Posts Tagged ‘Rhinoceros’


A new approach to modeling instruction at PolyPlane

The best way to learn 3D modeling?   Forget about the software.

For the moment anyway.  That’s part of the philosophy at PolyPlane, a new instructional site that emphasizes the broader concepts of 3D graphics before delving into the dashboard of a particular CAD application.

PolyPlane“People just starting out in 3D modeling are forced to wrap their brains around a lot of unfamiliar concepts all at the same time,” says Gabriel Mathews, principal of Portland’s Con Cor Design Group and author of the video series.  “At the outset, stepping back and understanding the process of modeling in general actually makes learning an application a lot less frustrating.”

The first series of free videos at – called “pre-flight” – gives the overall lay of the land (or grid, in this case) for students before they even get into the cockpit of a modeling application.  Each three-to-four-minute lesson focuses on a basic concept in the problem of generating 3D geometry.

“We try to build an overall framework of modeling for the newcomer.  We don’t want to just define the term but show why it’s important and how it works in the big picture,” explains Mathews.   “Once you have this sort of schema in mind, it makes it much easier to take command of the software when you do finally approach it, because you know what you need and what to look for.  After a short time on PolyPlane you can really pick up any kind of modeling application.”

This can include engineering packages, like SolidWorks or Pro/E, curvilinear NURBs-based applications like Rhinoceros or Alias or tools for animators or artists like 3DStudio Max, Blender, or Maya.  Having more prior knowledge about the basic tenets of 3D can also help students make smart choices about which software are most in line with their interests, Mathews says.

Sketch To Model video course from

Modeling school bite by bite

Mathews was inspired to launch PolyPlane by a friend’s successful instruction site for 2D graphics called CTRLPaint, which uses short video illustrations and friendly narration to introduce new techniques piecemeal.  He thought a similar approach would work to cut through the complexities of 3D curves, meshes, and surfaces.

Mathews says there are dozens of other sites with modeling tips as well as tutorials put out by software developers, but he finds that too often the offerings expect the viewer to already have a background familiarity that amateurs usually lack.

“You get something that is 45 minutes long and loaded with acronyms and technical jargon,” he says.  “Any outsider is not going to know what a UVW map is.  It’s discouraging when you slog through a long tutorial and only grasp 50% of what’s being said.  And if the instruction is too centered on the software of a particular brand, it also tends to assume the viewer has a working knowledge of modeling already.”

In contrast, each short PolyPlane video explains in simple terms and clear illustrations another piece of the puzzle.  Visitors to the pre-flight series can accumulate a solid background of the principals in a few spare moments during the week, without opening up a modeler app.

“A lot of modeling is problem solving, more of a mental maneuver, like how to break up the object you want to make into more basic geometry, for instance.  Your modeler is not going to do for you, it’s something you learn to visualize,” says Mathews.

“Each video you wind up learning another little bead of wisdom:  how to control a camera view, why NURRBs are important, what does it matter to set up an origin point a particular way.  As you get into modeling in whatever platform, all these rules of thumb eventually become second nature to you and you don’t really even think about it.  But when you are starting out they can become the roadblocks in understanding the software.”Polyplane 3D modeling tutorialWatch and Learn: PolyPlane employs visual aids to show the conceptual underpinnings of modeling actions.

Test Flights

Learning by doing eventually is part of the ride, too.  PolyPlane has longer 2-hour series – called “sketch-to-model” – which put the principals to work in a practical, step-by-step modeling project.   Here it is helpful to follow along in a modeling application, Mathews says, but it doesn’t much matter which application; the user can adapt the general PolyPlane techniques to whatever platform.

Mathews says that many designers tend to switch applications at some point in their education or careers, so it helps to be open-minded at the beginning anyway.  He himself initially took a college course that taught AutoDesk products, then discovered Rhinoceros and taught himself the application with the help of his previous instruction.

“People tend to gravitate to a system eventually that becomes their favorite tool.”  For cost-conscious students, Mathews says a free sample version of Rhino or Google SketchUp works for the more intensive PolyPlane exercises.  Students can get a solid foundation with the pre-flight and the tutorial projects during a month of free trial.  After that, students can purchase the software for relatively low cost.

“I chose the Rhino environment in the video examples because it is what I am most fluent in and it tends to be the most affordable paid software.  It’s true that Google sketch up is free but the complete loaded version of the software is $499.  Rhino is around $1000 but if you are a student it is $199, so it turns out to give the most bang for the buck.”

Regardless of the software choice for students, Polyplane aims to create the most economical instruction method in terms of time.  “Whether you have to learn 3D modeling for school or on your own, we think PolyPlane will get you up to speed the fastest,” says Mathews.

PolyPlane plans new free videos every week throughout 2012, more advanced projects, and other design resources for the beginner.  Check out other video lessons at


Remixing in Grasshopper

Noiz / Architecture pushes generative modeling to new heights

by Brett Duesing

One of Keisuke Toyoda’s recent experiments in generative modeling “samples” a work of another: the Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron.  His rendering shows the Bird’s Nest of last year’s Olympics strapped down by what appear to be tens of thousands of steel cables, which shoot up to over twice the height of the stadium roof.

Toyoda doubts that the architect would mind the re-appropriation as a creative exercise.  “In their early days, H&deM did a sort of similar thing, a photo collage of an addition on top of Tadao Ando’s building,” Toyoda recalls, “so I am sure they wouldn’t complain about us using their image for a remix.”
16Toyoda is one of the founding partners of the Toyko-based Noiz/Architecture, Design & Planning, a firm whose name also invites a comparison to the world of audio.   According Toyoda, the connotation was intentional. Bold debuts of musical styles, whether a ballet by Tchaikovsky or an album by Metallica, have always been called noise.  In the same spirit, the designers at Noiz look out for new 3D forms that challenge the conventions of its audience.

The remixed Bird’s Nest seems so novel — so noisy — because its textures are unfamiliar.  The word whiskery is not often ascribed to buildings.  The image is also an example of how a small conceptual shift in 3D modeling is now producing a mother lode of innovative forms for studios like Noiz in search of the unexpected.

Shapes of a new generation

Surprisingly, Toyoda only had to model one strand to generate the overwhelming intricacy seen in the remixed Bird’s Nest. This was achieved in Grasshopper, a new plug-in for the 3D NURBS modeler Rhinoceros.  Grasshopper splits the view of a 3D composition on to two different conceptual levels: the familiar 3D visual model next to a display of the logical model of the design.

This interactive history tree allows Toyoda to repeat modeling actions while varying them.  He can easily set up geometric changes according to one shape’s relationship to another.  For instance, he can instruct a strand to bow slightly when tilted in respect to a ground plane to mimic gravity.  He can replicate one strand over a dense grid of points to make a field of 25,000.    He can change this flat grid to rolling ground by plugging in a curvilinear surface.  “Originally, we tried out several 3D surfaces to vary the normals of the strands,” he says.  “I just thought it might be interesting if we use the Birds Nest and add in a realistic context.”gh-rgb1

This automation power has long been available to programmers, but scripting was a long and tedious affair that was too far removed from visual feedback.  With the Grasshopper interface, designers with no programming experience can play around with the logic just as easily they would the 3D model.  Composition then jumps up a structural meta-level – not just drawing shapes, but assigning behavior to shapes.

“This technology has a lot of undiscovered space to stroll around in,” Toyoda says.  “One of the advantages of the software is the ability to model on the fly without having to be a total techie. Since none of us is really a ‘computer person,’ Grasshopper’s interface fits really well for us.  It allows us to do programming with more intuitive understanding, without really writing a script.”

Molecular remix

The Birds’ Nest remix was the end point of that particular experiment, but others become the creative starting point in real architectural projects at Noiz.

Another experimental inspiration was the spirogyra, a kind of microscopic green algae known for its helical structure and luminous green color.  Not long after Noiz designers re-generated the form in Grasshopper as a modeling puzzle, the team found a home for it as a dominant motif for the Hongqiao Office Building (HOB).  Green-tinted spirogyra forms act as vertical supports and carriers of the ventilation system.

“The HOB is sited at the corner of an industrial park, so it had to fulfill the role of a landmark for the whole development and express the futuristic as well as environmental themes as much as possible,” Toyoda explains. “The spirogyra just seemed to fit this purpose.   And, because this site in a suburb of Shanghai tends is a dry and dusty atmosphere, the green color and organic forms add some natural vitality.”

Crucifix remix

The Noiz team developed another project, the exterior of the GoodTV headquarters, almost entirely in Grasshopper. At night, the Christian TV station and an urban church in Taipei, Taiwan, transforms into a four-dimensional light show.  The wall facing the highway features a field of glowing antennae of various lengths. A three-dimensional surface and the outline of the cross are slowly revealed to passing motorists.

“The overall presence of a cross is meant to be very vague and ethereal, like a mist in the air,” says Toyoda, who took influences from contemporary artists like Jim Campbell and Michal Rovner, whose images are kept intentionally blurry or ambiguous.

Chasing the unexpected is the standard course at Noiz, as generative modeling is fast becoming a permanent fixture in its process.  The design team now is in the habit of remixing of their initial ideas.

