How Software Modeling Can Help Projects, Budgets


Guest Blogger: Don Sears

It's a good time to be an apartment renter in New York City, as prices are dropping and laid-off MBAs flee the Big Apple for their parents' guest rooms. But if you're in the real estate development business in New York, you need renters. How much pressure is there to get projects completed without busting budgets? A lot.

Frank Gehry--the rock-star architect known for his curvy-metal textured buildings all over the world (think Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, etc.) has developed software modeling technology known as Digital Project that he thinks will help deliver a massive high-rise project under budget and on time. Gehry has a 904-unit building dubbed the Beekman Towers going up in downtown Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge that is due to begin occupancy in 2010.

From the New York Times article linked above:

Digital Project works by modeling, in three dimensions, every odd shape an architect envisions and then letting engineers and architects reconcile the shape with a building's site, ductwork and other features. It shows how one change to a building's ingredients changes all the others... The stakes in construction are very high. Developers say that the closeness of the match between what an architect draws and what contractors produce can make or break a project. When engineers and contractors misunderstand how parts of a building connect, resulting delays often inflate a construction budget by 5 or 10 percent... These days, when banks are loath to risk any money, such contingencies are not available. And some developers do not expect them to return soon.

That is pressure, but Gehry has had success in bringing other projects in under budget. In fact, the software was so successful that Gehry saw an opportunity and spun off a division known as Gehry Technologies back in 2002. That division sells to other architecture, design and construction firms and trains its customers on how to best use the software for success.

But Gehry also has had post-construction obstacles and a few lawsuits to manage. Just ask MIT.

In response to the MIT lawsuit, Gehry suggested that many of the issues had to do with MIT cutting back on things, or as he labeled it 'value engineering.'

"These things are complicated," Gehry told the NY Times back in 2007, "and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small."

Given the challenges of large-scale creativity, it's no wonder that some post-construction problems come in to play. But with the added pressure of it being New York City and the financial crisis, his budgeting prowess has to ease some of his clients worries.

I would not want to see his post-construction insurance rates and attorney-fee retainer. But his buildings are imaginative wonders.