Wednesday, June 14, 2017

3D Printing in the Design Office

Surveying the complete field of architectural 3D printing, this week instead of studying structures large enough to walk through, we introduce two firms broadly implementing 3D printing across their offices. The Asia Times article is interesting for its insights into this transition, but also what questions it never asks which I think are important from my involvement with the field. Starting with a bit of context, while my architectural education jumped directly to 3D printing, I don't think architectural model-making is going anywhere, but it's important we keep the tradition in a proper modern light, recognizing what's good about scale models and why they're so helpful to the design process. Like many things, digital technology has changed the dynamics of what scale models can do for a design project.  

International architecture firm Aedas had the goal of introducing 3D printing to all of their offices in China. In their reason for establishing the goal Benny Chow, director of sustainability at Aedas, states “We are architects, and we love and understand design. But all customers do not understand design. By using 3D printers and models, we can explain and illustrate our thoughts. It makes it easier for our clients to understand and to make decisions.” Very true. The article goes on to state, "Cost-wise, the investment in 3D technology is minimal compared with the savings." Well anyone responsible for building design management will welcome cost savings in the design process because of better decisions earlier from the client. The characteristics of providing a professional service (as opposed to a consumer good) means the marketplace is also competitive on qualities not necessarily representatives in the cost alone, such as quality, which leads to my second point: 

Here my I go further than the Asia Times article, stressing the role a scale model can play in helping designers understand the complex 3D relationships of a form and different 3D qualities of the form, such as shadows and perspective. This helpfulness is, to a great extent, detached from how the 3D scale model was produced. Establishing a rapid iteration workflow with 3D printing combined with the superb communicative properties of scale models raises the quality of buildings. While Aedas seems to focus on 3D printing benefits to clients, B+H Architects' Toronto studio's piece talking about taking delivery of a Stratasys 3D printer comes closer to illustrating my second point, here quoting at length:

"Designers use scaled models to demonstrate the fundamental form of buildings. 3D printing models enable the possibility of presenting several options at once. For example, possible designs can be made to fit into a scaled contextual layout of the surrounding area (e.g. a city block) to understand how a proposal will integrate into its immediate environment. A physical model can demonstrate that a building will comply with view corridor restrictions and it can also show how a design will complement the neighbouring cityscape as it impacts form in the area.

Advanced tools and technology can multiply possibilities and create endless opportunities, but at the end of the day, the people using technology are integral to project success. Despite the many things that technology can do, people are essential to the curation of data during the process and designers offer a skilled eye for composition to understand what can and can’t be achieved. In the end, comprehensive design solutions are the result of careful curation where possibilities are vetted for sheer aesthetic and other criteria like material availability and cost. Designers can anticipate needs and intuitively connect with what makes the most sense for the context — and there’s no technology in the world that can teach that…yet."

So assuming your firm is humming along taking full advantage of all the benefits 3D printing's offers, there is one last reminder about 3D printers in offices worth repeating: Depending on the printer model, some are really not meant for indoor use. The types Aedas uses which are producing models 24/7 365 days a year require their own specialized room with upgraded ventilation. I'm keeping my hopes up for an environmentally sustainable closed-loop printer. But until then, office design will once again adapt to include an additive manufacturing suite in the design studio. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How Graphic Design Makes Buildings Better

Over the last couple of weekends, in honour of Edward Tufte's work on information design, I drafted a visual example of one helpful principle from his lifetime of work. His work is so helpful in this particular instance because, beyond describing the importance of clarity in linework and colour selection, he also offers guidance on how best to choose them. Each should be proportionally chosen by their "smallest effective difference" relative to other elements (which the below image tries to represent; click to enlarge). The middle panel shows my best attempt at perfecting the balanced linework, with the two extremes set to each side, one with the line differences exaggerated and the other using all the same line weight. 


Competency in information design is core to the fluent and detailed expression of architectural ideas. The reason I meet the subject with such intensity is because I recognize construction documents as central to the design process and building awesome structures. The graphic design characteristics of construction documents are actually responsible for communicating things with completely nontrivial risks attached to them like structural loads and electrical capacities. These documents have to go out perfectly. My appreciation of construction drawings and architectural renderings extends into the artistic, and a well-rendered architectural section would not be out of place on my apartment walls. We all sort of have an intuition there's something scientific about graphic design, but Edward Tufte's work was significant because it established the field in a larger scientific context borrowed mainly from the cognitive neurosciences and statistics. I return again and again to the three books I own of Tufte's:
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983)
  • Envisioning Information (1990),
  • Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997)
They are exceptionally good books and I've never felt the need to expand past them (with the exception of Ellen Lupton's excellent work for Princeton Architectural Press).