“Using Grasshopper, we can build a design-process model to produce what we need in actual design, then modify the process model to see what kind of variety we can get,” Jia-Shuan Tsai, Toyoda’s partner explains. “We try several options to see if there would be anything we didn’t expect originally. Sometimes this newly found path can lead you into a whole different area.”

About Noiz

New Forms of music in their infancy has often been taken as noise.  The name of Noiz / Architecture, Design & Planning takes its cue from developments in music history, as an everyday reminder of the firm’s commitment to unique and insightful design solutions.  Founded by Keisuke Toyoda and Jia-Shuan Tsai in 2006, Noiz brings together their joined experience in institutional, commercial, and residential design in Asia and the United States.  For more examples from Noiz, please visit:

Grand Designs


Singapore casino project maintained in a single master model.

by Brett Duesing

Sometimes aesthetics and execution come together to pay off big. In May of 2006, the architectural firm of Moshe Safdie and Associates won the biggest design competition in its history. The city of Singapore had selected the firm’s design proposal for its very first casino, the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort.
“Big” may be too small a word for the award.

“This is a very large project. It’s essentially a city,” explains designer Jaron Lubin, who was part of the design process from the beginning. The Marina Bay Sands development will spread across a six million square-foot footprint, containing casinos and hotels, a 54,000-capacity convention center, an Art/Science museum, a mall, two large theaters, and six signature restaurants.

When the resort opens in 2009, the operation will employ an estimated 10,000 people. According to official reports, the budget for construction of the international entertainment mecca tops out around £2 billion.

For any firm, winning a bid that big is a jackpot. Since the acceptance of the proposal, Moshe Safdie & Associates has doubled the size of its staff in its Somerville, Massachusetts office.

To ensure the on-time delivery of the massive submission and to keep track of all the design output, the team tried a somewhat different approach to project management. The designers’ strategy was to maintain the entire project in a 3D master model. “We started to develop our 3D models right away,” Lubin explains.

The design team modeled the essential forms in a product design software called Rhinoceros.

“Halfway through the competition phase, we had still maintained a coordinated 3D model. This allowed for an easy translation to 2D formats.”

The Rhinoceros modeller is a favorite 3D design generator for industrial art projects large and small because of its powerful NURBS engine, which allows designers to easily create intricate curves, organic surfaces, and sculpted textures. Curvilinear elements like these can be seen as a unifying motif throughout the Marina Bay Sands interior and exterior designs.


For the team at Moshe Safdie & Associates, Rhino gave the additional advantage of flexible export, which could convert all the curved shapes faithfully to other 3D and CAD-related formats. “The key to using Rhino for us was that there was such an easy exchange between other software platforms, so we could have many modes of simultaneous production. This enabled our competition team to act more efficiently and create a higher quality product in the end,” says Lubin.

From the 3D master model, sections of the design were exported to whichever software was most appropriate for the task: to develop further details, analyze the structures, and prepare the final visual presentation in the form of renderings and physical models. For instance, the master model exported the basic linework for 2D base plans, sections, and elevations. From there, other designers could further develop details using AutoCAD, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

The firm relied on several outside parties for consultation on structural engineering and wind simulation, and for professional rendering services to create the final photorealistic images. Analysts received DXF exports of the master model to be used in their own 3D systems. The 3D model in its entirety was sent to the rendering and animation firms through a special NPower plugin, which converts 3D data from the Rhino modeler to 3ds Max.

While the outside firms rendered the Marina Bay Sands complex into the backdrop of the Singapore skyline, Moshe Safdie & Associates’ in-house model shop cut all the scale model parts. Here the team extracted STL files to create 3D components through a Z Corpcasino interior rapid prototyping printer and automated 3-axis CNC mill. The master model also exported 2D outlines that were made compatible with the model shop’s laser cutter by utilising a multitude of widely available plug-ins and scripts.

“The trend is that more people are using 3D programs like Rhino to link the 2D work from the 3D model so that there is less redundancy in re-drawing what has already been made,” says Lubin. “The 3D work generates the 2D work, and vice versa. We tried to do that as much as possible on Marina Bay Sands. Given the fast track of the project and the amount of models that were required for the competition, we developed techniques to take advantage in this way. We reduced redundancy and kept things tightly managed through a central model.”

The extra detail required for the contest submission led to a much more comprehensive initial design, one which pleased the Singapore officials to such a degree that they have accepted the results of the competition phase as the official guidelines for future development. “Because of the timeline, there will likely be minimal aesthetic changes between the submitted design and the final product,” Lubin surmises.

After a brief celebration of on May 26, the day the architectural jackpot was announced, the staff of Moshe Safdie & Associates prepared itself for more work – about three years more work – to make the Marina Bay Sands a reality.

“Everybody has been really excited about this project and what it means for the office,” says Lubin. “It has set a high standard for all the work that we’re doing, and we’ve been very happy with the output.”

# # # A version of this story was published in AECMagazine.

strong>About Moshe Safdie & Associates
With offices in Boston, Jerusalem, and Toronto, the award-winning Moshe Safdie & Associates have built signature structures all over the world that showcase the best in creative architectural design. To view the completed projects of the
practice, visit:

Cab of the Capitol

Design school team wins competition for Mexico City’s new taxi

by Brett Duesing

Look in any souvenir shop at Heathrow airport, and among the dangling key chains of Big Ben and palace guards, you’ll also find miniature, antique-looking black cars.  After 50 years, the stately hackney carriage, otherwise known as the London Cab, has become a sort of landmark on wheels — an internationally recognized symbol of the city’s identity.

It may be surprising to learn that London is the only major city to have a vehicle especially built as a taxi.  In all other places, a cab is not much more than a sedan with a paint job and a meter bolted to the dash.  But soon London won’t be the only city with a distinctive taxi of its own.  The government of Mexico City recently selected a winning design from 76 submissions.


The Chapulín, meaning grasshopper, will undoubtedly become a new icon for visitors, and an attractive option for residents to get around town.  In fact, the new taxi forms the building block for a public transportation program of enormous magnitude. The city’s plan will eventually call for 120,000 taxis – six times the number of cabs now on the streets of London.

The concept of the Chapulín comes from a Mexico City transportation design school, Rigoletti Casa de Diseño (RCD).  The team consists of recent graduate Eduardo González Morón, instructor Arturo Millán Martinez, and Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz, RCD’s academic coordinator and also an alumnus.

RCD is starting to make winning design contests a bit of habit, with students and teachers claiming top spots in the Peugeot Design Contest over the last few years.  As for the taxi competition, the online call for entries gave designers nearly two months to submit a concept.

“Eduardo, Arturo, and myself found out about it about a month later,” says Islas.  “It wasn’t the best example to our students, but we began the project only around two weeks before the submission deadline.”

But two weeks was enough time to reconsider the most common notions of a taxi, evaluate Mexico City’s intense transportation needs, and put forth an answer in one compact, innovative, and environmentally responsible design.

Building a better taxi

“We wanted to put some more thought into the experience,” says Islas.  “We didn’t want to make just a cool-looking taxi, but one that would meet people’s needs.”

The experience of taking a cab is akin to staying at a hotel.  Better hotels strive to accommodate their guests, making them feel more secure and comfortable away from home.  In the case of most taxis across the world, it’s the other way around: passengers have to adjust to the vehicle.

“Almost no taxi in the world, except for the London Taxi Cab, was ever designed to be a taxi. They’re all domestic cars adapted for that function,” Islas explains. “Therefore, they get dirty quite quickly, the passengers’ luggage is never in their sight, and tall and handicapped people have problems loading and unloading.  Safety considerations for children or pregnant women don’t even figure in typical cabs. There’s also no security barrier between passenger and driver.”

These are just a few of the problems of use ignored in the basic car-to-cab conversion.  The experience of hailing a Chapulín is different, most notably when you step inside.

The Chapulín does away with the trunk entirely, leaving more floor space for an extra-tall cabin. Wide doors open up to a circular seating arrangement for four.  You sit with your luggage, which not only keeps it safe, but also allows for quicker pick-ups and drop-offs.  For handicapped patrons, a ramp extends to the curb for wheelchairs, which can be easily secured to a rail on the floor during the ride.  Passenger seats flip up to make more room for wheelchairs or larger pieces of luggage.  In addition, the taxi divides the driver and passenger areas for the safety of both.

The taxi proposal also employs the latest technological aids for navigation and communication.  “We give a GPS map display for both the driver and the passenger. Safety in Mexico City is crucial, so with the electronic maps, all taxi users will know where they are, and see their destination,” says Islas. “The GPS links into a telemetry system, through which the central dispatcher can track the taxis throughout the city.  The system shows where the cabs have been and how much in fares they have collected.”1

Transportation for an overloaded city

Islas and his team also drew from their own experience navigating Mexico City, the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere. The metro area of the capitol teems with nearly 20 million inhabitants, a greater population than Tokyo.  While Tokyo’s development has built upward into tight densities, Mexico City has spread outward through a long reliance on highways.

