Efficiency by Design: Visualization Technologies Help Zahner Build the Present and Plan for the Future

By Akio
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by Nick Lerner

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Efficiency by #Design: Visualization #Tech Helps
@azahner Build the Present & Plan for the Future @3DSAEC

For nearly 120 years, US based A. Zahner Company has been at the forefront of technology and innovation within the architecture, engineering and construction industry.

Recently, the company implemented a cloud-based design system to improve communication in what is oftentimes a fast-paced, fragmented industry.

Compass spoke with A. Zahner Company CEO and President L. William Zahner to understand how the company continues its success and innovation in a high-risk market.


A. Zahner Company is a family business. “That’s 210 families; one for each of our employees,” L. William Zahner, CEO and president, said.

L. William Zahner, President and CEO of Kansas City-based A. Zahner Company. (Image © Cameron Gee)

Founded in 1897, the architectural engineering and fabrication firm began making decorative metal cornices for buildings.

Now in its fourth generation of the Zahner family, it imagines, designs, fabricates and installs some of the world’s most innovative structures in cooperation with leading architectural practices including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid Architects.

With a turnover approaching US$50 million, the company employs 30 design engineers; another 90 employees work on production and installation.

“Combining experience, skill, technology and craft, we make the complex simple and get buildings built on time and within or below budget,” Zahner said.

The firm works on signature architectural projects where design intent must be retained, despite the inefficient complexities of what Zahner describes as, “a very fragmented AEC industry.”

In this often unstructured environment, the company aims to reduce the building industry’s biggest challenge: risk.

The Inner Arbor Trust (IAT) contracted A. Zahner Company for architectural engineering of the Chrysalis Amphitheatre designed by Marc Fornes & THEVERYMANY. Michael McCall, President and CEO of IAT, said the 5,000 square foot performance space consisting entirely of curves will “feel as if it’s a living part of the environment, blending into the forest and the sky.” (Image © Michael McCall, courtesy of Strategic Leisure)

RISKY BUSINESS

“What we do is highly risky because we make large-scale things that seem very complex and have never been made before in an industry well known for going over budget and into court,” Zahner said.

To reduce risk and shrink project costs, the firm uses cloud-based 3D visualization to communicate designs and precisely define how those designs will be engineered and manufactured.

“This reduces waste, labor, materials, weight and cost while improving quality,” he said.

Complexity is inherent in the firm’s need to engage with many diverse owners, partners, stakeholders, building contractors and interest groups, including city planners and regulators, even as it develops grander and more complex structures.

Too often, Zahner said, perceived risk limits creativity and discourages innovation.

But by communicating ideas and plans visually through a digital representation over the cloud, the firm succeeds in explaining its vision in terms that anyone can understand, in any language and at all levels of expertise.

This accords with the British government’s “Construction Strategy 2016-20” which states that improved relationships and engagements across clients and the supply chain are key to increased innovation and reducing risk while cost transparency and collaborative working deliver value for money outcomes.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

“Building where there are no straight lines can be confusing,” Zahner said. “Our job is to make that simple, which increases people’s confidence to explore, collaborate and then innovate with new ideas.”

Improved understanding also generates efficiencies that help to reduce process redundancy and save as much as 20% of project cost.

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Improved understanding helps save
as much as 20% of #AEC project cost @azahner @3DSAEC

Zahner recently used this process to cut project redundancy for a federal courthouse building that was US$6 million over budget, delivering the project for US$1.5 million less than the original budget.

The Inner Arbor Trust (IAT) contracted A. Zahner Company for architectural engineering of the Chrysalis Amphitheatre in Columbia, Maryland (designed by New York-based Marc Fornes & THEVERYMANY).

IAT President and CEO Michael McCall said the 5,000 square foot (465 square meters) performance space consisting entirely of curves will “feel as if it’s a living part of the environment, blending into the forest and the sky.”

