Taking Architecture to the Community with 3D Visualization
Building a new school in a residential suburb can be a tricky proposition. Community issues, opinions and concerns abound. The neighbors worry as much about the schools appearance as they do about the quality of education that goes on inside the walls. The municipality intends to keep costs under control, yet at the same time the building must be large enough for gym, cafeteria and library facilities. Satisfying all of the involved parties is almost as much of an art as good architecture.

HMFH Rendering

With the architect's 3D design and rendering tools, local citizens were able to fine-tune the look of their planned school building down to the last brick. (Photo of actual building below.) HMFH Actual Site This is precisely where the Cambridge, Mass., firm, HMFH Architects, Inc., shines. This 60-person firm excels in difficult projects, where many people must be heard and considered. HMFH is a broad-based practice, offering architectural and planning services with a focus on educational projects, as well as housing, public facilities, and office interiors. Projects range from small, interior space planning to renovations and new construction worth more than $30 million. The experience in designing school buildings has taught the firm that communities can raise a multitude of issues.

To ally community concerns before a brick is laid, HMFH brings building concepts to life with DataCAD (DATACAD LLC, Avon, CT), an architecturally oriented 3D computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) program. "CADD not only assists with selling concepts to the community, it actually encourages community involvement," says Pip Lewis, an HMFH Architect and Project Manager for the recent Cutler School project.

In the case of the Cutler School in Somerville, Mass., an additional challenge facing HMFH Architects was that a new school was to be built on the lot of the old school, a small lot tucked among houses on a hill. Everyone knew the school needed to be rebuilt, but the community was clearly attached to the existing building from the early 1900s, despite the fact it had been closed for roofing, handicap access, mechanical, and space issues. The school lot was less than one acre of land on a tight residential block. The lot sat on a hill, creating unusual parameters for any renovations. A decision of how to renovate the school still had not been reached as late as 1994, even though the school had been closed five years earlier.

Once HMFH scouted the location, they realized that the cost of renovations would approach, and possibly surpass, the cost of razing the old building and starting from scratch. The building had also become part of a critical desegregation plan. This meant that state officials had the final say on what would be done with the building. The lions share of the projects funding would come from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the state wanted a tight reign on costs. These officials decided to raze the old building, but left the city officials with the task of convincing the community that a new, larger structure could work in the same location. The city turned to HMFH for help.

Look Before You Leap

HMFH has used DataCAD software since 1987. "We use DataCAD for everything," said Pip Lewis. "Working drawings, plans, elevations, details, schedules, every aspect of a job gets done in DataCAD. It speeds things along and allows us to produce detailed documents quickly. We used to have to submit large rolls of drawings to the state for approval on a design, now we send them a disk. Its so much easier."

"The challenge on this project," he added, "was to fit a larger building into the same lot as the old one without overwhelming the site or crowding the neighbors. The old Cutler School did not have a gym, cafeteria or library, which are standard issue in todays educational facilities. An interesting feature of the site, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, was the extraordinary slope to the land. The ground level at one end of the building is 16 feet higher than at the other."

The complications faced in designing a new building within these constraints were only a fraction of the challenge. HMFH also had to consider public opinion, a small battle that took shape from the very beginning. Every major issue had to be addressed at community meetings, and the neighborhood had to be convinced that a new facility was a good and viable idea.

HMFH used sketches and models to begin the discussion of some initial ideas, but sketches and models can only do so much. When the community committed to a specific design, the architects turned to a more high-tech solution.

"Weve written a macro that takes a DataCAD 3D file and reads it into Renderman, a photorealistic rendering program (from Pixar, Richmond, Calif)," explained David Pendery, Director of Information Technology at HMFH. This combination of applications is quite useful because the two programs have virtually parallel and identical entity types. They are programmed to deal with objects in the same manner, so the coordinates for a particular point translate intact and I can spend my time working on renderings, not on translating coordinates or rewriting missing data. All I need is a 3D DataCAD model of a building and a photograph of the site, and I can render the building on top of the photograph as if it is a picture of a completed project."

Sometimes the renderings were too realistic. Some of the participants in the community meetings had to be told that the renderings were not pictures of other buildings, but rather a computer projection of what the new building was going to look like. Once everyone understood that this was not some other building, but their own, the renderings became a powerful public relations tool.

"The software allowed me to program shaders which created images that were especially helpful on exterior walls," Pendery said. "I parametrically controlled the size of the brick--as well as the color of the bricks and the mortar--and the elevation of the building in the brick shader. The result was a more accurate rendering than one done with a texture-mapping package where a photograph of a small area of brick is applied to a large wall with an inherent tiling effect. For the Cutler School project, the neighbors and school officials were interested in seeing several different brick and color treatments of the faade, so four alternate renderings were created. This technology changed the renderings as a matter of typing in three new numbers in three different places, nothing more."

The community members viewed the renderings as an accurate forecast of colors and design, and the software also allowed neighbors to view the building from different angles, to see how high it would be relative to adjacent structures.

HMFH created three different color schemes, built large sample brick panels and armed itself with renderings of all three designs for the final neighborhood meeting. The meeting was held in the street near the site and residents voted for their favorite color combination. "The end result," Lewis remembered, "was A) a building the neighbors liked because they had participated in the design process; B) a richly colored school of which the community feels a sense of ownership that didnt just land in town as an alien object; and C) a convivial mood because everyone knew what to expect--there were no surprises during the buildings construction."

The project was a model of "a community building a community." To commemorate that sense of community, Somerville Mayor Michael Capuano ordered 300 copies of the computer renderings after the job went out to bid so that he could sign them and present them to people in the city as mementos of the collaborative spirit on what had been a controversial issue. The images were even used on the cover of Somervilles annual report to herald the citys pride in community. Through HMFHs innovative use of high technology, brotherhood prospered and built a great school.

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Revised: Saturday, 18 January 2014
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