“Driving in Mexico City is like being a red blood cell trying to pass through a cholesterol-blocked artery,” Islas says.  “The number of cars is far greater than the capacity of roadways, and it’s increasing all the time.  The condition of those roads is many times less than optimal. People aren’t very respectful to traffic signs, or each other, for that matter.  Traffic makes people stressed out.  Congestion gives us a cocktail of polluted air and two-hour drives just to get home. It’s part of the reason why we chose to seat the passengers looking at each other, so they can socialize and forget about the long drives.”

Getting more cars off the road may be one of the positive effects of Mexico City taxi program, by providing an attractive alternative for residents who would normally own a vehicle.  But the mini-compact size of the vehicle frees up some space all by itself.

“We focused on keeping the car’s footprint as small as possible.  We made the most of the inner space while at the same time making a very small car to move through traffic and maneuver into parking.”

The Chapulín is only 3.65 meters long, shorter than a Ford Fiesta.  Because it is least a meter shorter than normal cabs, trading out all the current taxis for the new version would clear more than 12 kilometers of city street.
Microsoft Word - Document2


Due to the huge number of cars, Mexico City ranks first in the world’s smoggiest cities.  The government has already adopted drastic measures to reduce congestion and pollution, including Hoy No Circula, where cars are grounded one day a week according to license number.

“We thought in addition to the contest’s requirements of good handling in difficult mobility zones and accommodation to passengers, that sustainability – both economically and environmentally — was of the utmost importance,” says Islas.

“Our proposal operates on a hybrid diesel-electric system, so it cuts out street-level exhaust.  What is particularly unique for this hybrid is that the diesel engine acts mainly as an electric generator for the batteries, rather than a traction aid.  This allows us to keep the mechanics very compact.  If you look at some of the renderings, it would appear we forgot about the engine, but no, it’s under the driver’s seat.”

Another aspect of the Chapulín helps the local economy.  “Our idea was to produce it as a kit-car.  It would be assembled by small certified workshops, which would generate employment. Another important consideration for the city was that it wanted to produce the cab – something we didn’t know when we made our submission — so when we already had 3D models for the powertrain, I guess they thought the design development was taken further than other proposals.”

Design Contest Rush

How did the RCD team prepare all these ideas for city officials in just two weeks?  The approach involved communication of the essential concepts – the styling and features – without getting too detailed.   Microsoft Word - Document2

“When we had a good conceptualization of what we wanted in terms of functionality, we jumped to Rhinoceros, a 3D surface modeler, and created the general shape of the interior and exterior. With Rhino, we could get great quality and precision on the exterior styling, and also model the mechanics, like the chassis and the powertrain.”

The team printed screenshots of the 3D model and sketched over them by hand, rather than creating full renderings.  This gave a loose expression of the interior features and saved time in the rush for submission.  After the award, the city now owns the rights to the design.  Islas expects that the city will hire them to do further design development as the project goes into engineering and production stages.

“Now we have gone back without time restrictions and made a more refined Rhino model and renderings with more details worked out. The Mexico City government can then add engineering specifications to the model as it begins production of the prototypes.”

Regardless if there is more work in store for the young designers, news of the accepted proposal itself was another kind of rush.  They are thrilled to win on such a large project, especially in their home city. “I think we won because our design was the one that best merged functionality and styling. The government in Mexico City wanted an icon for the city, and that is what we intended in the first place. Chapulín means grasshopper, an insect that relates to Mexico City’s identity in word Chapultepec.”

Like the hackney carriage, the Mexico City mini-cab has a distinctive design that has a potential to become a mobile mascot, a symbol of the city that could last for decades.  The government plans to make two or three prototypes of the Chapulín and perform test-runs.  After that, it intends to produce 12,000 cabs a year, until the goal of 120,000 taxis citywide is reached.

So very soon, not only will you find a comfortable ride to catch your flight at MEX, but once you get there, you also might find little “Chapulínes” dangling in the gift shops.


# # # A version of this story appeared in the design magazine Develop3D.

About Rigoletti Case de Diseño

Rigoletti Casa de Diseño is a design center dedicated to promote industrial design with an accent on Latin American and Mexican styles.  RCD carries the only Bachelor Degree in Transportation Design in Latin America, in alliance with the IAAD (Instituto d’Arte Applicata e Design, Torino), and certified by EABHES (European Accreditation Board of Higher Education Schools). The main goal of RCD is to create internationally competitive designers. Past students have won internships to Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Nissan.  Besides the academic mission, RCD also carries industrial and transportation design projects commissioned by clients. For more information please visit:

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing.  Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size.  Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, and engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit:

Curves Without the Cost


Wood Builder AWI adopts 3D in construction processes

By Brett Duesing

Advancements in 3D design tools have given manufacturers tremendous productivity gains over the last two decades.  Automotive development, for example, is nothing like it was twenty years ago.  In this industry, not just styling and engineering revolve around 3D data, but downstream factory processes have evolved to take advantage of the efficiencies that 3D technology offers.

One would think 3D CAD should provide the same benefits to the field of architecture and construction.  Architects would have a wider palette of forms for expression – curvatures and non-rectilinear textures; contractors would have clearer visuals and less confusion, delays, and overruns when erecting complicated structures.

But for the most part, these benefits have not emerged.  Although designers can easily model fantastic forms in 3D modelers, the technological advancements soon meet up against human resistance.  Personnel used to the traditional methodologies of architectural and construction management – engineers, subcontractors, inspectors – even the AIA itself – all expect contract documents to be delivered in the form of 2D drawings.

Experiments in form sometimes require architects to do the extra footwork, mainly plotting 2D drawings derived from their original 3D model.  And, describing complex geometries through 2D views invites confusion.  According to the website of Gehry Technologies – the software wing of Frank Gehry’s firm – poor data coordination with the field results in cost overruns of 20 percent.  Beyond redundancies inherent in the status quo, reducing a form to 2D leaves out the great advantages of modeling.

“In the world where changes in the technology may take only a year or two, but where changes in construction can take a whole generation – 35 years or so, we see the huge leap of faith it takes for designers and owners to push these ideas,” says Richard Herskovitz, architect of Architectural Woodwork Industries (AWI).

What if all the processes of construction were based around the 3D model?  In contrast to the inertia of the rest of the industry, Philadelphia-based AWI is a subcontractor that has chosen to embrace 3D technology.  Its advocacy of a 3D-centered workflow is how the firm achieved the curved woodworking on EMPAC’s concert hall at a cost that rivals cubes.

EMPAC was designed by Grimshaw Architects, and modeled in Rhino; Davis Brody Bond are the local architects of record and coordinated all of the consultants, provided the Contract Documents and supervised construction.

The firm’s methodology is a glimpse of how construction could be, and, given that the overall approach has more efficiency and more common sense than the traditional route, there’s no reason to believe that it is not what construction will be in the future.

Optimizing the power of 3D on- and off-site not only makes building curved surfaces possible, it makes building faster, cheaper, and more accurate.

The EMPAC Experiment

The white steel frames and floor-to-ceiling glass panels on the Experimental Music and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) seem typical in a modern campus building, but a glance through the windows of the new event center in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reveals the shell of a three-story auditorium, rounded on all sides, top to bottom.  The hive-like interior structure is entirely covered in a crosshatch of smooth wood panels, furthering the auditorium’s surprising organic presence.

Designed by Grimshaw Architects, EMPAC uses curvilinear surfaces as its centerpiece.  The design is emblematic of the new experiments in sculptural forms and texture in large public building projects.

When the main contractor, Turner Construction Company, awarded the bid for the EMPAC’s wood paneling to AWI, the woodworking specialist had an unusual stipulation.  Coordination between AWI and all other subcontractors would use the original 3D design model as its shared point of reference.  Instead of the expected 2D drawing the trade had relied on for generations, the concrete and structural steel subcontractors received a copy of modeling software, some brief training, and the 3D auditorium design divided into construction phases.

“The open process where many disciplines or many subcontractors share digital information, come together on site or in the office to coordinate is a huge change,” says Herskovitz.  “This reinvention of process is, as a friend put it, ‘a social experiment.’  It is not so much about the technology, but about how it’s implemented.”

Bentwood requisites

The reason for AWI’s close relationship to 3D modeling comes in part from the needs of the material itself.  The architects and engineers adopted a 3D mentality back in 1991 when computer-drafting programs first appeared.  At the time, woodworking machinery from Europe began to employ computerized drivers, and specialty programs aided in many standardized cabinetmaking tasks.  The equipment was highly accurate, much more so than the manual set of equipment.  Ever since, the firm has constantly kept pace with new 3D technology, applying the latest innovations to the needs of the industry.

Its expertise has translated into AWI taking on increasingly difficult large-scale bendwood interiors, often working with the designer from conceptual design through construction.  AWI has developed its methods over the course of several major sculptural panel projects such as Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, and the interiors of the Boston Convention Center.

In curved wood designs like these, superior accuracy is needed when hanging the panels.  If the underlying structure strays too much from the planned dimensions, the subtly curved cedar planks will fail to fit together.

