Zaha Hadid Architects (Implementation Study Excerpt from the BIM Evaluation Study Report)AECbytes Feature (April 13, 2016)

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2016, the AEC industry lost one of the world’s leading architects, Zaha Hadid. In memoriam, AECbytes is publishing this excerpt from its 2010 BIM Evaluation Study Report, which explored the implementation of BIM applications at various firms, one of which was Zaha Hadid Architects. Of course, there is so much more to architecture than advanced technology implementation, but given that AECbytes focuses exclusively on AEC technology, it seems apt to highlight how the amazing buildings designed by Zaha Hadid were supported, in their creation and realization, by a vast array of sophisticated tools from many different vendors. Technology, by itself, does not make for brilliant architecture, but it can certainly help to make the creation of brilliant architecture a reality.

Zaha Hadid is one of the world’s most famous contemporary architects and has won numerous awards, including the Pritzker Prize in 2004. She established her practice in London in 1980, and since then, it has grown to over 400 people, of which close to 300 are based in the London headquarters while the rest are in offices in various parts of Europe and Asia, where the bulk of the firm’s projects are located. Although the firm has done some projects in the US, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum coming up at Michigan State University, it does not have a US office yet. The size of the firm has grown ten-fold over the last 8 to 9 years, which has been quite challenging, both from a management as well as technological perspective.

The firm has a relatively flat hierarchy with two partners, a handful of directors, and close to 30 associates, who manage one or more projects. The different associates head groups that have their own preferences when it comes to design processes, workflows, and the digital tools that they use. This means that a large number of tools and techniques are used in the firm. About 30% of the work is done entirely with Autodesk Maya and Rhino, with AutoCAD for the 2D work, without the use of any BIM application at all. This would typically be for smaller projects such as villas. The rest of the work is done using BIM, but with different solutions. A large part of the BIM work, making up about 30-40% of all the projects, is done using Digital Project, combined with the use of Rhino for the initial conceptual design and the use of AutoCAD for producing construction documents. Revit is used for about 20% of the projects. The remaining 10-15% of the work is done using Bentley’s BIM solutions by a group that is very comfortable with Bentley’s MicroStation platform.

Thus, the firm is essentially agnostic to the kinds of tools that are used on its projects, and has made no attempt to standardize on one set of applications or processes that all its employees are forced to use. Despite the overhead of maintaining all these multiple tools and providing related training and support, the firm finds that being proficient in multiple platforms provides it with more flexibility, more innovativeness, and more opportunities to work on many different kinds of projects and serve a wide variety of clients. The choice of what tools to use for a particular project depend upon various factors such as the style and geometry of the design, the stage it is in, the group it gets assigned to, the kind of contract it is under, the deliverable that is required, the tools that the consultants are using, and so on. This is also often a matter a debate within the firm, as the choice of tool is considered critical to the success of a project. It should be noted that Zaha Hadid does not use any digital tools herself and prefers hand-drawn sketches, but she is closely involved in the iterative design processes, providing inputs and feedback to the designers who are using modeling tools to give digital shape to her concept sketches.

The use of Digital Project, in particular, is critical for many of the non-traditional architectural projects that are the hallmark of Zaha Hadid Architects. It has a very powerful geometry engine with a high level of precision for both surface and solid modeling, which makes it relatively easy to use for creating complex forms. A lot of information can be contained in the model, and the ability to create relationships between the different parts of the model contained in different files is very helpful. The drivers that can be used to control the building geometry make it faster to explore different configurations, even for complex building forms. Overall, it is a very powerful application that combines the functionality of 3 to 4 different applications, including parametric design, documentation, visualization, clash detection, 4D scheduling, and others. It can easily handle large projects and distributed workflows, with multiple team members working on one project often located in different parts of the world. The firm has had great success in using Digital Project in conjunction with Autodesk Vault to manage project workflow and files. Vault is really an MCAD application, but given that Digital Project is based on the MCAD application, CATIA, it is easy to see why these two applications work so well together.

The only downside to Digital Project from the firm’s perspective is that it is not suited to the early design stage because of its lack of sketching and conceptual modeling capabilities. The use of Digital Project on a design requires rigor and a clear idea of how it will be organized, and therefore, it is used only after a design has been set in its basic logic. 

The firm does not find Digital Project particularly difficult to use, given that it also uses applications such as Maya and Rhino. Also, many people who come to work for the firm are from manufacturing backgrounds and are already familiar with MCAD applications like CATIA. In generally, most people working in Zaha Hadid Architects are very technology savvy, which makes training relatively easy. Vendors are often brought in to teach a basic class, which is then supplemented with in-house training provided on an as-needed basis.                       

The Galaxy SOHO project in Beijing designed using by Zaha Hadid Architects using Digital Project (Courtesy: Zaha Hadid Architects)

The biggest challenge that the firm faces is in exchanging information between different applications, particularly those used in-house and those used by consultants. The problem is greatly compounded by the diverse number of tools used by the firm and typically by its consultants as well, which means an exponential increase in the number of application-to-application exchanges. Because there are no established standards for exchanging model information—the IFC was found to be quite ineffective and is not used at all—the firm has had to write custom scripts to facilitate data exchange between different applications. The exchange also depends upon how the application is used, which means that the same script may often not work even for two different groups working in the firm, either at Zaha Hadid’s or at the consultant’s end­—for example, at Arup, which is an engineering firm that Zaha Hadid works frequently with. File format changes in applications, common in many Autodesk applications, also require scripts to be updated. Thus, the firm is constantly working on a large number of scripts for exchanging information to facilitate collaboration. Often, it has to be content with just getting the model geometry from its consultants instead of the complete BIM model, but this at least allows it to do design coordination and clash detection. What it would really like to see in the AEC technology industry is a parametric file standard, so that exchanging information between different applications would be a lot more straightforward—it does not want to be locked down to one platform just for the sake of better integration.

As far as the software vendors are concerned, Zaha Hadid Architects finds all of them very supportive and responsive to their needs, but does acknowledge that this could, in large part, be due to the prestigious nature of the firm. Despite already having a large repertoire of tools, the firm is open to adopting more and is constantly exploring and testing other tools and new technologies and debating on their use. It would like to continue to be nimble and resilient, so that it can take full advantage of technology innovations constantly happening in the building industry.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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