Arup: 14,000 heads are better than one

Guest point of view by Anthony Cortez, senior designer at Arup, a global multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm.

 

"When a new project comes along, we pause and ask ourselves: "How are we going to do this?" Having 14,000 people in our network that we can rely on, whether they're in Hong Kong or Amsterdam or Manchester - we ask the question and there's an expert at Arup that's able to guide you. Every project comes with its own unique challenges and having a great network inside our firm helps solve those problems."

 

Arup does every type of engineering from structural to civil to consulting services like lighting design, acoustic design, fire, etc. We have about 14,000 people on staff based in 92 different countries all over the world. We work on all different types of projects from museums to bridges, airports, train stations, and we even work with local artists to put together art exhibits.


 

I studied architecture back when I started college, got into 3D modeling, and switched over to traditional animation since the creative side of the field appealed to me as well. This drove me to the realization that there would someday be a convergence of architecture, engineering, and construction with game design, Hollywood visual effects, and science fiction. I knew they would someday connect, so I founded my career with that focus in mind, and then eventually, I landed here at Arup.

 

Building concrete ideas

At Arup, we figure out new ways to communicate conceptual ideas and options for our projects, and because we're an engineering firm, we often work with technical models and do a technical analysis of the space. It's difficult for people to understand technical data when they're looking at an Excel spreadsheet full of numbers. If you can show that in a picture, in a story, or in a movie format, people will have a much easier time absorbing it.

 

US government office 3d render by Arup, made in 3ds Max 3d animation softwareImage courtesy of Arup.
 
 

 

We've been doing VR for a while now, one of our first projects being back in 2004, when we worked with the GSA to design a courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi. Traditionally, they build a physical mock-up from plywood and use it for studies, for example, sight-lines: "This is where the judge sits. This is where the witness sits. This is what the jury sees." We also study the lighting effects of the daylight that comes into the space as well as the sound, and the acoustics of the design.

 

Listen to your design

Visualizing these aspects in a virtual model allows us to bring in all of those additional concepts and studies into an integrated model. We used the Arup SoundLab to simulate the acoustics within the courtrooms and allow the Federal Judges, GSA officials and Architects to listen to the acoustics and make informed decisions about the extent of sound absorbing finishes, optimizing the rooms for speech and communication.

 

 

Arup SoundLabImage courtesy of Arup.
 
 

We got all the judges out to California to view the virtual model inside a CAVE. This allows them to study the sight lines, how the lighting and daylight impacts the space, or if there are any glare issues while they're inside the space. They're also able to hear how the space sounds.

 
 
Virtual model inside CAVEImage courtesy of Arup.
 

 

Since it's a virtual model, we're able to change the design based on their feedback and then give them another experience with that feedback integrated, whereas a prototype - a physical model - once it's built and they study it, that's pretty much all they can do with it. There's a huge use value in leveraging virtual reality design.

 

Immersing all senses

Connecting different disciplines, different skills, and different technologies together is what gives what we know as VR today an even more immersive experience. Sight and sound are just a couple of senses, but at Arup, we also have this technology called the vibration platform, where we study and simulate vibrations of floor slabs inside buildings.

For example, you have a building where there's a concert in one room, and there's thousands of people dancing along to the music, causing the room to shake. Adjacent to that room is a retail center. Depending on the frequency of the music and the people in the retail center, shopping can feel discomforting. Since the shoppers may be unaware of what's happening in the next room, the rumble could feel like an earthquake.

 

 

ArupImage courtesy of Arup.
 
 

We use our vibration platform to help our clients understand what could be experienced in their building, and let them experience what their options would feel like. Technologies like this and VR give our clients the ability to experience the design, make decisions based off of data that's been collected, and it allows them to change and iterate on the design before anything is built. It truly changes the way we do business, as we're bringing the clients in earlier at the design stages, and they're making smarter, more informed decisions based on what they've experienced.

 

Art meets engineering

One of my favorite projects recently was working with Janet Echelman on her 1.8 sculpture. It's an art sculpture that was installed at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, and I helped with the lighting design. It's been up for about two years now, and it's just starting to win some awards for lighting design.

We put together a master scene of the environment inside 3ds Max that includes a model of the sculpture within the structural models of the space that our structural engineers capture. We downloaded different manufacturers' photometrics and start by placing lights to properly light the space. Once we started lighting it, we realized that we're not just lighting the sculpture.

 
 
 Janet Echelman's 1.8 sculpture 3d render made in 3ds Max 3d animation softwareImage courtesy of Arup and Ron Blunt.
 
 

Based on where we position the lights, we get shadows on the wall, so it creates a whole new canvas to work with. Being able to visualize that in three dimensions beforehand, we're able to place the lights and project shadows on particular walls, and also see how the mixture of the colors that we choose for the lights affect the colors of the shadows. That gives Janet an entire other canvas to work with, so that was an interesting collaboration that highlights how technology has an impact on the art world as well.

 

Entertainment meets engineering

I recall thinking that someday, Hollywood visual effects would converge with engineering, and that became a reality recently when we studied the same software that was used to generate the armies in Lord of the Rings that just… fight each other. After that technology came out around 2004, we realized that if we could use the same agents and program their AI to walk straight, go left or right if there's something in front of them, go up and down them if they see stairs, then we're able to bring that crowd simulation into a project and crowd simulate situations like rush hour. Arup’s MassMotion technology was developed.

 

 

Arup’s MassMotion technology Image courtesy of Arup.
 
 

This is used to study emergency simulations: "What if there's a fire in a particular corner of the building? How long will it take for the crowds to get out of the building?" If we start to see crowding in certain areas during these simulations, we go back and redesign the space, or we add more exits, stairs or escalators. If there's crowding that occurs in a hallway, we widen the corridors, and rerun the simulation and see how it affects the crowd.

 

Pushing the limits of technology

Every project we work on is pretty challenging, and part of the process nowadays is trying to push the technology available and reach the limits of our current hardware. When I first applied to college, I wrote that I see the convergence of these technologies happening someday, and I want to be a mover and shaker in the industry.

Working at Arup and being able to play with all these new emerging technologies, figuring out ways they could be applied to our projects, and being able to visualize how it could help everybody in the future - that's the most satisfying aspect of my job.

 


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