms, educational institutions, or electronics manufacturers. Real time tracking of materials and progress could also add to the platform.
GT disrupted the architectural industry by creating innovative software that made building designs more efficient, accurate, and cost effective. By shortening the design chain and providing a collaboration platform for engineers, architects, and contractors, GT facilitated innovation and changed the way that architecture firms provide value not just to customers, but to competing firms and contractors.
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 Cover Photo: https://www.pinterest.com/maxamen/deconstructivist-architecture/