“As wood is a material which expands and contracts about an eight of an inch for every eight feet, we need about eighth-inch tolerances.”  These margins for error are about four times tighter than what is seen at typical construction sites.  Framing for housing, for example, might vary around a half-inch.

In AWIN’s quest for woodworker’s accuracy, the firm discovered processes like digital manufacturing and robotic transiting, as well as the benefits of planning construction phases in 3D.  These new methods have also produced some unexpected side effects: bringing down costs and speeding up building processes.

‘Process’ is more important than ‘program’

The first step in constructing EMPAC’s distinctive shape is to ensure accuracy in the 3D model.  The project architect, William Horgan, modeled Grimshaw’s concept in a special industrial design modeler Rhinoceros.  Rhinoceros uses mathematical equations called NURBS (Non Uniform Rational B Splines) to construct surfaces, and so can calculate any point on a complex curve with pinpoint accuracy.

“This NURBS engine capability for analysis and extremely high accuracy on curves is limited to a very few applications only,” says Herskovitz.

>Rhino was used as a common platform for coordinating the steel, concrete, ductwork and outer skin, and the live model projected and used to coordinate these systems in weekly meetings. The inner Hull concrete wall formwork was modeled in Rhino by Perri Forms in Germany and inserted in the master model for checking purposes.

Clients embarking on 3D construction should not be overly concerned about which modeler is used to create the initial design, he says.  No matter what design files it receives from the client, AWI can easily import the geometry into a full NURBS environment.  Rhinoceros also fluidly imports and exports 2D geometry in common formats used by AutoCAD.

“Programs like Rhino offer designers a better way to study forms and to create those forms accurately.  Rhino can read most other files accurately, and gives a designer a means to integrate their other work in Rhino as a neutral environment.”

Collisions were manually detected using Rhino, and provided the visualization used to explain issues in Team meetings, and as a logistics tool for the Hull panels. Specific collisions were identified and solutions found jointly, rather than in a lengthy a RFI process. Decisions were made jointly and committed to meeting minutes, saving weeks and countless hours of staff time.

Here the extension of the inner acoustic wall through the outer steel, and the overhang of the slab were seen and corrected without RFI, and via a weekly meeting centered around the model. Even the lack of attachment of a steel gusset was visualized in this same way. These common problems would not be found using collision detection software, but were found by visual inspection.

Rhino was used to extract geometric information and send it to Radius Track to bend the studs and track in Minnesota. Each double curved surface of the wall panels was divided into equal spaces in order to develop the curvature of each stud and track making up the panels. Those models were then sent digitally and extracted into a special program which drives the bending equipment.

The advantage of the Rhinoceros system is it allows AWI to break up, curved geometries into discrete parts, number them and organize them for later stages of the project.  For the EMPAC auditorium project, a single engineer, AWI Project Manager Ron Evans, refined the model and exported particular shapes and arcs into structural analysis programs.  Further, the modeler enables the design model to be broken down into component parts, numbered, and organized for later construction.

Digital Manufacturing

One of the more innovative methods of AWI’s new approach lends itself from the field of manufacturing.  After Evans subdivides the designer’s 3D concept into smaller components within Rhino, the 1200-seat concert hall skin resembles more of a series of small manufacturing projects.  Just as manufacturers would fabricate prototypes of chairs, AWIN produces its building components in a factory environment.

The studs were then assembled using drawings derived from the panel models allowing Eastern Exterior Wall Systems assemble them accurately off site, and to deliver them in the proper sequence.

A full sized mockup of a portion of the most curved area and the portal were used for approval by the design team and the owner.

By extracting the surfaces of the support “blades” from a Rhino model, fabrication information was provided in AutoCAD to the metal fabricator to drive a CNC laser cutter to cut the blades.

As a consequence of this automation, the fabrication labor costs are not much more as if all the steel panels were all curved identically. The computer drivers simply read each panel’s geometric instructions and the machine cuts, drills, or crimps the materials accordingly.

Off-site fabrication is nothing new.  The 1972 construction of the New York City World Trade Center involved factory production of identical steel grids that formed the exterior lattice.  What is new is that today’s 3D computerized cutting allows all the parts to be unique rather than identical, enabling the construction of a curved surface at a giant scale.

X, Y and Z at the Building Site

To maintain the exceptional accuracy gained in shop fabrication, AWIN must hang the panels on the concrete and steel substructure according to the same standard.

This is achieved through the use of robotic transits.  Similar to laser-measuring equipment already common to the construction site for preliminary surveying, a robotic transit can be programmed with the 3D monitoring points from the NURBS model.  Robotic mechanisms move the laser pointer by remote control, eliminating the need to enlist an extra worker to operate the station.

Rhino was used to extract the location of points for placing the panel support “blades” and then transfer the information to AutoCAD for the surveyor to prepare their input for the transit. The robotic transit located the Center Line, height and distance from the steel structure so that angle irons could be welded in place correctly.

“A robotic transit has the ability to locate a point using a combination of EDM, or electronic distance measurement,” explains Herskovitz.  “If you know the vertical and horizontal angle and the straight line distance required, you can layout that exact point in space.”

The technique is the final step in the continuum of three-dimensional processes.  The construction site is now linked to the virtual model.  In effect, an enormous x-y-z grid is overlaid the project location, complementary to the computerized 3D forms.  The result is high-accuracy installation, but it is also cost-effective.  The automated techniques allow the EMPAC panels to fit onto the substructure perfectly, eliminating hours of costly re-work that would normally plague a project of such complexity.

AWI used Rhino to design the special 3D structure in wood for the lower portals, and to cut the shapes for the curved edges out of FR Plywood.

The complex shapes of the upper portals included double curved track and straight studs covered with 22 GA sheet metal to provide a non-combustible back for the wooden exterior.
Though 228 2D assembly drawings were created, the only way for the architects to check the shape and approve the drawings was by inspecting the 3D Rhino model in 3D. Here, the South side bridges needed acoustic separation from the wall of the Concert Hall. Thus proof that the panels had a few inch gap was critical and proved to be correct. In fact, all of the blades and panels fit without misalignment.

Construction Planning Re-invented

The biggest innovation, and biggest challenge in moving to 3D-based construction may not be digital, but social – changing the attitudes and entrenched ways of approaching problems.  To avoid cost overruns during AWI’s paneling stage, it was necessary to have the earlier phases of concrete and steel layout to maintain high standards of accuracy.

“Fortunately for us, Jasper DeFazio, Turner’s Vice President, was a proponent of this approach from the start, and Rensselaer also invested in modeling by having AWI model all of the important shapes to aid in coordination,” says Herskovitz.

“Of course, there was a learning curve for coordination in this way.  First we had to sell the other contractors the idea of using 3D, then there was some education of how to use the Rhinoceros tools in the beginning,” he says.  “But it was important for us that everyone think in three dimensions, and fully understand the critical areas where our work came together.  A virtual building can often visualize conflicts and pose important questions earlier in a project, and that ultimately will save money and time during construction.”

Herskovitz advocates 3D as a means of coordination for all the players in the field in order to more clearly define the phases of construction, and to assign responsibility between owners, designers, and subcontractors.  To win all the benefits of 3D construction, processes need to change, including the traditional roles and duties of each player.

“The digital world has allowed architects to design more complex shapes, but the means and methods for construction are changing too slowly to keep up,” says Herskovitz.  “By centering construction around the 3D data, well coordinated, complex designs are literally able to go from model to fabrication.  It has become difficult to explain what we do, as the lines between consultant, modeler, and contractor has blurred.”

Occurrence of sculpted forms in architecture is still rare, and form remains circumscribed by cost considerations.  “Competitions, usually for public buildings, are the exception.  Art museums, performing arts center, libraries, transportation centers are big business in the architectural world,” says Herskovitz.  “In these cases, form itself is given a budget.  These clients invest in the art form of architecture and invite more innovative designs,” remarks Herskovitz.  The vision for the EMPAC auditorium, however, did not require a dream budget – the bill for the structure was a fraction of what clients typically pay for a high-quality concert hall.  “The owners received a very good deal.”

In these big-budget projects, experiments in technology and technique are tried and tested.  From these, a new set of efficient and innovative construction processes is now emerging.  “Proving the cost effectiveness of the 3D process is what we’re trying to do now,” says Herskovitz.  As the industry learns the efficiency of 3D construction, we will likely see more of it in the future.”

# # # A version of this article was published in CGArchitect.

About Architectural Woodworking Industries (AWI)
Architectural Woodwork Industries, composed of woodworkers with many years of shop and field experience and two trained architects, provides consulting, engineering, project management, budgeting, and scheduling services along with the fabrication, and installation of fine woodwork. Based in Philadelphia, AWIN builders are in the forefront of using 3D CAD/CAM technology to achieve affordable and quality high-concept wood designs.  To view past projects, visit

About Rhinoceros
Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing.  Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size.  Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. Rhino provides the compatibility, accessibility, and speed in an uninhibited free-form modeler that are found only in products costing 20 to 50 times the price. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit:

Building a Better Transmission

The Diametroid DT-CVT: An inside look in the new transmission concept by Australian inventor John Bisby.