I think more than anything my accomplishments in graphic design lay in the intensity with which I bring to bare the topic. Having understood information design's central role in construction documents and architectural renderings, I attack the subject with zeal and make no apologies for being a perfectionist when it comes to the graphical quality of my work. Assuming one is properly motivated to summon the care necessary to match the challenge, these particular images were all made in Adobe Illustrator CC. Two of the references are from Francis K. Ching and the top parapet is from one of my building science texts.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

How to Build Strong Narratives in Architecture

In response to some of the positive feedback I've been getting about my writing over on Instagram, I thought it would be nice to collect some of the best here in one spot for easy reading. If you enjoy the content, please consider sharing. It's all meant to put a smile on the face of anyone involved with the daily struggles of building and design.


There are two reasons we should be concerned about supporting quality architectural writing: Firstly, as a reaction to the deteriorating quality of architectural writing in general. This trend has very little to do with the architectural profession itself, but rather is being driven by the negative qualities the internet tends to exaggerate. Short attention spans in this case. Here architectural writing is just as much a victim of the need to feed the content treadmill as other industries. This trend isn't set to reverse itiself anytime soon. The numbers I've seen from 2016 seem to confirm that sharing lower quality content more often works better than only sharing good quality content less often. I'm only one person, so when I see numbers like this, my response is to zig when the rest of the field zags. I reject letting the need to feed the content blackhole take over my life, so that means doubling down on quality. This leads to the second reason why we should strive for quality in architectural writing; the subject of architecture deservers well-written stories driven by strong narratives, whether fiction or nonfiction. Architectural writing might seem like a small field, but it has a disproportionately large effect on the built environment we inhabit everyday. The better the writing, the better our analysis and the more people will be moved by the substance of the work.


I think two reasons my work stands out on the platform is because of my background in creative writing and the strong narratives I'm able to develop. My process at arriving at each of those characteristics is a bit more nebulous; in the sense that creativity occurs inside a mystery box we can't see into. Having received some success with writing in high school, I now see that positive feedback in the late 90s as key to establishing my skill through practice during the intervening decades. If one is able to develop a strong narrative, even in a limited space, then I think it's possible to tap into very ancient parts of humanity everyone shares from when groups huddled around campfires and told stories. Tapping into those feelings, but bringing them to bare on topics relevant to modern architecture such as 3D printing or collaborative design, is a major goal of my work. As I've matured as a writer, I've come to recognize that I treat skill in design and skill in writing as very distinct. This affects how I write insofar as I think the skills of writing should be subservient to the skills of design. Excellent communication skills – as this piece about writing and Thursday's piece about graphic design illustrates – are core to the fluent expression of architectural ideas, either abstract or detailed. And for those that love architecture; that is where the game is played. Writing, drawing, are just extensions of that passion. Enjoy!

February 13, 2017
65 words.
A boy is playing with LEGO. A radical idea pops into his head. Not only should his house have a space port, can't it also be made of wood and raised on stilts? Is there room for a candy store, pool, and swing set? Will a Pokemon arena fit between the bunkbeds and science lab? There's no time to lose! Think big and remix architecture!

152 words.
The Engineer sat quietly at the computer. His other team members had left hours ago for other commitments but he was determined to stay right beside the computer until the solution was found. 5.2-billion data points; almost 3 months pre-processing the data for the run; one very bad quality assurance meeting; finally the day of the computation had arrived. Estimates suggested they should have their answer in less than 24 hours. The Engineer was determined to sit there all night if he had to because he knew it was a historical day. They wouldn't get a design proposal. Not a first draft. Not a concept. They would have the perfect solution. 24 hours passed. 48 hours. 72 hours. Something was wrong. A week. 2 weeks. Meetings started about how long they should wait. Preliminary investigations begun into what went wrong. 3 weeks. 1 month. Perhaps the perfect building wasn't possible after all. 

