Malcolm Walker at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure launch

On a BIM conference in London and what else we’re up to

Chief operating officer for Bentley Systems Malcolm Walter on Monday kicked off his company’s yearly conference in London in front of a crowd of about 120 people. And that was just the media, flown in from around the world to hear what is the latest in building information modelling and related software systems for delivering infrastructure and buildings.

By Tuesday numbers at the Hilton London Metropole swelled to about 800. On show was some mind boggling digital capability that even had one of the five Bentley brothers who founded the company saying he had trouble comprehending.

In particular he was talking about the “reality mesh”, or a 3D digital model of an infrastructure plant, buildings or an entire city, created from huge numbers of high resolution photography.

For the papal visit to Philadelphia earlier this year more than 24 hectares of the city were mapped and digitally recreated using 28,000 photographs, in order to manage the logistics and security for the visit.

Other highlights at the conference included the annual awards with its array of case studies. And listening to designers such as architect Robin Partington who led design of the Gherkin when he was at Foster + Partners and, now in his own firm, has created another sculptural addition to the skyline to be called the Cucumber. This building, formally known as One Merchant Square, also took out Bentley’s Innovation in Building Award.

These were all interesting enough. But another reason to take up the conference offer was the opportunity to follow up a fascinating interview with climate bonds Czar Sean Kidney earlier this year. Perhaps we could gather some leading lights from the finance and property worlds to hear what might be possible in shaping more sustainable outcomes, especially in the lead up the Paris COP (more on this soon).

At the Bentley conference the thinking on climate and sustainability might not have been central to the debate but it was at least part of the conversation. An issue could well be that with such dazzling geometry and computational athletics some of the participants in this amazing industry forget the outcomes driving achievement in the first place – the chance to shave time, resources and energy from building and infrastructure projects.

On sustainability journalists and delegates generally fell into two camps: one whose eyes glazed over at the mention of the word and the other that slowly warmed to the topic and then quickly slipped into high gear.

An example of the latter was a liberal-minded US journo who took a nano-second to launch into a satisfying critique of former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott for his anti-climate, anti-green stance – astonishing given Australia’s front line exposure to the worst of climate change, the journo said.

There was also the delegate from a US chemical manufacturing company, with about 20 facilities in the US and about 50 worldwide, who said sustainability and life cycle analysis informed at least 75 per cent of what his company did, but that this was really quite challenging in his industry. He was glad his company recently built its first LEED Gold-rated building in Asia but added that it was such a pity that building rating systems are still stuck on design and haven’t moved onto the more important and relevant operational ratings. It’s not much more than green wash, he said.

The awards

The Inspired Awards drew scores of contestants. Among them, from our neck of the woods, was Australia’s SA Water with a predictive operational analytic tool it developed for its Adelaide Metro Water Distribution Network. From what we picked up this is high tech analysis that uses weather forecasts up to a fortnight out to predict when it needs to switch on its desalination plant of pretty much “pure energy” to make water. It took out the award for Innovation in Asset Performance Management.

Another contestant from Australia was Sydney Airport with its Airport Infrastructure Facilities Management based on a high-tech mapping system for its assets.

And there was also MWH with two entries represented by Steven Coyle, CAD manager for MWH Australia, and Terry Sowden Principle CAD Designer, Mechanical, who were therefore competing against each other.

One of these projects was the Googong Water Recycling Plant near Canberra. It’s part of a new estate for about 6000 dwellings by CIC Australia (part of the PEET Ltd after a friendly takeover in August 2013) and Mirvac, located about 45 minutes from the Canberra CBD. A clever angle in the project is that the local council will end up owning and maintaining the project when it’s completed.

A facility at Reedy Creek in Queensland for treating permeates after mining was the second project. It’s a mining enabler but the environmental angle is that water is treated and released back into the environment much faster than it would otherwise be, one of the MWH delegates said.

It’s clear that the benefits of technology don’t discriminate.

Digitalising the cathedral at Milan

At lunch awards juror Professor Stefano Della Torre, head of department from the Milano Politecnico, Department of Architecture, Built Environment and Construction Engineering, said his department was digitising the Milan Cathedral. Italy is slow to the BIM and digital technology party, he said. Mostly this was because design houses were typically small and found the significant investment required difficult to manage. Government needs to step up, he said.

It’s not so easy

But as with all advances in technology there is the potential and there is the reality, sometimes separated by significant distance.

Overheard during the conference was a comment: “It’s not as easy as it seems. Yes the software is easy to use, but that’s as long as you follow the rules. You’ve got models that are 200-300 gigabytes in size and you’re trying to push these models around to offices around the world. It’s counterproductive if you don’t’ follow the rules.”

1 Merchant Square, AKA the Cucumber.

Making a case for old technology and “materiality”

In the buildings forum on Wednesday afternoon, architect Robin Partington of Robin Partington & Partners provided an engaging session on the artisanal or more creative side of design and how technology can either enable this or erect annoying barriers.

Partington harked back to his days with Norman Foster’s practice 30 years ago, where he was lucky enough to be provided with one of the first computers to come out of the closet of mainframe cool rooms and onto a desk. This “piece of kit” as he puts it, was called Interact, and was produced by Intergraph.

“It was just brilliant and I was totally besotted with it. I’d fallen in love,” he said.

Key to this thing of beauty, he said, was that this computer had two clear screens with nothing to interfere with intimate translation of what was in his head to the creation on the screen.

All the controls were in a “sensitiser” on the desk, which had a piece of clear plastic film under which you could put your menu.

“Your could put your puck [the forerunner to the mouse] across the surface and put your menus underneath tuned to what you wanted. It was a horizontal surface and it moved to the command. It was all done in front of you.”

The way he described the experience, as something deeply immersive – “I’d look up from my desk and it was dark, the day had gone” – sounds very much like the creative “flow” artists describe.

But like so many love affairs, it didn’t last.

“The desktop came in and took all the benefits away.” Annoying for him is all the “post it notes” of interfering menus and options on the screens all screaming for attention.

In a way the rise of the PC was inevitable, he said. The Interact cost around £40,000; the PC took key features and commercialised it for the masses.

What Partington wants is to sit with a designer that can bring back that amazing experience.

Even so, even without the high “materiality” of this lovely way to design, Partington’s company has designed the next new amazing building for the London skyline, at 1 Merchant Square, winner of this year’s Bentley Innovation in Building award.

The cone shaped building has of course already been dubbed the Cucumber, to go with the Gherkin (the design of which Partington led when he was at Foster + Partners) and the Shard.

And the climate talks in Paris

The sustainability question came in again later on Wednesday as a closer to the buildings forum. It came from a delegate from Finland who wanted to know with all this technology and capability and the huge challenges of climate change, population growth and resource depletion, that the coming climate talks at the Paris COP in December would focus on what were we doing?

The answer was similar to the question on how to deal with the people in the buildings now that we were so clever about how to design and manager them.

“We have a line item for capex [capital expenditure] and we have a line item for opex [operational expenditure] but we don’t have one for humans.

“Yes technically we can solve all of those problems. Underlying the solution is the political will and procurement… There is nothing stopping us whatsoever.”

The Fifth Estate was guest of Bentley Systems at the Year In Infrastructure 2015 conference.

On that note it’s good to see the banks joining the energy companies to vie for who’s a keener climate warrior. Incredible as it seems the world that drives us (the financial world) is fast turning away from the acrid smoke left behind by coal burning.

Noted during the week was the Comm Bank declaring it will “strengthen its green credentials by acknowledging it has a role to play” in trying to keep the planet in a state more or less in keeping with life on Earth – that is under 2°C of warming.

It’s not clear if this means it will do things like stop lending to coal projects, which has potential to create confusion. Wait, is that the latest iteration of sophisticated greenwash?

First quarter results due today might reveal more.

In line with the latest trend of publications such as the AFR to not just acknowledge the existence of climate and divestment campaigners, but to also increasingly quote them as authorities of note, the Sydney Morning Herald noted Market Forces lead campaigner Julien Vincent saying you’d expect the bank to actually stop lending to coal if it means what it says.

“We would welcome any commitment by Commonwealth Bank or any other bank to act in a way that helps meet the 2 degree global warming limit. As long as they realise that they are signing up to making major changes to how they do business,” he said.

“It will be the first time CBA has acknowledged the validity of the 2 degree target,” the article said (as if the bank is actually an authority on such targets).

Other banks have already made a tilt at looking greener.

Westpac said “we’re preparing for a 2 degree economy” and ANZ has said “we support” the 2 degrees goal being negotiated by governments.

Like we say, you need a planet to make an economy on. You can’t make an economy on Mars. Yet.