The Diametroid DT-CVT: An inside look in the new transmission concept by Australian inventor John Bisby.

Inventor John Bisby’s quest for the ultimate CVT

By Brett Duesing and Alex Dickey

John Bisby was simply looking for an easier ride home.  On the way, he found himself entangled in a geometric problem that has puzzled mechanical thinkers since Leonardo da Vinci.  The improbable difference this time:  it looks as if Bisby may have come up with a new path to the solution.

The story begins when the 48-year-old automotive electronics technician wanted to modify his bicycle with an electric motor to assist in the steep climbs near his home in Jordan.  Having had some experience converting cars to electric vehicles in his native Australia, Bisby thought he could do it himself, but soon ran into a conspicuous gap in available technology.

“I searched the Internet for everything,” Bisby recalls.  “I could find suitable motors, controllers, and lithium batteries, but the transmission appeared to be an engineering impasse.”

Most electric assists make do by using the middle gear on the existing transmission and adding an electrical speed controller to the motor.  This did not satisfy Bisby.  He wondered, why the motor couldn’t output a constant rate – what an electric motor does best — and have mechanics transmit that power to gradually turn the rear wheel to higher and higher rotations?

That seemingly simple question de-railed Bisby from world of practicalities and plunged him into theory.  For 18 months, the idea that the input and output of a transmission could interact within a single dynamic system consumed Bisby.

“It’s not as if I was trying to break any laws of physics, so I kept at it,” he says.  Thinking about the puzzle kept him up at night.  New insights into the calculus came to him during long walks in the woods.

He spent several more months writing out the explanations and equations of his solution for a new type of continuously variable transmission (CVT).  He applied for a UK patent on his invention, the Diametroid, or what Bisby labels more generally as a DT-CVT.

Input and Output:  The device is designed to  receive a constant rotational speed of input, which continuously varying the speed of rotational output.  Once in operation, the device balances this ratio dynamically, and needs no manual or mechanical regulation to affect acceleration.

Input and Output: The device is designed to receive a constant rotational speed of input, which continuously varying the speed of rotational output. Once in operation, the device balances this ratio dynamically, and needs no manual or mechanical regulation to affect acceleration.

“In his research, my patent attorney could find nothing similar to the Diametroid,” says Bisby, who dubs the DT-CVT as the “holy grail of power transmissions.”  By all appearances, the mechanics of Diametroid approaches the problem in a fundamentally different way than contemporary CVT designs.

By his own admission, Bisby is not a transmissions expert, but the title might be fitting if the Diametroid proves to have viable commercial advantages.  Bisby claims that they are all there:  a smoother acceleration and a more compact size; less wear on engines and its own components; and perhaps most striking — a negligible loss in efficiency.

The Long, Strange Trip of the CVT

Transmissions most common in everyday life – our stick shifts and ten-speeds — operate on fixed ratios set by gears and controlled by clutches or derailleurs.  A shift in gears moves to rotational force onto a circle of wider or smaller radius, accompanied with the familiar lurch in acceleration or sag when downshifting that jerks the heads of drivers and passengers.

A continuously variable system, on the other hand, provides for a stepless acceleration. It gives not five or so intervals of fixed ratios, but an infinite number in between.   The simplest form of a CVT utilizes a belt between two rotating pulleys. Instead of 2D discs, the pulleys are actually cones.  A hydraulic regulator shifts the position of the cones perpendicular to the belt. The belt slips down and up the cones to a wide range of radii, smoothly varying the ratios between engine and wheel.

“Other CVT designs share a common characteristic,” explains Bisby.  “The input-output ratio of the transmission changes by varying the effective diameter of one or more components.”  Later variations of the CVT replace the spinning cones with some other 3D shapes to produce a similar variance.  Bisby’s Diametroid, however, does not employ this technique, instead relying solely on planetary gearing.

Since our conventional transmission is full of clunky shifts, each of which works engines harder and leaks efficiency, one might question why we have the transmission we have now, instead of a CVT.  One can only look back at the oddly sporadic evolution of the CVT and speculate.  Da Vinci sketched his version of a CVT back in 1490, way back before there were cars or bicycles to make use of it.  Four centuries would pass before a CVT device would be patented.

Only in the last few decades have CVTs achieved some a commercial popularity.  Small CVTs are found in a wide range of power tools, tractors, and snowmobiles.  More complex – and much bulkier — CVTs have been adapted in the automotive world by a few companies looking to boost efficiency.  Automotive CVTs earned public scorn when mated with lower-performing engines as with the Subaru Justy or the Ford Fiesta 1.1 CTX, but found more enthusiasm in more muscular offerings by the European carmakers DAF and Audi.

CVTs in   Cars:   The Danish automaker DAF was one of the fi rst to employ a CVT in cars.   This TDL model concept from 2007 features its fourth generation Variom-  atic transmission, designed   to work with a V8 5-liter engine. Automotive  engineer Pablo Serrano, who worked on the TDL transmission, weighs in on the Diametroid invention.  Image credit (TDL):   Pablo Serrano

CVTs in Cars: The Danish automaker DAF was one of the first to employ a CVT in cars. This TDL model concept from 2007 features its fourth generation Variom- atic transmission, designed to work with a V8 5-liter engine. Automotive engineer Pablo Serrano, who worked on the TDL transmission, weighs in on the Diametroid invention. Image credit: Pablo Serrano

Balancing on the Dynamic Threshold

There are big differences between Bibsy’s concept and current CVT designs.  First, as mentioned, the Diametroid is a compact box of orbitals and gearing, and does not rely on a big spinning solid to vary diameters (which makes current CVTs bulky) nor anything like a friction driven belt (which is liable to wear out and break). There are no variable elements at all in the Diametroid.  Unlike the pulley-driven CVT example, the Diametroid needs no hydraulic or other powered mechanism to regulate the ratio of rotational velocities.

Sweet Spot:  This graphs illustrates the concept of the  dynamic threshold.  Power begins transferring  to the wheel once the input RPM reaches an  established cadence, the dynamic threshold.   After that speed is achieved, the transmission accelerates smoothly and continuously.  The

Sweet Spot: This graphs illustrates the concept of the dynamic threshold. Power begins transferring to the wheel once the input RPM reaches an established cadence, the dynamic threshold. After that speed is achieved, the transmission accelerates smoothly and continuously. The

“The DT-CVT does not require any electrical, magnetic, hydraulic, friction or active centrifugal devices,” Bisby explains.  “Its function depends on the ability to precisely balance differential rotating forces.”

The dynamic threshold is the “DT” in DT-CVT.  It is the point where the power input reaches an established RPM rate.  Once reached, the dynamic system kicks in.  The output RPM then increases continuously from zero to its maximum rate, while the input remains always at the same RPM.   Once within this dynamic system, more torque (at the same rotational speed) translates directly to output acceleration.

Bisby's Rhinoceros model of a hypothetical bicycle application of his dynamic threshold CVT, one of many vehicular applications on display at his website  In this scenario, the bike transfers power through a drive shaft rather than a chain to the transmission attached to the rear hub. In far right, an added motor for an electric-assist bike.

Bisby's Rhinoceros model of a hypothetic bicycle application of his dynamic threshold CVT, one of many vehicular applications on display at his website In this scenario, the bike transfers power through a drive shaft rather than a chain to the transmission attached to the rear hub. In far right, an added motor for an electric-assist bike.

For sake of example, apply a small version of the transmission to a hypothetical pedal-powered bike.  The rider would give the bike a push off and start peddling; no power will be transferred to the back wheel in the first few seconds. But once the feet pedal at the prescribed dynamic threshold, for this example, say, a typical cadence of 66 revolutions per minute, the bike begins to smoothly accelerate.

“If you’re peddling along at 66 rpm, it does not matter how much force you put on the pedals, they will always spin at 66 rpm,” explains Bisby.  “If you try and pedal faster, it will simply translate the power to the back wheel as more torque.”  Balancing on this dynamic system, the rider needs no manual controls or outside regulating devices.

But it’s when an engine replaces leg muscles that the full potential of the Diametroid is seen.  Internal combustion engines are happy to run at a constant rate.  Revving from low to high RPMs creates wear on the engine.  This is even truer said for electric motors, which drain heavily on battery power in order to get up to speed.  By design, electric motors operate at a maximum efficiency when they run at one constant rate of output.

Any discussion of the next generation of fuel-efficient personal transportation seems to revolve around the prospect of electric motors, or at least some hybrid combination.

Not only does the Diametroid seem to answer this call because of its easy mating with electric motors, but also because the transmission itself is extremely efficient.  Bisby says conventional automotive torque converters are relatively inefficient.  Both stick-shift and automatic transmissions increase in friction while increasing rpm, while the Diametroid does exactly the opposite, approaching 100 percent efficiency at top speed.


For the mechanically and mathematically inclined, a detailed technical explanation of Bisby’s invention can be found at his website,  In the 3D surface modeler Rhinoceros, Bisby has created a virtual prototype that simulates the rotational motion.  The site shows several exploded assemblies of the 3D model as well as a few hypothetical auto and bicycle application examples employing the Diametroid.

