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Friday01 August 2014

Gehry Technologies advisory board aims to put architects at heart of design

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Zaha Hadid, Ben van Berkel and Moshe Safdie among big names playing a part in architect’s technology offshoot

The name Frank Gehry has become synonymous with an envelope pushing approach to form-making in architecture, but less well known is Gehry’s other business. Gehry Technologies (GT) started as a part of Gehry Partners, developing 3D tools to realise the increasingly complex and demanding designs of an architect who is not comfortable using computers himself.

GT split from the architecture practice to become a stand-alone business in 2002. Although it still produces construction software, the main bulk of its business comes from consultant work. Architects are now in the minority among GT’s client base, which runs the full gamut from client to contractor, encompassing developers, bankers, cost consultants and engineers.

So the announcement of a new advisory board packed with big-name architects this month came as something of a surprise.

Alongside Gehry himself, the board includes Zaha Hadid; Patrik Schumacher; chairman of SOM David Childs; Wolf D, Prix, founder of Coop Himmelblau; Moshe Safdie; and UN Studio founder Ben van Berkel.

Also on the board are TED founder Richard Saul Wurman; climate engineering  Matthias Schuler;  multi-disciplinary architect and set-designer David Rockwell; landscape architect Laurie Olin; building envelopes specialist Massimo Colomban, whose company Permasteelisa worked on the cladding for Gehry’s Beekman Tower project; and Greg Lynn, who co-designed the New York Presbyterian Church, which broke new ground on the use of Vector-based animation in its design.

In a press release announcing the first annual meeting of the group, Gehry Technologies said the board represented “a new type of professional organisation for the 21st century, one which embraces the possibility of technology to empower design”. So far, so vague.

But the principle behind the announcement is one that could, eventually, benefit the profession and help find a way to deliver on the promises of bim and other collaborative, technology-led processes.

We’re at the early stages of a revolution that’s not about bim but about access to data

Dayne Myers

Dayne Myers, GT’s chief executive, compares the idea to a similar practice in biotechnology and medical companies, which often recruit a board of specialist practitioners. Theoretically, everyone benefits — the practitioners share their knowledge and experience in using products developed by the company and others available on the market. The company uses that information to improve its product and then spreads better technology among its clients, acting as a catalyst for advancement across the entire industry.

Of course membership of the board is not a purely altruistic gesture — both Hadid and Coop Himmelblau are already clients of GT and will directly benefit from being able to influence the products and processes it is developing. Board member Colomban is a key Gehry collaborator, having worked on the cladding for the recent Beekman Tower project. And GT will benefit from the endorsement of some of the biggest names in architecture today. But what it is trying to achieve beyond the obvious financial benefits is something that will appeal to most architects struggling against the rise of design and build, nervous clients and increasingly lower cost margins.

“We’re still at the very early stages of a revolution that’s not about bim but about access to data,” says Myers. “You can get great design and you can be design-first and you can do it better if you control costs and create better processes. The great example is the Beekman Tower in Manhattan. A lot of the work GT did allows that funky, wavy curtain wall to be built for no greater cost than a normal, flat curtain wall.”

Myers claims that it’s not about who’s in control of the data. But it’s easy to imagine that most of the big names that make up the advisory board will be hoping the control lies primarily in the hands of those with the most interest in preserving the quality of the design behind every project — the architects.

The focus is now also on how workflow can be continuously controlled by the design team

Former Gehry Partners and Gehry Technologies director, Cristiano Ceccato, is now leading Zaha Hadid Architect’s involvement with the GT board, having joined the practice as an associate three years ago. He is clear that there this is an opportunity to explore how the architect can again take a more central role .

“In the end, the value and power will rise from the control of information,” says Ceccato. “If I have a virtual model that can be used not just to co-ordinate the project, but to control the cost, the construction and execution of the development, that knowledge needs to be marshalled by someone and that should be the architect.

“That data is being constantly augmented and updated, but must be administered. GT has been providing the technological tools to do that. The focus is now also on how that workflow can be continuously controlled by the design team. GT is once removed from the day to day of being involved with clients and contractors, so we provide very precious knowledge about what it actually needs to be doing.

“There’s also a certain level of evangelism,” he concludes. “Everybody is keen on seeing a more integrated and fluid approach across the trades and disciplines, not just in design but in construction and procurement. We may be in competition on projects, but we all share the desire to execute work properly.”

Autodesk deal could create universal bim platform

In the same week that it revealed details of the new strategic advisory board, Gehry Technologies also announced an equally unusual alliance with Autodesk. Given that GT produces its own construction design and management technology with developer Dassault Systèmes — called Digital Project — Autodesk would traditionally be considered a major rival.
However, GT and its new board have identified one of the major challenges facing the construction industries and the drive towards bim adoption: the incompatibility of data being generated on projects by designers, contractors, clients, project managers, M&E engineers and environmental engineers .

By teaming up with Autodesk, GT is making the first gesture towards developing an all-encompassing approach that could result in a single platform that marshals everyone’s data into one manageable, collaborative tool — a tool that would be hugely valuable.

By widening the software choice for its clients, GT is attempting to ensure that they can use the right tools for the job or take advantage of existing software knowledge within the design and construction businesses.

“In any industry a good consultant will use the right tools for the job and we expect nothing different here. We think someone like GT will be able to connect the pieces together more seamlessly,” says Autodesk AEC vice president Jim Lynch.

“This does open the landscape up a bit.”

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