Generative Design Meets BIM for Smart Urban Planning
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on November 30, 2017 | 3102 views

In a world where financial deregulation led to destabilizing the entire global market and climate scientists now estimate a 30-year timeframe to reverse the effects of climate change and spare the planet irreversible damage, it’s necessary to reexamine just about every aspect of human civilization, from specific industries to the entire socioeconomic structure.

One Dutch construction firm emerged from the 2008 financial crisis looking to completely reimagine the way it did business, both in the way it constructed buildings and how it could meet zero net energy goals when constructing those buildings.

At Autodesk University 2017, Hilbrand Katsma, COO of Van Wijnen, discussed how his firm was able to transform itself and, as a result, potentially transform the entire construction industry using techniques such as modularization and generative design.

Adopting BIM

After the 2008 financial crisis placed Van Wijnen on shaky ground, the company looked to make itself “future-proof,” according to Katsma. This included meeting goals such as reducing costs by 15 percent, speeding up some projects by 50 percent, and reducing project defects to a maximum of three.

To meet these goals, the company embraced digitization. It shifted from the time-honored tradition of 2D drawings to 3D building information modeling (BIM), using Autodesk Navisworks Manage software. Architects and engineers supply designs to Van Wijnen, which uses Navisworks to aggregate the models and identify clashes.

In construction, subcontractors use Navisworks to further resolve clashes using detailed models, which makes entire portions of buildings visible, allowing multiple subcontractors to see areas that other team members may be working on.

Additionally, Van Wijnen trained its construction teams to use tablets on-site. Using BIM 360 Field, the management team can create checklists and other documents at the project site, making it possible to more efficiently communicate with staff at the office, ultimately reducing clashes and sequencing changes on the job site.

After a two-year metamorphosis, the firm was able to meet its goals and, once it had done so, gained the confidence to do more. The team at Van Wijnen decided to embrace “platform thinking,” Katsma said.

Industrialization of Construction

Echoing Autodesk’s Jim Lynch in a recent ENGINEERING.com interview, Katsma pointed to the inefficiency in construction and indicated a need to adopt practices found in mass manufacturing, such as the automotive industry, to bring construction into the 21st century. Unlike cars, however, buildings are usually totally unique.

To marry the two worlds, Van Wijnen developed a modular concept for housing, in which hundreds of smart modular components could be arranged in numerous configurations. Each module was given a unique code and price, making it possible to standardize the entire library of components and modules within building regulations.

Katsma discussing Van Wijnen’s library of standardized components at AU 2017. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Katsma discussing Van Wijnen’s library of standardized components at AU 2017. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Customers are then able to personalize their homes, while Van Wijnen and its partners are able to coordinate a complex business in such a way that it could actually design and build houses more efficiently. According to Katsma, time to market was shortened from six months to three weeks, clients were able to have their homes completed in three months instead of eight months, and houses could actually be built in as little as three days.

This ultimately led to the launch of Van Wijnen’s Fine Living brand—completely modular, zero net energy homes that can be disassembled and reassembled to meet the client’s changing needs.

Homes can be assembled and disassembled as the customer’s needs change, according to Katsma. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Homes can be assembled and disassembled as the customer’s needs change, according to Katsma. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

“Using our latest configuration tool, we bring the customer in on our process, letting them determine the materials and finishes of their home in the design phase,” Katsma said. “After configuration, the client can walk through the neighborhood and interior of the house virtually. We automatically generate all of the documents for the building permits and all of the order lists of the supply chain.”

Generative Design

Generative design is most often associated with additive manufacturing (AM), with cloud computing enabling rapid design iterations based on parametric constraints until a host of optimized geometries are created. When it comes to 3D modeled parts, these geometries can often only be fabricated with AM.

It seems that generative design, however, isn’t limited to designing 3D-printed products, but can be applied to entire neighborhoods. Katsma explained that, once Van Wijnen established its Fine Living brand, the firm was able to use generative design and BIM for a unique take on urban planning.

The constraints of a project can first be set, before models are generated. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
The constraints of a project can first be set, before models are generated. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

In partnership with Autodesk, Van Wijnen was able to develop a tool for laying out neighborhoods. By feeding the software with predetermined goals—for example,solar energy potential, program profits, costs, backyard size, variety of designs and views—the tool is able to generate countless neighborhood and lot layout options.

Multiple neighborhood layouts are generated using the tool. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Multiple neighborhood layouts are generated using the tool. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.) 

The tool has yet to be fully deployed, but its potential is clear. It may one day be possible to optimize the layout of houses, neighborhoods, even entire cities in a way that meets the needs of the occupants and the environment.

In the short term, such software could help designers find the optimal home orientation and roof location for solar panels. In the long term, entire cities could be planned in a way that optimizes the use of water and electricity, encourages walkability and communal living, improves public transportation routes and more.

There may be technological hurdles to overcome, but the software’s potential may only be limited by the society in which it is used. In order to get the most out of generative design for urban and environmental planning, firms like Van Wijnen will need to work with land developers, businesses, politicians and other stakeholders, who may have other interests and priorities beyond social well-being and the environment. Just take a look at how neighborhoods and highways were planned up until now.

Still, Katsma is hopeful for the future, closing his keynote on a positive note, “By transforming our process from analog to digital, from the efficiency gained by prefabricated and modular components to the intelligence that generative design brings, I stand here before you with great faith in our future. If it’s possible for us, it’s possible for you.”

You can watch Hilbrand Katsma’s full talk here.


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