How HDR Used Computer Design Tools to Create Omaha’s UNO Baxter Arena


Last October, the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) Mavericks won their season opener in the recent opener. Baxter Arena. The arena, designed by HDR and located in Omaha, in the village of Aksarben, Nebraska, can accommodate 7,898 fans.

Almost four years ago today, HDR initiated the design process for the UN Community Facility. In 2012, President Barack Obama had just been re-elected, the housing crisis was finally over, 3D printers were appearing on desktops and self-driving cars with automatic shutdowns and parallel parking were becoming a hot topic.

Four years between concept and construction is still relatively quick in the AEC industry, as most projects tend to be put on hold once the concept is developed, pending funding or land acquisition. By comparison, the entire social media revolution was created and populated by billions of users in four years, from 2008 to 2012. To say that the ACS industry is slow to adapt would be an understatement. We all know the industry is slow, but when a project takes more than four years to design and build, the tools we use have already changed or don’t even exist anymore.

Adapting quickly to new tools and custom workflows is key to overcoming this difference between the time it takes to construct a building and the speed of technology. Gone are the days of creating standard workflows that apply to projects without change. Today’s teams should be prepared to choose from the past and current on-going workflows that most effectively solve the problem at hand.

In 2012, Nate Miller, formerly of CASE, now with Testing ground, helped HDR create custom tools and workflows for the UNO Facility project. In 2013, Nate and I produced a white paper on our process and presented at the University of Southern California BIM Symposium. You can read the full document on our website. Now that the UNO Community Arena is fully built and open to the public, it’s time to reopen our white paper and see what we can “choose” from. The computer design tools applied at the UN Community Facility fall into three categories: concept design, daylight analysis and facade workflow.

Design concept

One of the successful ways to implement computer design during the design phase has been to develop “disposable” parametric models. We have developed an iterative process of creating conceptual sketches and then building parametric models on the fly. Perhaps similar to creating a CAD drawing from a sketch to test scale and viability, but the parametric model allowed the team to modify the model, test options, and return to the sketch. One of the biggest misconceptions is that computer design replaces the sketching process. Some projects can be either repetitive or guided by certain parameters. For example, the typology of an arena dictates the overall height and shape of the seating area. Ultimately, changing the location of the community ice provided many different options for both programming adjacencies and the outdoors as you approach the facility.

The process of creating a “disposable” parametric model is something that HDR computer designers do frequently, whether it’s testing a program at the site or dynamically changing the design. Throughout this past year, our Practice Innovation team has created a library of content for computer design so that everyone at HDR can access what has already been done. This library lends itself to the ‘throw away’ template process where you can figure out what has been done and see if you can reuse it or use it as a starting point for your next project.

Daylight analysis

As the design of the Baxter Arena developed, one of the driving concepts was that community ice became a major feature, serving as an open front entrance to what is usually a concealed box. To make glass around an ice rink, it was necessary to develop many models of daylight and energy throughout the development phase of the design. In 2012, running rapid daylight and energy models as an iterative design tool was quite revolutionary. In the animation below, the roof has been lowered to one side, the overhang has been increased, and a wall has been added to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the ice. These options were developed iteratively and provided quick feedback to the team. The result was a design that maximizes the amount of glass and minimizes the amount of direct sunlight on the ice.

Over the past four years, the industry has made tremendous strides in developing daylighting tools for design teams. Sefaira, DIVA, and 360 preview are all tools not available in 2012 that HDR is currently using on projects. HDR has a number of initiatives focused on daylighting and energy tools that design teams can use during concept and design development. Over the next four years, I expect the AEC industry to see even greater adoption and integration of these tools.

Facade workflow

As the design and program began to take shape, the development of the facade became essential. Most projects reach a point where the schematic design is complete or near completion when the production model (Revit model) begins. During this phase, the Revit model is filled with floors, walls, rooms, and doors. One of the hardest things to build in Revit is facades, especially if they are curved with custom panels. It’s easy to move walls and rooms as the design and schedule change, but it’s much more difficult and time-consuming to update a custom facade in Revit with traditional workflows. Nate Miller, while working at CASE, developed a custom workflow for HDR at the time to allow the team to connect Rhino’s design model to our production model in Revit. This process allowed the design team to iterate over the program and design options and relate the concept and production models. In the end, we were able to master a coherent framework for the facade to be fitted out. The final solution did not require custom panels, but at this point the frame was able to adapt quite easily to any pattern and material.

Since 2012, the use of interoperability tools has been an extremely hot topic. New tools, like Flux and Rhynamo, have created new and effective ways of linking design and production models. For teams looking to increase speed and reduce rework, interoperability is the key to all future workflows. Some companies (Thornton tomasetti, for example) have invested heavily in the development of their own customized interoperability tools ranging from concept to analysis to production.

In four years, it will be 2020. In the last year alone, HDR has doubled the number of people using computer design tools and I imagine that by 2020, these tools will be a standard way of working. I’m curious if the speed of building versus the speed of technology will continue to develop at different rates or maybe we’ll finally see new ways of building finally taking hold.

Today’s race seems to be taking shape and it goes from design to manufacture. The use of design tools related to cost models, financial models and construction manufacturing is indeed possible with our current technology. This is the future and whoever understands it first will be very successful.

About the Author: Matt Goldsberry, Director of Digital Design, oversees applied research and the implementation of advanced computer design workflows in the architecture group. He is responsible for the development of new calculation and workflow tools to facilitate design exploration, automated analysis and advanced data management. Matt has lectured at UCLA, lectured at the USC BIM conference in Los Angeles, and is a guest critic for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Design Studios. Matt holds an MA in Architecture from the University of California at Los Angeles and a BS in Architecture from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. He also studied at the Beijing Architecture Studio Enterprise in Beijing, a global architecture, engineering and theory studio. Matt’s work has been published and featured in Architect, Interior Design, and Healthcare Design.

UNO Baxter Arena. Photo: Dan Schwalm / HDR. Click on the image to enlarge.

UNO Baxter Arena. Photo: Dan Schwalm / HDR. Click on the image to enlarge.

Courtesy HDR rendering. Click on the image to enlarge.

Courtesy HDR rendering. Click on the image to enlarge.


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