In the fast-paced and increasingly complex building industry, architects are tapping into digital design tools to unlock time savings, manage costs and create more complex, spectacular buildings.

Digital design tools can be used right from the conceptual design stage through to construction and commissioning the building.

Australia has always been a big adopter of the tools, with Building Information Modelling (BIM) quite extensively used in the marketplace, particularly on larger scale projects.

But the technology doesn’t end there, as it is capable of providing significant productivity benefits, it creates more efficient buildings and new geometrics.


The main advantage of using digital design tools lies in productivity.

The tools can look after the more mundane elements of design, allowing architects to reclaim more time for creativity.

For example, Autodesk’s Computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting software, AutoCAD is billed to reduce design time by 41 per cent and improve productivity by 69 per cent.

In a fast-paced, developer-driven environment, Design Lead at design and architecture practice Elenberg Fraser, James Harbard, said the ability for these tools to provide control over iterative design is “a blessing”.

“If you’ve got a floor plan that’s changing every couple of days, it allows us to quickly update our model based on a very limited amount of information, so we don’t have to remodel it every time it changes,” he says.

The software also provides benefits for large-scale component-based projects.

“It means we don’t have to model everything manually, scripting helps us have a singular idea that can be very translated over a large scale very quickly,” Harbard says.


Architectural, interiors and urban planning firm Tony Owen Partners are using digital design tools right from the first day of the project, as a means of identifying the critical criteria which will inform and shape the design, and to experiment with geometries.

The team use Maya, Rhino and Grasshopper at conceptual design or pre-DA stage and Revit and Rhino later during documentation.

“These tools allow us to explore directions and geometries which are simply not possible to imagine with the mind alone, this is very exciting because it creates opportunities to find new efficiencies and ordering principles,” Owen says.


Owen said the use of these tools can result in more efficient structural solutions.

This saves money and resources as it’s possible to coordinate a better use of materials to create new and exciting spaces and interactions.

“It can also make a building more environmentally efficient as it can maximise natural ventilation, solar access, and shade to reduce energy usage and running costs,” he adds.


Projects are increasingly becoming more complex, making the job of coordination more difficult.

“An architect just can’t work on a little island with your piece of the puzzle and then hand it over the wall to the next person, you’ve got to be connected,” explains Autodesk Australia’s Regional Director, Andrew Cunningham.

Cloud-based digital design tools can be used as a means to centralise data, allowing live updates on the project, anytime and anywhere.

Cunningham says the vision is to have a project-centric view of the world with common data environments or common model environments, “so the architect is working on something in real time”.

Despite the capability, the uptake is not necessarily there yet.

At Tony Owen Partners, the only limitations they have encountered with the software is caused by interfacing with trades and contractors who have not adopted the technology.

“They will assume something is not possible even though we have done it before, because it is beyond their experience,” Owen says.

“Often we have to bring them up to speed in order to integrate them into the procurement process.”


Digital design tools are shaping the way architects spend their time and moulding what they can achieve, but the technology still holds a lot of potential.

Cunningham said Australia is “very advanced” in taking on the next technology, with a trend in the industry to move towards surveying and laser scanning, driven by more complex designs and demands.

“You can put advanced sensors on anything, you can track temperature, noise and movement and all these sorts of elements and then connect them to the cloud, so because Australia’s very willing to adopt cloud technology, they can exploit the internet of things and that analytic capability in a cloud environment to benefit their design,” he says.

Cunningham said Autodesk is seeing a clear advancement in building clients becoming more similar to a manufacturing client.

“In the past you had the building environment and the manufacturing environment and they were quite separate but now they’re really colliding and you’re seeing a lot more use of robotics and prefabrication on these complex structures.”


Realm Adelaide by Elenberg FraserRealm_Austin_Exterior_002.jpg

Realm Adelaide will be tallest residential tower in Adelaide, at 132 metres tall and 40 storeys and is entirely parametrically modelled by Elenberg Fraser.

Project design leader James Harbard said digital design tools allowed them to achieve a higher level of development on a budget “not that much more” than the other buildings going up in the CBD.

A key element of the project is a geometric arrangement of perforated gold screens across the east and west facades which were managed through the parametric process.

The screens provide the apartments with solar and wind protection.

“Adelaide is quite a lot hotter than Melbourne so doing a purely glass building wasn’t really going to be an option,” Harbard explains.

“The screening was driven by both sunlight and daylight analysis both to the apartments and to the heat loads to the façade in terms of how those screens worked and how we could actually quantify what we were achieving with them and the impacts that they were having on the apartments.”

With only a small window to design the project, Harbard says digital design tools also allowed them to get the project to the best possible place it could in a tight time frame.

“The outcomes that we’re seeing is that there’s nothing quite at this standard in Adelaide at the moment,” he says, noting the demand for the building has been reflected in the sales.

Eliza Apartments by Tony Owen PartnersPhase_3.jpg

Eliza Apartments is located on Hyde Park in Sydney’s Elizabeth Street and is conceived to be “Sydney’s most exclusive and exciting apartments”.

The 17-storey building by Tony Owens Partners contains 19 units and the profile of every level is different to respond to the differing unit plans, views and sunlight.

The tapering shape of the penthouse maximises solar access and views to Hyde Park and terminates the fluid geometry.

3D modelling software and Rhino scripting was used to create a facade that is progressively responsive to changing conditions.

The facade was made from hundreds of individually shaped metal panels which were laser cut by robots, as were the fluidly-shaped sandstone panels.

Moebius House by Tony Owen Partners2B.jpg

Moebius House in Sydney’s Dover Heights was parametrically modelled using 3D digital software to respond to environmental issues. Tony Owen Partners utilised the software to create a unique form which maintains view and solar corridors.

“We started by responding to the site with a series of movements which folded and twisted the space in order to maximise the changes of level, view opportunities and potential for connectivity to outside spaces at various ground planes,” Tony Owen, Founder of Tony Owen Partners, explains.

“We created a dynamic model capable of responding to changes in these variables and allowed the models to run in real time. We then stopped the model when we felt we had a model which satisfied our concerns.”

Due to the complex geometry of the house and the need for fine tolerances, Owen evolved a completely new system of fabrication and assembly.

The Moebius House was documented entirely in 3D dimensions and was assembled around a steel chassis, which took about 12 months to finalise.

“We started off designing a house, but in the end the construction process more closely resembles that of a car,” he says.

The structure was developed as a 3D model and continually checked against the computer model being prepared by the fabricators until it was identical and all junctions were resolved.