SAFAS: Unifying Form and Structure through Interactive 3D Simulation


  • Nicholas F. Polys Virginia Tech
  • Felipe Bacim Virginia Tech
  • Mehdi Setareh Virginia Tech
  • Brett Jones Virginia Tech


There has been a significant gap between the tools used for the design of a building’s architectural form and those that evaluate the structural physics of that form. Seeking to bring the perspectives of visual design and structural engineering closer together, we developed and evaluated a design tool for students and practitioners to explore the inter-relationships between the form and structure of long-span structures. We have developed an interactive 3D design application for spatial structures that integrates with a web simulation service, enabling the iterative analytic comparison of designs by structural weight, force distribution, member deflection and stability. In this paper, we describe the design and development of this Structure And Form Analysis System (SAFAS) tool using the usability engineering methodology, presenting its evolution and evaluation though four semesters of use in undergraduate architecture classes. In this paper we present our summative results and lessons learned for the usability engineering of e-Learning systems, scientific visualization of structural dynamics, and user skill sets.

Author Biographies

Nicholas F. Polys, Virginia Tech

Nicholas F. Polys received a B.A in Cognitive Science from Vassar College in 1996 and a Ph.D in Computer Science from Virginia Tech in 2006. He is the Director of Visual Computing with Virginia Tech Research Computing Group and Affiliate Research Professor in the Department of Computer Science. His research targets the intersection of information visualization and virtual environments - how to leverage human perception and cognition to make the hidden seen, from immersive environments to ubiquitous 3D graphics on handhelds. He is a co-author of the international standard (ISO) Extensible 3D (X3D) specification and a member of IEEE, ACM, and the Web3D Consortium.

Felipe Bacim, Virginia Tech

Felipe Bacim received his Bachelor’s (2007) and Master’s (2009) degree in Computer Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul – PUCRS in Brazil. He is currently a PhD candidate in Computer Science at Virginia Tech. He led the Virginia Tech team to three consecutive first place awards in the IEEE 3DUI Contest and one people's choice award for best design. He received Best Paper award in the IEEE 3DUI Conference 2011. His current work involves the design and evaluation of selection techniques for virtual environments and developing 3D User Interfaces that facilitate interaction with a humanoid robot in disaster situations.

Mehdi Setareh, Virginia Tech

Mehdi Setareh is a professor of engineering at the School of Architecture and Design of Virginia Tech. He is also the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Media of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies ( He received a PhD in Structural Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His main areas of research interests are use of technology for teaching technical courses and serviceability of structural systems. He has been the principal investigator of several projects related to his research interests supported by the federal agencies and industries.

Brett Jones, Virginia Tech

Brett D. Jones received his B.A.E. (1992) in Architectural Engineering from The Pennsylvania State University and his M.A. (1997) and Ph.D. (1999) in Educational Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Virginia Tech. He received the North Carolina Association for Research in Education’s Distinguished Paper Award (2000) and the Best Paper Award from the American Society for Engineering Education, K-12 Engineering Division (2010). His research includes investigating how students’ beliefs impact their motivation, and examining methods instructors can use to design instructional environments that support students’ motivation and learning ( see ).





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