We can create wonderfully powerful and detailed pictures of how buildings behave thanks to an irritatingly repetitive, tedious and costly modelling process. Now one company has found a way to make it all work better
Engineers have the next best thing to a crystal ball at their fingertips. Even when a building is little more than a squiggle on an architect's sketchpad, they can heat it, ventilate it, cool it then burn it to the ground and note where the occupants die of smoke inhalation. Then they can re-erect it and check the amount of wind turbulence it creates, the shadows it casts … they can choose just about everything but the specials on the blackboard at the rooftop restaurant. All thanks to clever 21st-century supertechnology.

What is not so clever is the fact that engineers spend most of their time just tapping away on a keyboard, keying in the same basic information over and over again. They have to do this because each aspect of the building's performance is modelled using a separate computer program, and they cannot exchange even basic information, such as the building's shape and size. So this has to be laboriously re-entered for each.

But one man has tackled this problem head-on and come up with a solution that is winning his company extra work. Stephen Logan, an associate at multidisciplinary consultant Connell Mott MacDonald had the idea of developing a translation program to allow the modelling programs to communicate with each other. It enables the company to carry out "sketch" modelling – quick rough-and-ready models that inform the design at the concept stage.

By getting engineers involved at this early stage Logan asserts that time and money can be saved: "Seventy per cent of the cost of doing a model is setting the job up." Understandably, engineers have been reluctant to model buildings until the architect's design is finalised – in case it changes and they have to go through the time-consuming process of modelling all over again. But this constraint can have a profound effect on a building's long-term performance. Take, for example, naturally lit and ventilated buildings: as Logan points out, here form really should follow function, at least as far as the services go. "If the engineer is not advising at the concept stage, you end up trying to shoehorn a half-baked engineering solution into the building," says Logan.

Logan reckons his translation program helped win the company and architect Denton Corker Marshall the job of designing the services at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, a naturally ventilated complex of 55 courts. "Because it costs us so little to model the building, we are prepared to do it very early on," he says. "With Manchester we modelled it for the design competition; this had an influence on us winning the job as our design was validated." Usually architects have very little information from engineers to work with when designing for a competition, other than the engineers' reassurance, "trust me, it will work."

At Manchester, Connell Mott MacDonald first modelled the thermal performance of the building using a program called IES. Logan then copied the building's geometry, created in IES, into a computational fluid dynamics program called Phoenics that modelled airflow throughout the naturally ventilated building. "These models were simplified, but good enough to validate our ideas," Logan explains. Once the company had won the job, it modelled external airflow to convince the planners that the building's shape would not create excessive wind speeds in an adjacent plaza – and provide advance warning of a potential wind speed problem in another plaza at the side of the putative building.

As the court complex was so large, nobody knew whether it had enough security checkpoints. Logan copied the geometry for the relevant parts of the building into a people-flow modeller called STEPS to see if unacceptable queues would form. "It took us a day and a half to show there wouldn't be a problem," he says.

Connell Mott MacDonald developed the translator in-house. "We thought, wouldn't it be good if we could build a model so we could import 3D information from IES to STEPS?" says Logan. "It turned out to be possible. It took three to four weeks to do it. Then we thought, if we can do that, what else can we do with it?"

The final solution is a program that can translate a huge range of different CAD files. When a user opens the translator, they simply drag the geometry file from the program it was created in and drop it onto the program they want to use for the next stage of modelling, such as STEPS. According to Logan, out pops a STEPS geometry file. "We could spend a week setting up a typical three-storey school," he continues. "With this, we can do it in minutes." The translated file contains the building geometry complete with details such as doors, and in some instances even the people created in the first model. The only snag is that the program is not currently available on the open market, although anyone can enjoy the benefits of the modelling service. Connell Mott MacDonald 1, rest of the industry 0.