March 10, 2017
121 words. 
The professor stood at the edge of the silent construction site. No amount of raging at her assistants would restart the project. They needed to be smart. The professor took a deep breath and sighed as she looked over to her struggling grad students huddled around the unmoving timber-producing 3D printer. All the wires and pipes checked out. Scanning the 3D printer code again on her laptop, nothing stood out to her that could be causing the issue. Out of frustration the professor kicked the pulp tub beside her. With a *glurp* and a *swoop" the 3D printer whirled to life. The grad students cheered. Ok, that time they just needed to be lucky. Thanks for following! Good luck next week!

202 words.
The search and rescue drones had departed a week ago. Now all that was left was a silent site and massive pile of twisted steel. Sharp and tangled, it looked like an uninviting challenge. Our hero engineer stood at the edge of the site looking on with contempt at the disaster before her. This needed to be fixed? With her army of construction drones? With the robotics engineers she led? With her double engineering degrees in structural engineering and computer science? This mess didn't stand a chance! She had a plan, she had her digital model, all that was left was to hit the return key to start the building program. She paused, disgusted other humans could do this to beautiful architecture, but confident she and her team could raise another better building in its place. The robotics engineers murmured behind her doing the final calibration checks of the drones and geospatial dataset. With excitement rising, the reports of all clear came back to her one-by-one. With a deep breath, she pressed the start button, and with it the site came alive with the sounds of whirring, clicking, beeping, and buzzing which now mark the 21st century construction site. Build build build!

April 4, 2017
128 words.
Slumped in her chair, she had heard "No" all morning. From her boss; from her team; even from the coffee shop in the lobby who were out of dark roast. This did not bode well for her presentation on sustainable architecture in the afternoon. As junior partner she had worked hard for weeks developing an impactful presentation and be as prepared as possible for any client question. The proposal included an aggressive water conservation program to be sure, but she had never been the sort of person to aim for mediocre. She didn't get out of bed every morning to do average. Now the horizon looked darker and goal totally uphill. It was time for her secret weapon to swing momentum back in her favour: Cake for everyone!

April 28, 2017
155 words.
If I had to write a story about harnessing the power of BIM to support facilities management, I'd start with a frustrated character, unable to see what they're aiming for. There's so much at stake, so many moving parts, and at the end of the process an owner expecting a perfectly operational building. But the designer can't see all of this. The modern-day digital operation of a building is intense. One might as well take up brain surgery for all there is to know about the details of digital building ownership. But what if the designer had a map? Would that help them see the field? Now they would actually know what they're aiming for, but with the added benefit of not needing to know every detail, just like a real map. After hitting the target, the designer becomes a hero to owners and developers; babies smile, unicorns frolic, and Spring arrives! Thanks for following!

187 words.
The three students finally found each other on the sprawling Minecraft map and set off to find the perfect location for their building. Carefully prepared at school all week, during language arts and math, lunch and recess, the design now contained every conceivable feature a castle/cave/mansion could ever need: Slides, pools, huts, and potatoes. Now standing at the top of a mountain after school Friday, the three students looked determinedly at the plains below where they planned to build all weekend. Those luckily enough to have played with LEGO when they were younger will be familiar with how time flies when the brain shifts into this creative gear. Suddenly it was Sunday night, the castle only three-quarters done, and delicate negotiations going on between parents and students about bedtime. With good intentions the discussion started, "yes, learning design is important and your teamwork is admirable, but..." In the face of the students' commitment to design and build the arguments finally wilted and took on a desperate tone "...just because!" If you feel the urge to build and create, please don't resist and build build build!

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Computational Architecture in a Production Workflow

Besides maybe writing about Japanese architecture, one of my favourite topics to write about is computational architecture because its study so directly applies to those serious about building a lot. Knowledge of parametric and computational design techniques are increasing within the AEC industry. However, the use of this technology to define the form of high-concept, high-design projects – while very dramatic – represents only a small portion of what actually gets built every year. There are a variety of reasons for this, none of which really need to be unpacked here, because the substance of this article is concerned with expanding the range of buildings that could conceivably be supported by parametric and computational architecture techniques. A much larger area of application is indeed on the production side; harnessing computational architecture to facilitate efficient production workflows to design and build as far as the eye can see.

