Vincent Barué has been interested in digital engineering for almost ten years now. An architect by training, he uses the principles of BIM – Building Information Modeling, “a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places” – to design digital models for buildings, infrastructures and territories. At the crossroads between engineering and new technologies, Foundation, the company he founded with partner Nicolas Boutet, produces dynamic design management and operational tools for building. For projects such as the University of the Citadelle d’Amiens, the extension of the Roland-Garros stadium, the Art Institute of Chicago or the new Paris law courts, Foundation has worked with some of the leading architecture firms such as Renzo Piano and Christian de Portzamparc. During the BIM World expo which took place on 25 and 26 March in Paris, we asked Vincent Barué about what he does.
DIGITAL ENGINEERING FOR architecture AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT
What exactly does your job involve?
We provide 3D databases for buildings. We make digital models in which we model and georeference all the information on each element of a project (walls, doors, windows, etc.): Who built it? Out of what? When was it/will it be built? How much does it cost? How sustainable is it?
We can go into great detail, such as modelling the fluids that circulate inside a building or analysing the composition of the rubber in a window seal.
3D model of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris: every single building element is detailed
Modeling a project does take time, but there’s a definite ROI: thanks to digital models, for example, we can know how much a project will cost and how a building will behave structurally once it’s completed.
Why did you choose the name Foundation?
We’re all geeks and science fiction fans! So we were naturally inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is about a scientist who collects huge volumes of information to create an encyclopaedia that allows him to predict how people will behave. And that’s what we do: we collect and structure information in3D databases in order to predict the acoustic, thermal and economic behaviour of a building.
How did you get into digital engineering?
“A year and a half ago, people thought we were mad. They didn’t know what we were talking about.”
One of the ways we started was with BIM, a collaborative working process using digital models. For eight years that’s what we did with major projects like the Parc des Princes, Roland-Garros and the Euro 2016 stadium.
Things evolved in quite a surprising way: we have a very small team and soon started handling some large-scale projects. This meant we had to find ways of setting up and configuring databases whilst deploying design tools for the architects and engineers. Basically, this means that for designing stadia, we had to devise tools that calculate the number of seats, the spectators’ visibility coefficients and trigger alerts for entry and exit times.
3D model of the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris
How does digital engineering differ from traditional working methods?
The digital models mean we don’t have to build everything in two dimensions. Before, when an architect wanted to move a door, he would have to move it in the cross-section, in the elevation, and on the floor plan. As this process couldn’t be automated, the design phase took a lot longer. What we do is offer tools that speed up production so that architects can focus more on design, on originality and quality. It’s as if, during the design phase, you can virtually build your project before physically doing it, which means there are no errors or omissions. There are no geometrical inconsistencies when you’re working in 3D.
Another thing: when working the traditional way, you don’t produce much at the beginning and afterwards, you’re constantly having to redo things: the architect has to draw the plan, so does the engineer, so you end up with loads of different plans. Whereas with digital models, everyone works on the same central model and so has access to the same information at the same time.
Digital model of the Elithis Danube Tower in Strasbourg
B.I.M. SHOULDN’T BE RESTRICTED TO THE BUILDING PHASE
“We’re called upon at all the different stages of a project.”
It would be a shame to combine and structure all this information and only use it for the building phase. Our models are digital avatars: they’re a synchronous copy of the actual building that enable us to track it throughout its lifecycle: from design to operation, and through building and marketing. Clients therefore have rapid access to reliable, up-to-date information.
MAKING THE OPERATION PHASE EASIER
Operations account for 75% of the building lifecycle. So our digital models can be used for property registry databases: by clicking on a property, you can find out who lives there, how long they’ve been living there and for what cost: people in charge of building maintenance and operations can therefore get all the information they need with just a few clicks. We can also implement alert systems, for example to say when it’s time to replace a fire extinguisher or when standards are amended.
“We don’t sell BIM, we sell services.”
What takes the longest is modelling and structuring the database for a project. Once that’s done, we can develop services and added-value features, like setting up a gateway to our clients’ business applications and rolling out technology such as facility management, smartphone apps, etc. The services are designed to help the client throughout the whole lifecycle of the project, like digital breadcrumbs, and are always geared towards saving them time and money.
MAKING THE virtuAl MORE TANGIBLE
So that our clients can understand the information immediately, we enhance the raw models with light and shade. That’s important because we centralise a great deal of information but we have to make the virtual tangible.
“We’ve hired two video game developers.”
We also offer virtual reality solutions so that people can browse through the model in real time and to scale. With a VR headset they can really go inside the building and can get an idea of things like ceiling height, see how the materials react to light, etc. So they can really appreciate the comfort and functionality of the building, at the design and marketing stage.
Exploring a model with a 3D immersion headset
What sort of obstacles and misgivings have you come across when rolling out these tools?
This technology is already being used in the aeronautical, aerospace and automotive industries, but it’s difficult introducing it in the construction business because skills tend to be compartmentalised.
“There’s a definite interest in BIM but the industry needs to evolve.”
Whether it’s architects, engineers or economists, people are rather negative about it because it takes them out of their comfort zone, in terms of accountability, structuring equipment, training, etc. But for the digital models to be really reliable, all the people involved in the project have to access and understand the protocols throughout the entire project. Foundation helps all professionals, at every stage of the project lifecycle. To achieve digital for all, now, you have to educate the market!
> See also: A smart building should be an open ecosystem