Nikken Sekkei: An AEC Technology Case Study from JapanAECbytes Feature (May 9, 2019)

Editor's Note: This feature was originally published in the Q3 2014 issue of AECbytes Magazine and it is being republished as it still relevant today. Also, the magazine is being discontinued, and much of the content that was exclusive to the magazine is being republished online to ensure its continued availability.

Earlier this year, I visited Tokyo, Japan, for the launch of Graphisoft’s new BIMcloud offering, and while I was there, I also had the opportunity to visit some of the leading design and construction firms in Japan to find out how they were deploying technology solutions in their practices. One of these was Nikken Sekkei, a 2,400 person firm providing architecture, engineering, planning, and construction management services that was founded all the way back in 1990, giving it a long history in the AEC industry. The firm is headquartered in Tokyo, with additional locations in several cities in Japan as well as in cities throughout the Asia-Pacific region, where most of its projects are located. It is currently ranked as the fourth largest firm in the world.

To date, Nikken Sekkei has completed over 20,000 projects in more than 200 cities around 50 countries, spanning across the entire spectrum of AEC, as show in Figure 1. It has won a whole slew of design awards, hardly surprising given the quality of its architecture, some of which is shown in more detail in Figure 2.

Figure 1. The spectrum of projects across the AEC industry by Nikken Sekkei. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei).

Figure 2. Some of Nikken Sekkei's iconic projects, including commercial buildings, stadiums, museums, libraries, and urban design. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei).

Overview of Technology Use

Being such a large and reputed company with so many on-going projects, it is not surprising that Nikken Sekkei is fairly advanced in its implementation of AEC technology, which includes not only BIM applications but a whole host of additional tools for architecture, structure, and MEP, for design, documentation, simulation, and analysis. The complete map of all the applications used at Nikken Sekkei is shown in Figure 3. These include applications that are well known all over the world such as ArchiCAD, Revit Structure, Tekla, Solibri, and 3ds Max, as well as more regional and local applications such as Midas GEN (a Korean building engineering software) and Cadwell Tfas (a Japanese local MEP application). Some of the applications Nikken Sekkei uses were also developed internally, such as Building3D for structural analysis. I was impressed to find that in addition to energy, lighting and ventilation analysis, which are quite common now, Nikken Sekkei also does acoustic analysis and pedestrian traffic analysis, both of which have yet to see widespread implementation, even in the US. Most of the connections between applications shown in Figure 3 are enabled through the open-standard IFC file format.

Figure 3. A chart of all the different software applications used in Nikken Sekkei. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei).

With regard to its BIM implementation, Nikken Sekkei has been using BIM for the last 10 years and standardized on it 3 years ago. It went through an intensive 3 to 4 year BIM evaluation process before it decided on ArchiCAD as its main BIM application. Not only did it find Graphisoft easy to work with and more than willing to customize ArchiCAD to better suit its requirements (along with those of the Japanese market in general), Nikken Sekkei also found Graphisoft’s vision of OpenBIM enabled by IFC very compelling, as it resonated with its own philosophy, approach, and processes. As mentioned earlier, the IFC format was critical to integrate all of the different applications used at Nikken Sekkei, so unequivocal supports of IFC was one of the main criteria the chosen BIM application had to satisfy.

Even though Nikken Sekkei has standardized on ArchiCAD as its main BIM application, it uses a whole host of specialized tools for different tasks, as shown in Figure 3. For example, it uses Rhinoceros and its Grasshopper plug-in extensively for conceptual design, especially for freeform and algorithmic design studies. It did use SketchUp for conceptual design in most cases in the past, but now prefers to do this in ArchiCAD itself, with the introduction of tools such as Shell and Morph that bring expanded design freedom and enable forms to be quickly conceptualized. The advantage of using ArchiCAD at the earliest design stage is that the project stays within a BIM environment and automatically derives all its benefits including generating 2D documentation from the model. For projects using Rhino, Nikken Sekkei has developed a custom converter from Rhino to ArchiCAD, which not only converts the model but maintains a live connection between them.  Figure 4 shows a project with a complex interior façade for which Rhino was used with its Grasshopper plug-in to study parametric design variations.

Figure 4. Use of Rhino and Grasshopper for parametric design studies of a music hall project with very specific acoustic criteria that had to be satisfied. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei).

Internal and External Collaboration

Since Nikken Sekkei uses ArchiCAD as its primary BIM application, it uses ArchiCAD’s built in Teamwork module for design collaboration, which in conjunction with Graphisoft’s BIM servers, enables synchronous, real-time collaboration between the multiple members of a design team. (This capability was described in depth in my review of ArchiCAD 13.) Nikken Sekkei’s Teamwork configuration for its Japanese offices is illustrated in Figure 5, showing the BIM servers where the complete and up-to-date BIM models of projects are maintained and the individual ArchiCAD clients in different offices where users work on local copies of the model, which are continuously synchronized with the master models on the server. Average project sizes range from 100 MB to 2 GB, and typically, about 10 users are online at any given time working synchronously on projects in this manner.

Figure 5. Using ArchiCAD’s Teamwork and BIM server for synchronous design collaboration. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei).

For collaboration with outside consultants and contractors, 2D documentation is still the norm as it is required by contract, and the use of ArchiCAD makes it easy to derive 2D drawings from the model (see Figure 6). Nikken Sekkei also provides 2D DWG for those who require drawings electronically. For those using 3D models, it can provide, if required, 3D DWG, IFC, PLN (ArchiCAD native file format) and any other 3D format, but these are for reference purposes only. BIM is not yet the norm in Japan. While the Japanese government requires BIM to be implemented on its own projects, there is no country-wide mandate for BIM or the prevalence of BIM standards. This makes it difficult to find partner firms conversant with creating and using BIM models.

Figure 6. A recent office building project, its BIM model, the multi-disciplinary model of one floor, and one of the documentation sheets showing a floor plan derived from the model. (Courtesy: Nikken Sekkei)

For design coordination, Nikken Sekkei prefers to continue using ArchiCAD instead of a more common application like Navisworks, as it enables the architect to react more quickly to conflicts that are identified and make the necessary changes within ArchiCAD itself, since it is also the main authoring application. Other disciplinary models can be brought into ArchiCAD as reference models, making it very convenient to use as a design coordination tool.

Construction and Beyond

Nikken Sekkei continues its use of BIM whenever possible. It is often deeply involved in construction management, depending on the contract, and for this, it uses BIM for detailed design on site. On some projects, BIM data is even directly fed into CNC machines to automate the production of building components; for example, lumber was cut automatically using 3D data for one project. When it is involved in the construction, it updates the BIM model to make it an as-built model, which could potentially be used for facilities management when the building is completed and occupied.

While Nikken Sekkei is not yet involved in operations and maintenance, it would like to continue the usage of BIM in FM tasks in the future, so it is actively researching and investigating the possibilities.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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