One mechanically inclined person who has reviewed Bisby’s materials is automotive engineer Pablo Serrano, who performed calculations for the original Variometric CVT on the 1985 SDL and TDL models from DAF, and has also worked on a more updated CVT concept for the Danish automaker last year.

Serrano says further analysis would be needed to come up with a full verdict on the Diametroid, but says that his first impression is that the invention certainly does what its owner claims.  “I believe all Bisby says in this explanation. I do think the transmission can be the substitutes for the current conventions, sharing a future with CVTs, including my own — the Variomatic CVT of DAF.”

One of the appealing features for Serrano is the size and simplicity of the device.  “It has less mobile pieces than current CVTs,” he says, explaining that Audi’s first-generation multitronic CVTs were about the same size as the engines.  A DT-CVT would very likely be more compact.

Although Serrano sees a “promising future” for the Diametroid in many applications, for automotive use he suggests that it may run into the same issue as other car-based CVTs:  the handling of high levels of torque.  “I see the same problem with this transmission,” says Serrano.  “It may not be able to cope with high RPMs because of torque. I would need to calculate it, but my guess is that we would need to have about three of these transmissions, one after the other, for powers of 100 horsepower and 80 pounds per feet, at least.”

Bisby confidently disagrees on the issues of high RPM and torque.  “Power transfer operates through a dynamic process which is completely immune to power levels,” he says. He also points out that the internal components spin much slower than a conventional automotive transmission, typically a maximum of 850 RPM, reducing to near zero RPM at vehicle top speed.

Also, unlike current CVTs, the transmission is not required to attach to a stable structure to brace against high levels of torque. This feature is visible in the Diametroid bicycle adaptation that Bisby modeled in Rhino.  The device attaches to the wheel itself, without any torque connection to the frame.  Bisby is sure that the concept can be scaled for nearly any power or torque application – conceivably even to a Formula One racecar, running at 20,000 RPM.

Whether or not the Diametroid can reach this vision may be answered in the next stage of Bisby’s journey:  testing.  The work continues for the inventor in a far less theoretical mode.  As he is starting to build out real components, Bisby is also shopping for interest among manufacturers, who would devote some R&D resources to development.  “I’ve just done the math,” says Bisby.  “There are other people — experts in materials and production — who much more qualified than me to make those types of decisions.”

And perhaps after his theory becomes a bit closer to reality, Bisby can get to work on putting that motor on his bike.

For more information and more models of the DT-CVT, please visit:

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing. Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size. Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit:



The SMART team, a software R&D department at UK's Buro Huppold, has developed a method of integrating digital design, analysis, and construction processes. Integrated modeling proved essential for building the complex structure of the convention center for Education City, Qatar, shown here.

A SMART approach to integrated 3D analysis at Buro Happold

By Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media

As one of the largest engineering consultancies in the world, Buro Huppold crosses continents — with 15 offices throughout Europe, the US, and the Middle East – as well as disciplines, offering its clients solutions to nearly any design, structural, and civil engineering problem.  The firm’s design CV is considerable, including such early achievements like the Pompidou Center, and the Sydney Opera House.  The firm’s size — and its sizable tasks —  has led to its own Research & Development department, which looks for new ways to solve spatial problems.

“My SMART team — Software Modeling Analysis Research Technologies – focuses on the area of very complex nonlinear geometry in modeling analysis,” says Dr. Shrikant Sharma, who leads the group out of BH’s Bath, UK office.  “We’ve developed software which expedites these analyses through our internal research in cooperation with the top UK universities.”

Outside the Box -- More complex architectural shapes  -- like Buro Happold?s elongated curves on Malmö Green house in Sweden -- brings the need for 3D tools to solve geometric problems for engineering and construction.  The SMART team, a software R&D department at BH, has developed a method of integrating digital design, analysis, and construction processes.

Outside the Box -- More complex architectural shapes, like Buro Happold?s elongated curves on Malmö Green house in Sweden, brings the need for 3D tools to solve geometric problems for engineering and construction.

Sharma’s patented software creation for BH, SMART Form, is one example of how 3D modeler can be used to model not just shapes, but to model problems.

Open Architecture

“We use a variety of tools to optimize the process of finding the most efficient structure.  We write software as we need to, and obviously use existing software when it fulfills our needs,” says Sharma.  “But sometimes existing applications can’t answer the questions we have.  Some programs are very generic and we can’t add in certain specifications.”

Part of the philosophy its software developers, McNeel & Associates, was to keep the Rhinoceros modeler an open architecture that third-party programmers could independently develop and sell plug-ins which give users access to enhanced tools for specific for different industries.  As a result, Rhinoceros itself is kept unburdened with too many features, but at the same time adaptable to diverse design specialties from aviation to architecture.

Rhino’s 3D geometries are part of the input for SMARTForm, along with the queries for the particular structural or costing problem.  The Rhino model also displays the output from the SMARTForm analysis.  SMART plug-in queries can survey the 3D model automatically, highlighting surfaces that conform to a certain extent of curvature or angle, or lie a prescribed distance from other entities.

Just as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) query relationships between points, lines, and enclosed shapes on 2D maps, SMARTForm uses topological relationships, along with differential geometry, to map out problems on a complex 3D structure.

sidra-branches-wBuilding A Tree

A recent example of SMARTForm capabilities is Buro Happold’s convention center in Education City, a new 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar.

“Education City will have lots of extensions of foreign schools, some of which are already there, like Carnegie Mellon,” explains Sharma. “They will provide state-of-the-art education to students of the Middle East, and promote the location as an international center of education in the region.”  This massive convention center includes auditorium and committee meeting rooms for major events in Education City.  One of its exterior walls contains a 20-meter-high, 250-meter-long sculpture of a Sitra Tree – an ancient Arabian icon of learning, growth, and stability.

Making the form structurally sound is a job for Sharma and his SMART group, which modeled, analyzed, and optimized the tree sculpture and roof supports. SMART worked closely with the structural engineering team which was responsible for the detailed design and analysis of structural elements. Brian Cole, also based in Bath, led the project within SMART.

treecrosssections1The team begins with the Rhinoceros model of the architect’s free-form shape, which in the final structure will only be the tree’s outer skin. The actual loads will be carried by a substructure of steel members, which is up to the team to devise. The internal support system needs to be efficient in its use of materials and effective in its support at all points.  Because the components will be digitally manufactured off site, the system should keep the number of assembly parts to a minimum.

“We wanted the skeleton to be as close to the skin as possible simply to make sure the structure is efficient and uses the least amount of steel,” says Sharma.  “For the shape of the members, you wanted something that would be as close to a circle as possible but not have a lot of complex connectors, so we chose an octagon.  Also, we wanted the members to conform as much as possible to the center line of the branches.”

SMARTForm was used for finding the center line through the 3D model with a least-square fit formula, ensuring a uniform distance from the skin.

“The result is that we have a minimum of straight segments which are very close to the center line, while not having a lot of bend in the structure.  To make sure there’s a consistent space between the structure and the skin, the orthogonal structure actually tapers in its width as it goes from the bottom to the roof line,” Sharma explains.  “The branches also taper at a slightly different ratio.  A simple mathematical equation based on volume dictates how wide the members will be.”

Treehousing -- The trunk?s metal skin provides the form.   The load of the structure is carried by the centerline members.  BH engineers chose an octoganal shape to approach a circluar form, but which would better support angles at the joints.  Engineers also used thinner sides and hand-access holes to aid on-site assembly.

Treehousing -- The load of the structure is carried by the center-line members inside a steel skin. BH engineers chose an octagonal shape to approach a circular form, but which would better support angles at the joints. Engineers also used thinner sides and hand-access holes to aid on-site assembly.

The varying width of the octagonal steel members give a consistent support throughout the Sidra Tree without tensile warping of the thin skin of metal panels.  The geometric rationalization resulted in an efficient arrangement of solid regular structures that supports the more free-form exterior skin. It also enabled detailed design of the substructure using conventional design codes by the structural engineers.

Plug-ins to cut corners

SMARTForm analysis not only is useful in creating efficient geometry of structural systems, it can also be used to test construction alternatives that reduce cost.  constr-sidra

The outer skin of the Sitra Tree sculpture was to be thin panels made of corrosion-resistant steel.

“The client did not want glass-reinforced plastic, which would be much easier to fabricate with curvatures.  The intent was to build this fantastically complex tree structure from metal, which is a bit more problematic and expensive to construct.  With metal, cost became a significant constraint.”

The design and build team of Victor Buyck and Buro Happold found that a doubly-curved metal panel would cost up to four times to produce than one which is curved in just a single direction.

“A two-curvature panel will be very difficult to fabricate, since the bending, rolling, and stretching of the metal occur all at the same time, so there are a lot more costs associated with it.   Essentially, we wanted to maximize the number of panels that could be described as a single-curve surface, and keep the doubly-curved panels to a minimum.”

