Using digital workflows to breathe new life into our buildings

Author: Hannah Lazenby

Date published

15 April 2021

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Using digital workflows to breathe new life into our buildings


Hannah Lazenby

Date published

15 April 2021


Hannah Lazenby



Hannah Lazenby explains why digital tools should be used to repurpose existing assets, and shares her experience of working on the Ken Rosewell Arena in Sydney.

In a year defined by global health and environmental challenges, we have been witnessing a raised collective awareness of the climate emergency. The need for action towards a more sustainable and resilient future is clear.

As engineers and designers, we have an important role to play in shaping this future, with buildings representing almost 40% of carbon emissions globally (1). Our design decisions, no matter how big or small, can play a central role in reducing emissions and delivering resilient and adaptable assets. But we must act now.



We should be seeing the potential in existing assets

To make progress, we will need to think beyond traditional design solutions. We’ll need to seek out opportunities to make the most of our existing assets. This means enhancing their utilisation and considering retrofitting and repurposing before simply building something new. 

As part of this process, we must also seek to ensure efficiency in resource usage. It’s important to carefully consider the materials that we use and their broader impacts.

So, how can we achieve a balance between old and new? And how can we make the most of our existing assets?


Using digital workflows for sustainable optimisation and efficiencies

Digital design can play a pivotal role in reusing existing buildings and working toward sustainability objectives.

An example of this is the work done to create the Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney Australia. Arup’s multidisciplinary team, in collaboration with Cox Architecture and Fabritecture, transformed the existing open-air Sydney Olympic Tennis Centre. Originally purpose-built for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the centre became an all-weather multi-purpose venue for world class tennis, netball and entertainment events.

We conceived and designed a solution that elegantly enclosed the stadium whilst maintaining the integrity of the original award-winning design, engineered by Arup in 1998.

Our design utilised the circular form of the stadium, to replace the existing perimeter canopy roof with a 100m spanning radial cable-net structure clad with PTFE fabric. It was the first of its kind in Australia.


We re-provisioned the seating bowl support, provided by the existing perimeter roof structure, with the structural system of the new roof. This required a specific construction sequence to maintain the original load path without overstressing the critical structural elements. The result is an example of sustainable, structural-led repurposing and reconfiguration.

The lightweight, self-resolving tensile roof minimised the need for strengthening the existing supporting frame, as the forces in the roof were not transferred to the bowl. Therefore, no new foundations or foundation modifications were required.

Engineering the cable-net to retrofit the stadiums as-built geometry was a complex task. To streamline the process, we developed an automated digital workflow to parametrically design the cable-net from concept design through to fabrication documentation. This delivered the design entirely in 3D, without any traditional 2D drawings.

The workflow utilised Rhino, Grasshopper, Geometry Gym and GSA for the detailed structural design. Existing survey data formed the basis of the Grasshopper script to parametrically define the 3D geometry.


A custom form-finding script was developed to establish an initial form-found geometry in the Grasshopper environment. Using Geometry Gym, this initial form-found 3D geometry was exported to GSA. GSA covered the final form finding analysis, calculation of cable prestress and design of structural steel members.

The cable drape and pre-stress were rationalised within this workflow to optimise the utilisation of the existing structure and minimise the requirement for local strengthening.

The form-found geometry was used to develop 3D connection models in Rhino. These were used for finite element analysis in Strand7 as well as for the design delivery. We issued the connection design in a 3D format for use in the shop detailers Tekla models.

The design was kept solely within a secure 3D environment. Automation and parametric modelling accelerated design reviews and alterations. The digital collaboration with designers, architects, contractors and builders supported a comprehensive workflow which saw the roof designed in three months and constructed in less than 12 months.

The tensile steel and fabric roof, of approximately 8,000 m2, now provides full coverage over the centre court. It allows play during all-weather events improving conditions for players and spectators.

We have a unique opportunity to make a difference


As our cities reimagine their shape and function during this period of change, there will be opportunity to consider reinvigorating underutilised assets for all to enjoy in the future. Assets could include great sporting venues, commercial buildings or arts and culture institutions.

One thing that’s clear is that we must put sustainability at the heart of our designs. We must think creatively and use the tools available to us to shape a more sustainable and resilient future.


Read more about Arup’s work at Ken Rosewall Arena.

(1) ‘The Global Status Report 2017’ prepared by the International Energy Agency for the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. Cited in the 2019 ‘Bringing embodied carbon upfront’ report issued by the World Green Building Council.


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