“Communicating designs and ideas with cloud-based 3D dashboards gives us the ability to see progress and understand the fine detail of this complex project even though we are at a distance,” McCall said.

“It gives us confidence in the design and it’s fun to use.”

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Cloud-based 3D dashboards for complex #AEC projects gives confidence in #design (and it’s fun) – @azahner @3DSAEC

McCall also appreciates that, “in an era of transparency, the software gives us a sense of the challenges and solutions so we know about things that would otherwise be invisible to us. Their commitment to cloud solutions convinced us that A. Zahner Company is on top of things and at the cutting-edge of their industry.”

In today’s most iconic designs that incorporate visually stunning curved façades, detailed precision edges and junctions are key to achieving the aesthetic. “We work on beautiful buildings that require a beautiful finish,” Zahner said.

“We produce digital visualizations of buildings that some clients believe cannot really be built. So we invite customers into the factory and show them physical examples to prove that designs can be made that exceed their expectations and are a lot more beautiful than they ever believed possible.”

One such building is the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which opened in December 2015 after a US$90 million refurbishment.

The Los Angeles Times architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, described its new stainless steel and red aluminum façade, engineered by A. Zahner Company, as among “the most extroverted ever built in a city famous (and in some quarters infamous) for architectural exuberance.”

WORK OF ART

Many of Zahner’s ideas are inspired not only by visionary architects and designers but also by sculptors who hire the company to manufacture their work.

“When you put artists and engineers together, new ideas come out of that collaboration,” Zahner said. “The artists see what is possible and engineers understand the physics in the art.”

Zahner holds an annual sculpture competition and then manufactures the winning artist’s work. “The sculptures can be very challenging to make, but the rewards in terms of inventive input and technical R&D are considerable,” Zahner said.

“And it’s a lot of fun working with some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet.”

SMARTER TOMORROW

After 120 successful years as a family business, the company now is investing for future generations. “In the future, buildings will dynamically adapt to their environments with structures that respond to the needs of smart cities, smart populations and changing climates,” Zahner said.

“New surface finishes will be invented that can generate and store energy and even clean the air. Robots will be doing a lot of physical construction. We may even see the emergence of master designers, people who tackle AEC industry fragmentation and inefficiency in the historical role of master builders who use technology to see how everything fits together.”

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Prediction: Master #designers will take on
the historical role of master builders – @azahner @3DSAEC

In line with its company principles, “be smarter tomorrow,” A. Zahner Company is researching and innovating in business developments that capture and capitalize its knowledge and experience using cloud technology to keep everyone informed and empowered.

“We are reinventing ourselves to be at the forefront of this industry with new spin-off companies that enable employee ownership and success for everyone,” Zahner said.

Thus ensuring that advanced technology, robots, new thinking and a strong artistic and maker temperament will carry its families forward for the next 120 years.

Originally published in COMPASS: The 3DEXPERIENCE Magazine

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Efficiency by #Design: Visualization #Tech Helps
@azahner Build the Present & Plan for the Future @3DSAEC

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WHITEPAPER: Supply Chain Integration & Collaboration for Efficient Façade Design & Engineering

For Efficient Facade Design & Engineering: Collaborate With Your Supply Chain

By Akio
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A new method of project delivery is emerging in AEC.

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: A new method of project delivery
is emerging in #AEC @3DSAEC @azahner

Through new digital platforms, companies like A. Zahner Company are setting the example for how an integrated supply chain can significantly reduce rework on highly complex projects.

When the experts responsible for fabrication and installation can provide insight early in the design process, and all parties have the tools they need to collaborate closely throughout, construction waste can be reduced.

Owners are enjoying the benefits of collaborative project teams, which include:

  • reduced waste
  • stronger adherence to schedules
  • reduced costs

Collaboration is improving through the adoption of cloud-based 3D modeling solutions. Such tools assemble and empower teams across multiple organizations and geographies to create a single, live source for project creation.