Using SMARTForm and the Rhinoceros panel scheme, Sharma’s team could quickly identify the thousands of metal panels by their topological make-up.  In the majority of occurrences, the secondary curve was only slight.  Sharma proposed a design compromise that changed the cost dramatically, while tweaking the overall shape of the Sidra tree almost imperceptibly.  The new panelization consisted of 70 percent of the panels as single-curve components, cutting about 60 percent of the cost of the skin fabrication.

“If you replace many of the original doubly-curved pieces with single-curved replacements, you can barely tell the difference,” says Sharma.  “We could construct basically the same tree-skin form with less complexity, but without loosing any of the character or smoothness of the shape.  There are points, especially at the branching joints, where you obviously need a double-curved piece.  We replaced the design driven by a curvature-based definition in SMARTForm which followed the flow lines of the tree shape.”

Digital fabrication

“Another consideration was transportation,” says Sharma.  “The entire tree was being fabricated in Malaysia. We didn’t want a lot of small pieces, and we wanted a close fit for the substructure when it was to be assembled on site. Another constraint was the assembly itself, not just initial construction but the need for a long-term access and maintenance strategy. We made the horizontal and vertical sides of the octagonal members thicker and the inclined plates thinner. Through the latter, we could more easily drill holes for manual access without losing stiffness in the design.” oct_constr

There is a reason why Sharma prefers to keep a strict mathematical control over design pre-processing. Maintaining a uniform accuracy to the infrastructure and design modifications carry on into post-processing, where the 3D data will feed into automatic CNC machining in the Malaysian fabrication shop.

The creation of the center line, the parsing of the center line, the panels, the understructure definition, the access holes – everything is programmed and generated automatically.  Every time something changes as part of the design evolution, we need to handle it consistently.  You also want to make sure you have a digital fabrication output without any manual intervention.  There are hardly any drawings of the skin panels, most all of the fabrication uses the 3D data directly to the factory machines.”

The Sitra Tree is an example of how architecture is borrowing from industrial design to take advantage of the efficiencies inherent in 3D technology.  The SMART group’s handling of the engineering ensures a high level of consistency throughout the thousands of pieces that make up the Sitra structure.  Each part is numbered and organized according to a machining and assembly schedule.  Because of the accuracy of the 3D processing and the CNC cuts, the tree is assembled with a perfect fit.

orSMART’s overall technique — using Rhinoceros as a central 3D hub which can transfer data back and forth to stand-alone tools such as ANSYS and Robot, further analyze and optimize designs through plug-ins and propriety software like SMARTForm, and schedule machining output through CNC devices  — is what Sharma calls “integrated modeling.”

“With integrated modeling,” Sharma says, “we can keep design, analysis, and fabrication essentially in one system that is truly automated.”

Learn more about SMART plug-ins for Rhino at:

About Buro Happold

Designers of elegant, bold, and sustainable engineering solutions for today’s built environment, Buro Happold builds for people.  With comprehensive services for any sized construction project, Buro Happold solves architectural, infrastructural, and environmental problems all over the globe.  For more information and to view past projects of Buro Happold, please visit:

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing.  Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size.  Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit:

Boarder Crossing

Office of innovation: Designers of Italy's Bastard brand of snowboarding gear are also steeped in skateboard culture, to such a degree they added a bowl above their flagship headquarters in Milan. Capturing the interest of customers of all types of boarders was the core strategy of its recent RHINO design.

Office of innovation: Designers of Italy's Bastard brand of snowboarding gear are also steeped in skateboard culture, to such a degree they added a bowl above their flagship headquarters in Milan. Capturing the interest of customers of all types of boarders was the core strategy of its recent RHINO design.

Italian innovators design a multi-tool for the waves, slopes, and streets

By Alex Dickey and Brett Duesing

“Snowboarding is very popular on the Alps,” says Max Bonassi snowboard designer at the Milan-based Comvert. “The main difference between Europe and the U.S. is the consistency of the snow. Here we mostly ride on hard pack. Rarely do we get real powder you see in America.”

Comvert has carved out its own path with Bastard, a brand that offers a line of gear specifically designed for Italian conditions. “We produce boards with a longer effective edge, and a bit stiffer than average boards,” he says. “The result is a very fast ride.”

Although the snow might vary across the globe, snowboarding fashion is universal. Boarders on the slopes of Torino go for the same styles as their counterparts in Breckenridge. Since the Comvert released its first board designs in 1994, the Bastard label has steadily grown to include a full catalog of outerwear, street wear, and accessories.

Since its beginnings, snowboarding counter-culture has always traded style influences with the sport’s rebellious half-cousins, skateboarding and surfing. Boarding enthusiasts often change between the sports according to the season, a fact confirmed by a visit to Comvert’s offices. Comvert recently constructed an indoor skate bowl in their headquarters, so employees could skate on their lunch hour.

Comvert enlisted the help of another Milanese firm, Sardi Innovation, to produce a new accessory for Bastard’s new line. CEO and founder, Enrique Luis Sardi, seized on this idea that snowboarders hit the slopes in the winter, surfed in the summer, and skated to work. This persistent crossover inspired Sardi to devise an all-in-one tool designed for all three sports.

Party animal: The many instruments in Bastard's RHINO pocket snow/snow boarding and surfing tool fold up into the shape of a Rhinoceros.

Party animal: The many instruments in Bastard's RHINO pocket tool fold up into the shape of a Rhinoceros.

The Clash of Rhinos

Sardi’s idea was a pocket-sized multi-tool that would combine ten mechanical devices for use in snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing. Other sports pocket tools existed, Sardi explains, but their looks were utilitarian rather than phat. To give character to the tool, the Sardi team looked to a bit of zoomorphism:

“We actually considered 60 different animals based on sketches,” says Sardi. The design team settled on the Rhinoceros, giving the guiding principle behind the shapes as well as the product name, the Bastard RHINO Multi-tool. “Once we had the animal idea, the whole design naturally came together. And let’s face it, if you want to make the coolest tool, the rhino is definitely one of the coolest animals.”

At that point, Sardi designers had already engineered the functional metal tool shapes in the 3D surface modeler coincidentally called Rhinoceros. Sardi says the modeling platform was ideal for Comvert’s tool project, as it is for many of his other high-concept designs. Comvert designers (as another coincidence) used the same application to model their snowboarding products and to engineer the curves of its wood-frame skate park.


The NURBS-based environment allowed the team to play with the tool concept on screen, arrange the metal parts into different positions, and define the encasing animal form with smoothly arching curves.

“Its horns, front feet, and back feet are three different open-end wrenches,” explains Sardi. “On its mouth, you plug in the four interchangeable multi-screwdrivers it stores in its stomach, which also contains an ice-or-wax spatula. Its throat opens up to the surf wax comb. Its tail is the keyring clip.” In keeping with the boarder lifestyle, the RHINO’s ears make for a handy beer bottle opener.

“From the business concept to the final design product, the project came together in no time at all,” says Sardi. Ordering the parts into production also went smoothly. The Sardi team could easily export the separate parts for different kinds of production (injected Nylon PA 6.6 copolymer for the casing or 316 stainless steel for the tool heads). Prototypes were made to preview the product with Comvert and its retail buyers.

“When we sent the design to rapid prototyping, it was ready,” says Bonassi. There was no doubt or redesign. We didn’t even make a single change in the Rhino model. The same prototype files were used in final production.”

Changing Geography

The Bastard RHINO is now released through Comvert retail partners through Europe. The toolkit hit a sweet spot, a balance between the practical needs of the sports and the fashion sense of the audience. And the audience for the product is now bigger, mainly because, as Bonassi points out, the tool can hang in shops year round.


“We haven’t done any kind of advertising at all, and still the response just gets better everyday,” he says. “We’re seeing not only magazine and design book features about it, but also hearing about cool stories from customers using their RHINO.”

The multi-tool even made the ADI DESIGN INDEX of the 150 best Italian-designed products in the world.”

As the RHINO gains momentum around the Alps and Mediterranean, it soon may be migrating to the Rockies and California beaches. “Now it’s available in the online stores and the Bastard web site. We are currently studying worldwide store distribution that will take it to North America very soon.”

Sardi is also proud of the recognition, and views the project as an instance of high-minded design turning a simple mechanical idea into a marketing breakthrough.

“The key to success,” says Sardi, “is to keep on innovating non-stop. That’s were the real business is. When the competitors try to copy, you are ready to launch a wholly new product and leave them the wake.”

sardi-innovation-logoAbout Sardi Innovation

At the cutting-edge of entrepreneurial innovation, Sardi is the multi-award-winning firm that businesses turn to for success in developing unique products that strengthen and consolidate their brand image. Clients such as Pirelli, Lavazza, Avio International Group, and McK Aviation have recognized the ability of Sardi Innovation to create real impact in the marketplace. For more information, please visit:


About Comvert S.r.l.