The uses of the DynamoBIM visual programming interface within the production environment is pretty much unlimited, and different firms will have different pain points they might possibility want a tool like Dynamo to fix. A long list of Dynamo production tutorials representing a range of functions put together by The Revit Kid author Jeffrey A. Pinheiro illustrates this point. From a strategic and organizational perspective, in the design studio it's important to remember problems still exist within the spaces between tutorials, and problems exist between those spaces too, and so on. Therefore, what follows doesn't focus so much on coding specific scripts, but rather offers guidance on how to think about Dynamo when faced with a problem in REVIT, either design-wise or technical. Encouraging a perspective that comes directly from business school, the first and last measure to use when navigating this question is whether it's cost prohibitive or not to use Dynamo when the same thing could be accomplished in REVIT alone. But even this framing of the question doesn't capture its full complexity because some scripts will take a lot of effort to initially code but could offer substantial gains to subsequent projects. I love the complexity of this topic, which is exactly what a modern building project is, so we press forward:

Coding efforts that can be reused and have a reasonable chance of being brought to fruition on time and on budget are good candidates to consider when trying to expand an organization's application of computational architecture on the production side. Luckily, we've have a huge body of knowledge about how to do parts of this process from the software development industry. As a mature industry, they have lots to say about expertise in programming, and the factors which influence software development. However, the depth of this field also results in an extremely wide range of talent coming into the AEC industry. There is a huge range in programming skills. What would take me hundreds of nodes in Dynamo could be accomplished in a block of Python code by some members of the DynamoBIM forums. Is their code objectively better? Probably. But these scripts and programs need to make it back to the production environment, where their success is judged on a physical building, therefore, this specific knowledge in programming needs to be balanced with specific knowledge of building science and building design management.

I can imagine some uses of computation architectural in the conceptual stage for more conventional projects. Building performance analysis, for example, delivers lots of useful information to drive high-performance sustainable design efforts without necessarily aiming for the Pritzker prize. But really the use of Dynamo can start right at the very beginning of the production cycle to set up comprehensive REVIT project templates that are both more complex than previous and more accurate/consistent (because use of Dynamo can drastically lower the threshold for implementing quality assurance steps within the development process). Coming from a structural engineering background, I've seen some egregious carelessness in studios setting up grids. They always get coordinated and fixed before documents ever start going out, but what boggles the mind is how they crop up in the first place. Interfacing with Dynamo, precise control of the grid layout is increased, but the workflow to return helpful information to the design team about its accuracy is also reduced. This extends to any object in REVIT where coordination and precision is key. The example sits at the core of why Dynamo is so helpful: Complex operations can be done to the 3D model easier, but information can also be taken and structured from the model just as easily.

Establishing a library of reusable DynamoBIM scripts can eventually grow into a valuable knowledge management asset for an organization. However, sometimes these challenges in the design studio require one-off solutions to fix. One can take elements from the modelling environment and manipulate them in all sorts of complex ways using formulas that would be impossible to accomplish in REVIT alone. This feature can solve many problems if some skill is gained in coding and controlling lists in Dynamo. So if only a certain configuration of elements needs to be updated, computational architectural is the tool that allows these operations to be carried out on the digital model with greater accuracy and efficiency than ever before. Both the ability to reuse powerful scripts and having a computational architecture Swiss army knife to assist problem solving each combine to increase productivity in the production stage. ArchSmarter writer Michael Kilkelly has an excellent video up showing some advance MEP scheduling of >1000 pieces. If one has the power of MS Excel to shape schedules, these sorts of operations become trivial. It's so important in the production phase to be constantly harnessing the efficiency and accuracy gains offered by computational architecture. There is so much positive feedback to be gained in these sorts of systems as the team's skill at programming improves and library of quality scripts grows.

The market battleground where sharp computational architecture skills will be an advantage in the future is sustainable architecture. Building performance analysis is still very much a black art in the AEC industry. REVIT's out of the box optimization and analysis packages are wildly inaccurate but at the same time building performance analysis still has all sorts of valuable insights to offer the design process. Streamlining building performance analysis with DynamoBIM has all sorts of benefits, though the main obstacle to increasing accuracy remains outside the scope of Dynamo alone to fix, and will require more industry research and coordination. There is no easy to way navigate the helpfulness of Dynamo in the design process (and the risks of inaccurate analysis) except to encourage an intelligent case-by-case approach. Some types of solar modelling or structural optimization will be at low risk for these types of inaccuracies, energy modeling on the other hand, probably most useful for jurisdictional reasons, remains defendable territory for specialist firms.

One more variable sits at the heart of computational architecture which is only visible to control when adopting a collaborative design approach. There is a point in any computational architecture project where it might become more advantageous to reach outside the firm for expert help than struggle along oneself. If a design studio encounters a skills gap, do they try to jump it alone, or hire out? Lots of BIM consulting firms are starting to pop up to cater to the demand created by this skills gap. However, it's still up to the project manager to aim and direct this effort, and there is very little room for error with budgets and schedules so tight. Ultimately, adopting a multidisciplinary approach on every project softens the panic at having to integrate different specialities in the modern design studio. I wish to leave readers with the impression a computational architecture interface such as Dynamo or Grasshopper should be treated just like any other BIM input tool like a mouse or keyboard. This is what distinguishes a BIM manager from a digital design expert and BIM champion; the comfort one has using their tools.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Solar Powered Sustainable Architecture

How to incorporate solar panels is only one facet of an integrated design approach to sustainable architecture. I'm hoping technology will solve some of the current problems with solar panels, increasing their design features and lowering costs. But there are many qualities of the sun's power to consider in design. The quality of interior daylight connects to higher productivity levels and better employee health. This is why the quality of interior daylight is considered a factor in several sustainability certification programs, LEED being the best known.  

Soon the Apple headquarters mothership will be landing in Cupertino and it reminded me I wanted to find out more about this building as their stated goal was to build the best office building ever. The project has seen Apple make a significant statement about sustainable architecture but how was this achieved? The design's 850,000 sq. ft. of solar panels almost cover the entire electrical operating costs of the 12000 employees. Furthermore, the very shape of the building is well adapted to maximizing the area of the interior where quality daylight is possible. The designers have gone further and modeled exterior louvers to match the site's orientation toward the sun throughout the season. An earlier example of Foster + Partners experience with advanced solar modeling is the London city hall, whose form is highly optimized toward the sun giving the building its distinctive oval shape. It's expected the quality of interior daylight will be excellent in Apple's Infinity Loop project and other features of the project, like giant 4-storey doors that mechanically open to the outside on nice days, will make this an excellent place to work. 

ARUP's Jaguar Land Rover plant in the West Midlands of England has a design feature on its roof I've been advocating for years. I actually noticed a similar approach at LACMA in Los Angeles on their exhibition pavilion. Returning to the Jaguar plant, the sloped roof plays a large role in increasing the quality of interior daylight. The client was quite happy to support the performance and health benefits such an architectural program provided. North facing windows bathe the interior in diffused sunlight while a continuous strip of glazing wraps the bottom of the building to encourage transparency. 21,000 solar panels face south and provide 30% of the building's power. 

The 10-storey Elithis Tower in Dijon, France has some interesting numbers to report to readers. With 330 solar panels on top it provides 70% of its own power but part of this rests on the excellent interior daylight quality which makes it comfortable to work inside with limited need for electric lights. The eye-catching solar shield on the front eliminates the building's need for air conditioning which contributes significantly to the building's high performance. Hopefully potential developers will see these examples and want their buildings to have strong solar strategies as well but it will be hard to reproduce the success of Elithis Tower because some of the design work was done by the client themselves, Elithis Engineering. The French firm of Arte Charpentier Architects also contributed their talents to the project. Renewable wood and recycled insulation was utilized throughout but total costs were kept to around $10 million (in 2009) which supports the idea high-performance architecture is coming down in price. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wonderful Renewable Wood in High-Performance Buildings

Instead of breaking down a number of buildings in single post, today we expand on just one. The building, located in Portland, Oregon, has gained some popularity since 2015 by capturing several sustainability awards. Only having time to return to the subject now, I wanted to focus on three characteristics of the project: It's form. It's materials. and it's sustainability goals. 

The story of this building doesn't stray far from the city of itself and represents how regionally specific modern architecture can be compared to how we think of it as an international style. With the design team led by local-firm Holst Architecture, they set out to be visually ambitious. On that account, I think they were successful, having established the project's architectural value through awards and commentary. Official literature for the project states Antoni Gaudí as an influence but I also see a final form that's classically modern and will age well. The touches of local and regional materials and expertise throughout is great. The warm texture of the wood is timelessly inviting but the deeply inset windows on the exterior create a delicate balance on the exterior. From all the pictures of this building these apertures look very well detailed. In addition, I suspect they help support the quality of the interior daylight. There are three buildings placed on the site, all of exceptionally high performance, but only two share the characteristic curvilinear form. The use of sustainable timber continues inside with its use featured in the open and spacious common areas of the two buildings. The project also has a large outdoor courtyard spearheaded by landscape architect Lango Hansen. Its contemporary style is inviting and I appreciate the design's use of regionally appropriate plants. But it's that renewable facade that draws the eye from blocks away that bares some critical thought.

