BIM can help but you have to understand your own designs

Skyscraper expert John Viise is a strong proponent of the use of the latest digital design tools like BIM. But the American says engineers need to ‘work the problem’ for themselves if they want to design efficiently rather than rely too much on computers.

John Viise

Viise, 46, has worked with giants in the field of super tall buildings from Hal Iyengar and later Bill Baker at SOM – whose supervision he worked under on the Burj Kalifa in Dubai – to Bob Halvorson at whose practice he is now an associate principal.

“The engineers I was trained by had done a lot of design work prior to the advent of extensive compute software and as a result they were well versed in the practice of checking their designs by hand,” he says. “They drummed into my head that I really needed to understand the behaviour of structural systems to design efficiently and to work a problem.

“I think it is a fortunate thing that I was trained by engineers at the forefront of tall building design before computers were really common. In fact I remember Bill Baker helping me to develop my first computer analysis model.

“When I started there was one phone at the end of the desk aisle so you barely made external calls and email did not exist. You got used to the idea of studying a problem; you could be more thoughtful and work on something undistracted for a period of time so you could really delve into it.  Now computers and software programs are so powerful that young engineers do four or five things at once.   They are highly skilled at manipulating a lot of data but when there is an issue the software can’t handle they are a bit more challenged."

Engineers have to understand what they are building, how the structures work, he says.  “Hand sketching is very important in the design process to help others understand structural system ideas too.  Concept sketches are crucial because they are generally clearer. If you have a bad concept the computer doesn’t sort it out.”

Viise reveals himself as a purist. He wants, the best, most elegant, most beautiful solution to a design challenge. And he knows everything can always be improved.

“I was influenced by phenomenal engineers, teachers and authors like David Billington of Princeton whom I have heard speak a couple of times. If you read his books or listen to his talks, you are struck by how he describes great structural engineers as their own harshest critics who constantly rethink and rework design to improve upon even their most successful completed works.

“Really good engineers understand that structural engineering is an art but at the same time they are very rigorous in the science of the field. By being true to a design concept you inevitably produce something elegant and appealing.”


John Viise – some projects

Viise’s project credits with Halvorson & Partners include the 600m+ tall winning competition design for the Wuhan Greenland Centre and several towers in China including the new Samsung Headquarters tower in Beijing currently under construction.  John also served as project engineer for The World Trade Center Abu Dhabi (380m) and the 1 Dubai tower which was designed to eclipse the 1000m height threshold.  With SOM, Viise was working on the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China just before he switched firms and, of course, there was the Burj.


A full interview with John Viise can be read in this month’s edition of The Structural Engineer and downloaded here



BIM standard moves to asset operation as BSI launches PAS 1192 pt 3. Details here

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