Case study: BIM gives a clear roadmap for maintenance and building management

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BIM gives designers and facilities managers the ability to model any configuration, identify possible clashes with existing services and structure and establish a clear roadmap for ongoing maintenance and building management.

Once upon a time every space had a function. And from that function came form. The brief was set. And while that didn’t necessarily make the design process simple, at least there were clear parameters to work within.

Today, life is not that straightforward. Rapidly evolving technology, increased mobility of people and information, global competition and a fluctuating economy all mean business priorities can change at the drop of a hat. ‘Expect the unexpected’ has become an unwritten part of every design brief.

Whether a commercial workplace, university faculty, hospital or hotel, a space that is dynamic to the needs of its users, sustainable in its operation and adaptable to market changes, is one that will deliver long-term value to its owners and stakeholders.

The challenge for designers is creating a space that is all of these things – while also being distinctive, appealing and somewhere people want to be.

The secret is simplicity. Going back to the basics of good design. Understanding the client’s objectives, responding to the wider site and local context, and embracing high-quality materials that will stand the test of time.

Workplaces, universities and community buildings are no longer made up of a series of specialised spaces linked by corridors. Instead, careful design is blurring the boundaries between disciplines and functions – creating new opportunities for people to interact and collaborate.

Gone are the days of universities having individual tutorial rooms, a 500-seat lecture theatre, academic offices and a student union. Now they offer collaborative learning spaces that are occupier driven. Academic staff are accessible, students are encouraged to interact with researchers and all the activity taking place in the building is put proudly on display to encourage greater engagement between groups.

The Learning Hub at Adelaide University, for example, is an education space. But it’s also a workplace, a place to meet and socialise, and a place to relax. In the face of increasing international competition, and the proliferation of online courses, learning hubs are being embraced as a means of attracting people back to the campus – a way of appealing to the best and brightest academic talent.

But this still doesn’t answer the question of how you design such a space. A space that essentially needs to be everything for everyone, both now and as pedagogy and technology continue to shift in the future. And furthermore, how do you manage and maintain them in a sustainable way?

The success of the Learning Hub at Adelaide University stems from its ability to meet the needs of the users. The HASSELL design team conducted approximately 30 workshops over eight weeks with representatives from the university, workplace environment strategists and key stakeholders. We also consulted with local and international student groups on a weekly basis to both inform and develop the concept design, helping stakeholders and the design team to make informed decisions along the way.

The integrated design team of architects, interior designers, urban designers and landscape architects then began designing from the ‘inside out’. The fitout design informed the base building design, taking into account the aspirations and functional requirements of the university’s students and staff, as well as the practical requirements for its ongoing management.

The result is an inherently flexible space. It incorporates 10,500 square metres of learning and information areas, designed specifically to foster a more collaborative and social environment. Each student can choose individual, quiet, reflective, collaborative or interactive, vibrant spaces to continue their learning journey outside of more formal lecture and tutorial spaces.

These spaces are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All spaces are supported with the latest computer and information technology. A key aspect of the Learning Hub is its ‘self-organising’ characteristics – engaging students, staff and visitors’ curiosity to investigate, relax, debate, discuss, enjoy and learn by adapting the individual spaces to suit their requirements. It responds to the diverse needs of individuals and the ‘anytime anywhere’ concept of experiential learning.

This design approach works well for a general collaborative space. But how do you design a specialised space knowing that its purpose or the techniques it supports may be redundant in the near future?

This was the challenge presented by Flinders University in South Australia, for its new School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics (CSEM).

The university wanted a world-leading research and teaching facility to house highly specialised research programs in fields as diverse as nanotechnology, medical devices and clean technology. But, with an investment of $120 million, the university needed a space that could be easily adapted as the university’s priorities shifted over time.

It was here that the value of the ‘virtual building’ really came to the fore. The use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) enabled us to walk the team at Flinders through every possible configuration of the space.

When you thread BIM into the situation, the possibilities are endless. It gives designers and facilities managers the ability to model any configuration, identifying possible clashes with existing services and structure, and establishing a clear roadmap for ongoing maintenance and management of the building. This not only delivers significant time and cost savings during the lifespan of the project, but also supports a highly sustainable approach to the building’s ongoing operation.

In the case of Flinders University, the full commitment to BIM from the start enabled us to test all the options for transforming the spaces in the future. Offices were transformed virtually into lab spaces and lab spaces were expanded and reduced depending on the potential size of user groups.

We were able to show the management team the flexibility that was inherent to the design – equipping the university to remain agile in the face of unpredictable and changing business focuses.

The result is a dynamic building. Walls can be easily deconstructed and reconfigured to transform the purpose of a space. The building structure and envelope blur the boundaries between disciplines through the use of voids in floor plates, open staircases and transparent materials, promoting visual and physical connectivity throughout the building.

Undergraduate and postgraduate programs share resources, increasing interaction between students, while the building allows for the expansion and relocation of research programs in the future.

HASSELL took what would traditionally have been quite a disjointed design made up of a number of very specific spaces – and produced a highly adaptable space that meets the needs of current users, but can be easily tailored to future requirements.

In the case of both CSEM at Flinders University and the Learning Hub at Adelaide University, the form of the buildings has not been compromised by their respective functions. In fact, by gaining a detailed understanding of the needs of the current and potential future user groups, adaptability has become one of the key design features that have made them both highly distinctive and inspiring spaces.

But, perhaps most importantly for each university, they are also highly sustainable spaces. Not just in the environmental sense of the word – although each building has outstanding green credentials – but in the sense of delivering long-term value back to each institution through their sustainable operation.

Nothing is left to chance. Each design truly does ‘expect the unexpected’. With the help of BIM, the design team was able to start with the end in mind. With the end point being ‘anything is possible’.

The writer Chris Watkins is a principal at international design firm HASSELL and project leader for both Flinders@Tonsley and the Learning Hub, Adelaide University.

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