Founded in Milan in 1994 by four skateboarders, Comvert conceives, produces, and distributes gear and clothing for skateboarders and snowboarders under the brand Bastard. Comvert also distributes the brand Electric in Italy. To view Comvert’s quality lines of product, please visit:

rhinologoAbout Rhinoceros
Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing. Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size.  To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit:

Making Good


LifeStraw shows how products — rather than politics — may be the answer to the needs of the developing world

Lately, a small plastic tube has been lauded with superlatives. After it swept international design awards, TIME announced it as Invention of the Year, Forbes magazine called it “one of the ten things that will change the way we live.” Reader’s Digest chimed in with “Europe’s best invention,” and tech-reviewer Gizmag went one step further, labeling the tube “the invention of the century.”

The tube in question is called, LifeStraw®, produced by the Vestergaard Frandsen Group, a Swiss textile firm which has for years supplied developing countries with anti-malaria netting.

Although the 10-inch-long polystyrene tube seems modest in its construction, lifes_productthe problem LifeStraw sets out to tackle is of monumental scale. Sipping through a LifeStraw makes contaminated surface water drinkable.

“At any given moment, about half of the world’s poor are suffering from water-related diseases, of which over 6,000 – mainly children – die each day by consuming unsafe drinking water,” says company CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen. Today, 1.1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water. Diarrhoeal diseases affect the world’s HIV-infected populace (numbered at 33 million) especially, ranking as one of the leading cause of death among HIV-infected children.

LifeStraw may also be significant for another reason. One of the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the UN is to halve the number the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. A simple and inexpensive product — rather than bureaucratic outlay of aid — is now poised to achieve this objective.

This raises the question: Can products of designers, rather than the policies of bureaucrats, alleviate the worst of the world’s conditions?

‘The Invention of the Century’

According to Roelie Bottema, the designer at Vestergaard Frandsen who modeled the LifeStraw, the idea originated nearly a decade ago, when world-aid personnel from the Carter Center assigned to travel in Sudan and Ghana to fight Dracunculiasis — also known as Guinea Worm Disease — which was particularly endemic to these regions. The simplest method was to build a filter into a straw-like construction.

The guinea-worm straw inspired the idea of a super-straw, equipped with a combination of polymer-based purification filters that would protect against a full range of pathogens. In the final design, each replaceable LifeStraw filter purifies about a year’s supply of drinking water for one adult, up to 700 liters. The LifeStraw filters kills 99.999% of waterborne bacteria, eliminates 98.7% of waterborne viruses, and removes all particles over 15 microns.

The idea of travel factors greatly into the proper framing of the water purification problem. Village drinking water often has safeguards already – boiling through cooking, chlorination, or filtering at the well source. Also, residents naturally develop some degree of immunity to the microbe content in their local supply. The biggest risk for infection comes when villagers travel outside their localities for work or trade.

“With the guinea worm, for example, people would have protection against this disease where you have villages.” says Bottema. “Because people travel so much, they get easily contaminated from outside water sources. If you have a solution that cleans your water inside the village, it doesn’t necessarily address the entire problem.”


Personal, portable, and cheap, LifeStraw ensures protection against unsafe water anywhere. Worn on a cord as a necklace, the durable, lightweight product provides even small children with a safeguard against waterborne diseases.

Design of the LifeStraw

The bulk of the research and development behind the invention took place in a laboratory. The University of North Carolina School of Public Health performed the large battery of tests for a wide range of filtering methods and media.

“You do a lot of testing to determine what sorts of filter dimensions and which filter media work best together,” explains Bottema. “In the end, you design the chambers according to the data. You make sure you know what the effect will be if you adjust the size of the chambers or if you find media that work better or as cheaper substitutes.”

Bottema crafted the injection-molded plastic design in a 3D surface modeler called Rhinoceros, a software used by industrial designers to give consumer goods their distinctive curvatures. Rather than aesthetics, the focus of LifeStraw modeling was the parsimony of construction costs.

“The biggest challenge of engineering the LifeStraw was to combine the right media at very low cost,” says Bottema. The cost of each personal LifeStraw is under four dollars. “It is not that hard to make a water-purification device. It is very difficult thing to make it affordable.”

Engineering Solutions

Another product making headlines for developing-world innovation is Plumpy’nut, invented by a nutritionist in the French firm Nutriset. Extreme food scarcity threatens the youngest the most. In Niger, for example, more than a quarter of children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday.

Plumpy’nut is a simple protein-rich peanut paste fortified with other nutrients, which has been administered through Doctors Without Borders. Four-week treatments of foil packets of the product have been miraculous in reversing even the most severe symptoms of malnutrition.

Just as the design of LifeStraw addresses the real situation of villagers’ mobility with respect to water sources, Plumpy’nut satisfies the famine situation, at least better than the previous remedy, powdered milk formulas. Plumpy’nut takes up less space and costs less than powered milk. While prepared milk goes bad, Plumpy’nut has a shelf life of two years. The product can also be manufactured locally with ingredients common to much of the developing world.

Perhaps the most important improvement is the access to the relief. Fortified milk-based treatment required sanitary preparation by professionals at a feeding center on a daily basis, resulting in long lines and full hospital beds. The full four-week Plumpy’nut regimen can be given to mothers, who feed it twice daily to their children at home.

“With this one product,” says Dr. Milton Tectonidis, nutrition specialist for Doctors Without Borders, “we can treat three-quarters of [the] children on an outpatient basis. Before, we had to hospitalize them all and give them fortified milk.”

Framing the most dire of humane crises as a design problem — rather than a political one — may be the most effective way that industrialized nations can aid less fortunate countries. For innovative designers and manufacturers, it can as simple as considering a new, overlooked market – consisting of about one billion people.

Planners and Seekers

Former World Bank economist William Easterly wrote in this 2006 book (White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) of the ironic example that millions of children all over the West unfailingly find their own copy of the latest Harry Potter novel at their local bookstore on the day of its release, while cartons of donated medicine sit in warehouses far away from the dying children of the developing world who need it. The difference, he writes, is that Western aid, although generous, is not tied to mechanisms of the market. There is no effective link matching resources to needs, nor any accountability between good intentions and beneficial results.

Easterly describes two mentalities to helping poor countries, the Planner and the Seeker. Planner thinking, abstract and political, is a macroeconomic and lawyerly approach, involving governments, banks, corporations and bureaucracies. The Planner approach has dominated in West’s interventionist attempts throughout the 20th century. In broad terms, Planner aid has failed to trickle down to the needy in time to save them, and its large-scale projects frequently misread the cultural or economic realities on the ground, leading to incongruities inside an already unfortuante state of affairs.

Instead of focusing on macro-level projects to re-make developing nations in the West’s image, Seekers look for simple, inexpensive solutions that have proven immediate benefits at an individual level.

The idea of well-designed products as a way to improve lives in the developing world fits well within Easterly’s definition of Seeker-type programs. A common element in many such community-based programs ties beneficial supplies to the local economy. The goods cost a token amount to prevent hoarding. A shopkeeper can make a small profit as an incentive to re-order supplies.

Designing a Better World

In VF’s case, the LifeStraw is sold in high volumes mostly to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some organizations find that subsidizing the cost but still charging a small amount helps to regulate supply to demand. “The NGOs don’t always donate the product, sometimes they sell them,” says Bottema. “It depends a great deal on what the organization wants. Sometimes they ask for just part of the price.”

Incentives in product-driven solutions exist too for designers and manufacturers of the developed world, if they tune their ingenuity to the basic needs of a billion-person market. Vestergaard Frandsen and Nutriset are for-profit companies, which in typical entrepreneurial style, shoulders the risk of the product’s success or failure and supplies the upfront costs for the product’s R&D and manufacture. NGOs are in effect altruistic wholesalers, who instead of marking up the price, subsidize it with donations to fit into local economies.

If last century’s charity passed through the hands of politicians and planners, perhaps a system of aid in the new century will revolve around products. This may indicate a trend to greater reliance on the private sector than governments, and it may also change the way Westerners give donations.

As recent tsunami and hurricane disasters have shown, many in West are eager to give charitably, yet where and how the aid is spent is anybody’s guess. A more precise method of giving would address the specific means, not just a vague intent. Like stockholders backing a commercial product they perceive to have the most chance of market success, charitable donators could support the most effective solution.

Rather than aid siphoning through corrupt or inefficient bureaucratic systems, monies devoted towards a product like LifeStraw or Plumpy’nut ensure that maximum benefits reach the individuals in need.

About Vestergaard Frandsen

The Vestergaard Frandsen Group is an international company founded in Denmark in 1957. The company specializes in complex emergency response and disease control textiles, with clients all over the world. With headquarters in Switzerland and branch offices in Denmark, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Kenya, USA and UAE, and licensed production in India, Vietnam and Thailand, the Vestergaard Frandsen Group is able to meet complex emergency needs at a very short notice. Over the years, Vestergaard Frandsen has worked closely with most non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, as well as ministries of health in various countries. Vestergaard Frandsen takes pride in its superior technological and quality standards, innovative products and constantly works on new product development as complex emergencies require. To find out more about the LifeStraw product, or to make a donation to organizations distributing the device, please visit:

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing. Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size. Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. Rhino provides the compatibility, accessibility, and speed in an uninhibited free-form modeler that are found only in products costing 20 to 50 times the price. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit: