Working With Big Data

New Pathways to Design in the Digital Era



Photo of Cristobal Correa

Cristobal Correa


Pratt Institute



Big data is having a noticeable impact on enclosure engineering design. With continuing advancements that liberate the geometrical form and the increasing efficiency created by digital fabrication, facade and structural engineers are working with unprecedented amounts of data related to both geometry and analysis. This paper will discuss strategies for controlling and harnessing the opportunities created by this new information into a rational decision-making process. Although concepts will be illustrated through work on a particular project, the subject of this paper remains the process of design and not the technical resolution of a particular problem.

The case study of work done on Jewel, a 12,500m2 triangulated grid shell at Changi Airport in Singapore, is examined, and explored. Data heavy considerations on this project include the following:

  • The strength of a shell structure is directly related to its form. Parametric generation and dynamic relaxation of the shape allows for the geometrical rationalization of form in the face of design drivers that include, architectural constraints, fabrication limitation on glass, drainage and ponding, and airport radar concerns.
  • As a steel grid shell, the location and size of the steel elements has a direct impact on the strength of the shell structure. Additionally, the connection of these elements gives rise to nodal “families” that can be mathematically grouped as a fabrication strategy.

The resolution of these points involved processing very large amounts of data (unrelated to structural or facade engineering) that needed to be precisely described, categorized and organized in a way that makes sense from a design and fabrication standpoint, and will guide a design process. Assisted by custom built mathematical tools, this path involved skills beyond those associated with a traditional structural and facade engineering office and led to the conclusion that work of this type must be resolved with multidisciplinary teams of people with new skills. This new workflow is ultimately a very satisfying evolution of the profession, and is a welcome development, providing a leadership role for the facade and structural engineering consultant in the resolution of these types of projects.


The computer has revolutionized structural analysis in a myriad of ways. However, the impact of digital manipulation of data in the building design process is much less clear. This impact

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Case Study: Project Jewel

Project Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore is a new shopping and leisure development under construction alongside existing terminals at this busy Asian hub. Set to open by the end

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Initial Challenges and Decisions

The initial geometries were given by the architectural program and form and were derived from the winning competition entry. Immediately, however, a number of questions needed to be answered:


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Structural Engineering

Fundamental to the form is the need to meet the structural engineering loads on the grid shell. Initial modelling was used to achieve a basic understanding of the structural behavior

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Design Process and Model Manipulation

Element Discretization and Panel Sizes

As the design progressed, it quickly became clear that the manipulation of the structural models needed to be able to respond efficiently to the different

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Form Finding

In parallel to the exercises being done to reach an understanding of panel size and geometrical rationalization, BH began a process of form finding to achieve a more rational structural

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Glass Procurement

Simultaneous with form finding, BH also began investigating the total amount of glass that might be required on the project and how this might be limited by procurement. At the

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One of the features of the project discretization is that invariably as one moves toward the center of the grid shell, the ribs become more crowded and the panel sizes

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Nodal Families

As the design advanced, in order to keep the contractors who might be able to build the grid shell as numerous as possible, BH investigated technologies that might be used

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The example presented above highlights how the role of the engineer has been expanded beyond straightforward structural or facade engineering. This work often reaches far forward into the construction area

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The author would like to acknowledge the many people at BuroHappold in New York City and Los Angeles, past and present, who worked tirelessly on this project. He would also like to send a special thanks to the BH SMART Group in Bath, UK for their innovative analysis skills of geometry, computing and mathematics.

Finally, the author would like to thank the design team at Safdie Architects for providing the wonderful opportunity to do such exciting work. Without their initial ideas and drive, there would be no project.