By ensuring all project stakeholders are on the same page, from design through execution, owners gain tremendous transparency into a project’s feasibility, and all AEC parties have access to the knowledge they need to successfully speed projects to market.


To learn more, download the Dassault Systèmes whitepaper:

Supply Chain Integration and Collaboration for Efficient Facade Design and Engineering


clicktotweetClick to Tweet: For Efficient #FacadeDesign & Engineering:
Collaborate W/ Your Supply Chain @3DSAEC #AEC

Leading Japanese Architect Foresees Computers Unleashing an Era of Design Freedom

By Akio
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clicktotweetClick to Tweet: Computers are unleashing an era
of #design freedom in #architecture -@KengoKuma

Kengo Kuma’s architectural designs range from the whimsical (Asakusa Cultural and Tourism Center, a wildly stacked pillar of houses) to the dramatic (the steamship-shaped Victoria and Albert Museum rising in Dundee, Scotland), to the deceptively simple (Great (Bamboo) Wall, a house in China).

Through them he has discovered his calling – celebrating natural materials and creating human connections – and learned that a computer can be an architect’s best friend.

China Academy of Art’s Folk Art Museum (Image © Eiichi Kano)

In the years after World War II, Japanese architects grappled with building homes and businesses to replace what the conflict had destroyed and accommodate booming post-war growth. Japan needed fast recovery as its top priority, and its “first generation” architects delivered.

Kengo Kuma, founder of Kengo Kuma & Associates (KKAA) and one of today’s most celebrated Japanese architects, reveres that generation.

“The first-generation architects basically had to reconstruct Japan, and that sense of responsibility had a big bearing on everything they did,” he said.

Kenzo Tange, who designed the Yoyogi National Gymnasium built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, the building that inspired Kuma to become an architect, is a particular first-generation hero.

Thanks to Tange and those who came after – Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki of the second generation, and Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito of the third generation – Kuma said he feels empowered to pursue a design freedom his predecessors never had.

“Japan’s a wealthy country now, rivaling the United States and Europe,” Kuma said in a wide-ranging interview. “For our generation, I’d say the main thematic question is what kind of architecture we can create in that context of comfort. I think this generation is trying to redefine architecture as a medium for people to connect with each other.”

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: “#Architecture is a medium for
people to connect with each other” -@KengoKuma

REDISCOVERING NATURE WITH A COMPUTER

Soaring buildings with swooping curves and awe-inducing metal façades – the type of architecture that has dominated for nearly two decades – create a sense of wonder, but don’t promote human intimacy or comfort. Instead, Kuma believes that natural materials create the peace that humans instinctively crave.

His most iconic designs – beginning with his award-winning guest house in China known as “Great (Bamboo) Wall” – prominently feature wood and bamboo.

Even the stadium he designed for the 2020 Olympics in Japan – the first Olympic stadium built in his country since Tange’s 1964 project – is defined by its wooden details.

Ironically, however, Kuma’s transition from the concrete, steel and glass of the Industrial Age to the traditional, natural materials that define KKAA’s newest and most iconic projects has been enabled by the leading symbol of the modern age: the computer.

Celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma (Image © K.K. Human Centrix)

“It’s really difficult to use natural materials, to be honest,” Kuma said. “There is so much variability. No two pieces are the same, first of all, and you always have to deal with each material’s size restrictions. The challenge is figuring out how to get all those pieces to fit together and create a functional structure, and that’s where computers are so helpful. It seems to me that you need computer technology to bring natural materials to architectural fruition. Otherwise, they are just too diverse and complicated to orchestrate.”

AUTOMATING THE ROUTINE RELEASES CREATIVITY

By managing many of the critical but routine and time-consuming tasks – from verifying structural integrity to compiling precise lists of materials to managing budgets – advanced computer technology, especially Building Information Management (BIM), actually frees architects to focus on creativity, Kuma said.

“Technological progress had had a big impact. We use CAD to design things in 3D now, for example. With computers, we can dream up virtually any architectural space and convert those ideas into actual drawings. As technology continues to liberate our imaginations, it’s cool how the digital advances in the architectural world have gone step-in-step with a renewed awareness of ‘the real thing.’”

Modern architects tend to spend most of their time finding solutions to engineering, scheduling and budget problems, not creating great designs, Kuma said.

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: #Architects are spending time engineering/scheduling/
budgeting, not on creating great designs @KengoKuma @3DSAEC #BIM

“When you call on what BIM can do, it becomes possible to balance out engineering- type solutions with creativity. For example, people used to balance the budget at the end of the project to see whether the costs fell in line with the projections. Those days are now gone. Now you must have your budget in mind right out of the gates and work under those preconditions the whole time, gathering feedback and adjustments as you go. That’s why it’s almost impossible to manage your budget without BIM.

“Achieving a balance of solutions and creativity is one of the biggest issues in the architecture industry. If we can find a way to put these two things together, then I feel we can massively transform the architecture industry.”

DEMOCRATIZING DESIGN

While computers give architects more freedom, however, they also create an environment in which they will face more challenges to their authority, Kuma said.

“Computers democratize architecture,” he said.

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: “Computers democratize
#architecture” -@KengoKuma @3DSAEC

“For example, someone who is a complete newcomer to architecture will be able to design their own house. Architects who have enjoyed privilege up to now may be opposed to this, but ultimately I think that architecture will belong to everyone. When that happens, I think we will be in for a very interesting future.”

In this new era, Kuma envisions architects being valued less for their engineering prowess and their ability to bring projects in on time and budget and more for their creativity and ability to create harmony, both in the buildings they design and in the working environments they create.

“If you try to make architecture more complicated, there is no end to how complicated it can get,” Kuma said.

“For that reason, I make sure to keep a model right in front of me. Everyone gathers around the model and talks. I feel that’s the key to not getting complicated. Everyone is actually very interested in architecture. So I think that if we keep things simple, a number of different people can take part in it.”

Sunny Hills Japan (Image © Daici Ano)

NURTURING AN OPEN, CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT

Part of keeping the working environment open involves avoiding hierarchical structures so that everyone’s ideas can be heard, Kuma said, even as KKAA expands beyond Japan with offices in China and Paris.

“I try to maintain a flat organizational structure,” Kuma said. “We want people to understand that they must take on a certain amount of risk when they assume responsibility for something, so we try to stay away from building too much of a hierarchy. That structure lulls you into thinking that someone else higher up on the ladder will always be there, ready to take responsibility for whatever you do. We want everyone to feel responsible for themselves and know that they are creators.”

In addition to encouraging a sense of responsibility, he encourages cultural diversity in KKAA’s staff.

“This diversity doesn’t dilute the character of KKAA; it strengthens it,” he said. “Our organization should be structured so that all of these people can really participate. That is what makes the identity of the organization stronger.”

Kuma’s philosophy is consistent with his definition of leadership.

“I think how qualified you are as a leader really depends on how easy of an environment you can create for everyone to speak up,” he said. “If you create an environment where everyone can easily speak their mind, different opinions will come forth and from those opinions you can find a balance. If nobody expresses their opinions, there’s really nothing you can do.”

A LONG-TERM VIEW

In a world that is rediscovering the beauty of natural materials and human connections, of sustainability and long-term value, Kuma believes that architects are well positioned to lead.

clicktotweetClick to Tweet: #Architects can lead us into an era of human connections,
#sustainability & long-term value -@KengoKuma @3DSAEC

“The advantage the architecture industry has is that it can think over longer timespans, as much as 10 years from the start to the finish of project,” he said.

“We are entering an age that is going to be all about taking longer periods of time to think about what will make people happy, rather than shooting for short-term increases in profit.

“Architects are accustomed to listening to people about things. They are accustomed to thinking about things over long periods of time. Architects are people with universally applicable skills.”

Originally published in COMPASS: The 3DEXPERIENCE Magazine

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