Academy Museum of Motion Pictures: Project Profile

What are the vital statistics of the project? (Project type, size, location, stage of design or construction, project team, etc.)

The just-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is the largest museum in North America devoted to films and film culture. The project combines a major renovation of the 250,000-square-foot Saban Building (originally known as the May Company Building) with a massive, instantly iconic 45,000-square-foot spherical addition (Figures 1 and 2). The Saban Building program includes exhibition galleries, a 288-seat theater, two studio spaces, a restaurant, a cafe, and an Academy Museum store. Supported visibly by innovative base isolators that provide significant seismic resilience, the sphere houses the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, and a dazzling rooftop terrace. The two buildings are connected by three bridges composed of steel and glass.

Buro Happold provided structural and MEP engineering, data analytics, sustainability consulting and energy modeling, as well as lighting design. Our experts collaborated with architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Gensler with lead contractor MATT Construction overseeing the execution of the design. Academy Museum has been certified LEED Gold by the USGBC.

What were the main software applications used for this project, and how were they used? (Please include some screenshots of the applications showing their use on the project.)

Conducting thorough and dependable analysis was essential, for which we primarily used SAP2000 and ANSYS, and a few others. ANSYS was an especially interesting and challenging application to use. While it was the only software that could effectively analyze the theater structure, ANSYS was not designed specifically to run structural analyses, including seismic, so we had to develop custom scripts and code. Exploring new ways to combine Buro Happold’s computational expertise with the power of ANSYS ultimately delivered a truly one-of-a-kind structure, with robust analysis behind it (Figure 3).

Revit was the primary application used for modeling, coordination, and documentation (Figures 4 and 5), and Navisworks was also used for coordination during design and preconstruction of the dome. In addition, we created custom parametric model workflows to connect different moving parts and coordinate them. Software used for these more complex aspects of the project included Digital Project, Rhino+Grasshopper, and Dynamo.

For example, we used a parametric model to lay out the design of the structure that supported the precast panels of the dome, which were then also used as the mold for the theater wall shotcrete. Making things even more complex, this structure was part temporary, part permanently embedded in the shotcrete – plus it also had to support an internal catwalk passerelle structure (Figure 6). This was coordinated with embed plate locations in the precast concrete where the dome roof structure attached to the dome wall structure. We generated a script that allowed us to locate the structure and embeds in real time based on inputs from the dome structure and precast concrete, a strategy that maintained careful coordination of these interfaces during their design.

The same script then ran the structure generated through live analysis to provide feedback for expected deflections (Figure 7). Exporting the results as a colorized model of the anticipated required structure ensured it aligned as needed with the many supported moving parts while also remaining within deflection limits.

Did the project have a specific approach or methodology for the application of AEC technology?

With the structure involving so many different challenges, we could not stick with a single global approach. In that sense, our guiding methodology was “use the right tool for the job.” In some cases, this meant surgical intervention into an existing structure, requiring careful manual modeling. In other cases, it meant parametrically solved conditions following sets of rules to set out complex, data-rich geometry for design and analysis.

Successful delivery of the project also depended on automation of Revit modeling, documentation, and interoperability among the various software utilized.  Illustrator, Photoshop, and similar applications were used for graphics and reports generation. We had workflows to go between our model/analysis information and the other software for visual communication, report deliverables, etc. (Figure 8).

Would you consider this project to be an example of the cutting-edge use of technology? If so, how and why?

In many ways yes, but hindsight suggests we could have been even more forward-thinking. We were using the latest and greatest during the design phase: Digital Project early on, followed by Grasshopper+Rhino leveraging recently developed internal and external plugins, and eventually joined by Dynamo as it matured to allow us to build upon our existing Revit API workflows. But by the time the project was completed we had identified some emerging technologies we wished we had been able to use earlier. Examples of this include VR Meetings for coordination, Game Engines for key design and visualization processes, and recent developments in our Open-Source codebase (The BHoM) which would have further improved our processes.

This project is a great example of how technology moves faster than the AEC industry. We accept now that each project will start using the cutting-edge, and end using outdated technology with new technologies representing missed opportunities had we had them earlier. The BHoM and our approach to centralizing collaborative code at Buro Happold seeks to address this recurring gap by curating a central, shared, flexible, and constantly evolving codebase.

What are some of the main challenges you faced in your implementation of AEC technology on this project?

We pushed a lot of our software to the limit: modeling geometry in Revit that it was never designed to account for, using ANSYS for seismic analysis of a large structure, and combining massive amounts of geometry and data to send between various platforms, among other ways. This meant we were constantly bumping up against the limits of the software, and then coming up with clever ways to push beyond those limits or modify our processes to accommodate them.

Were there any requirements on this project that were not addressed by currently available technologies?

Sometimes, currently available technologies required us to get clever and leverage our computational expertise to augment their out-of-the-box capabilities, but we were able to meet all of the project requirements one way or another.

Any additional information/observations/insights on the use of AEC technology for this project that you would like to share?

The length and complexity of this projected highlighted the need for advanced workflows that are agile and focus on the why, rather than the how. Clearly defining the why allows the how to change over time as technology evolves. Previously we would deliver a project with a singular tech stack and clearly defined processes that generally stayed the same from start to finish. Now we are seeing more projects go through multiple tech stacks at each phase. While the expanded capabilities are cause for celebration, the new workflow structures require heightened technological agility. It’s essential to balance reuse of valuable existing processes with effective adoption of new technology.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Erik Narhi of Buro Happold for authoring this profile, and to Adam Sullivan of C.C. Sullivan for facilitating it.

About the Author

Erik Narhi is the computational design lead in Buro Happold’s Los Angeles office. His broad base of experience includes advanced computational techniques (Grasshopper, Dynamo, Digital Project, Processing), studio design projects at a wide range of scales, realization of a design from concept to CD’s using Revit, and construction methods in an academic setting. Narhi is especially dedicated to larger scale projects and design informed by unique structural and technological solutions, and to the utilization of digital tools to rationalize complex geometries and streamline design processes via parametric modeling and scripting.


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