A good reference point for sustainable wood products in the AEC industry is the widely known Forestry Stewardship Council. On the One North project, the clients and architect were committed to pushing beyond that industry certification. In the end, the project (in coordination with the general contractor) sourced materials privately and independently from a local landowners cooperative organized just for the project. Though not reclaimed, the wood is all 2nd-growth, which means no centuries old ecosystems were disturbed to secure its procurement. 

Industry sustainability certifications absolutely have a role. There are economies-of-scales to be leveraged within the industry by pre-qualifying products and streamlining the certification process. However, this economic structure in some ways disincentives organizations from attempting to go above and beyond, retarding an engine of improvement and advancement within the AEC industry. It took leadership to decline industry-specific certifications and real skill to execute a world-class sustainability program nonetheless. I really discourage any suggestion sustainable architecture is a paint-by-numbers affair. Here we see an example of a multidisciplinary project establishing a high performance mark with great artistic merit. The power of metrics and certifications is derived from the motivation to improve the state of sustainable architecture. That's the proper perspective on such information. Engaging the fundamental drive of a group to build excellence architecture seems like a much more valuable characteristic to harness, from there the tiniest details of sustainable design can be placed. 
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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Advanced BIM Workflows in the Digital Design Office

I came across the below linked video last month and instantly knew there was something to learn from it. However, the video format – a recording of a live meeting – was extremely limited as a medium to transfer the knowledge I so desperately wanted, and so had to come back to it later. I don't consider this the fault of the good folks at EvolveLAB or Autodesk Fromit. Quite the contrary in fact, I think they should be celebrated for releasing whatever they can to the community. I love learning and am more than happy to take up some of the responsibility for learning a complex subject myself. That said, one method of learning any subject is writing about it. Here I thought I would share my description of the class after draining all useful information from the video and reconstituting it here for my readers in a much more inviting and engaging form.

The almost hour long video is notable for how it links together several software applications. Transitions between software programs have traditionally been a pain point in BIM projects because the complexity of the digital model can inevitably lead to the introduction of small bugs that result in unexpected behaviour. Anyone in charge of supporting parametric design in the office should be aware that to support an architect's vision at a high level, a fluency in the topics discussed here on the blog continually, or specifically today in the video, is fundamental. 

Autodesk's Formit 360 is mentioned. Great little program. It's a lightweight modelling environment for conceptual design which integrates with each DynamoBIM, Revit, and the Cloud. I love REVIT but it's a heavy weight champ when sometimes nimbleness is required. Fromit was made with this goal in mind. The helpfulness of this software rests on the undercurrents of digital design the AEC industry is currently transition to. The ability to have a robust and flexible conceptual workspace supports iterative design techniques so prevalent in data-driven design methodologies. 

The presenters show DynamoBIM still growing in its role as a complementary tool in an a world-class digital design workflow. Here we see Dynamo used very effectively in a conceptual environment. Many firms could use this skill set to make amazing architecture, but I'm not sure all firms are ready to take the plunge, at least in Canada. Certainly from an architectural criticism perspective I don't know if this is totally a good thing either. But in an empirical way – taken in context of a suite of digital design software – this tool allows optimization of the design which, in turn, can drive building value for all stakeholders in a project, especially users. Two other characteristics of computational architecture and Dynamo not illustrated in the video but important applications nonetheless are 1) Dynamo has many functions in a BIM production workflow not mentioned in the video; and 2) there is a subtle but important difference between computational architecture optimizing a conceptual design and production workflow versus optimizing a building materials or performance through analysis. Computational architecture needs to be attacked from both angles to maximize the benefits of digital design. 

Lastly we introduce Autodesk's Project Fractal initiative. Certainly this isn't as big a piece of software as REVIT but it has some interesting characteristics for sharing parametric designs that have implications for teams designing distributively around the world. Basically it's a way for parametric models to be processed and hosted in the cloud for users to inspect and review. It's nice to see lightweight mobile options continue to be developed along side enterprise-level creative software. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Data Science in the Service of Architecture.

I've been carefully reading articles about the impact of data science in architecture but haven't felt any cover the topic particularly well. This concerns me insofar as these changes are zooming toward the design studio. By comparison, there doesn't seem to be a lot of haste in communicating to firms the tools they'll need to adapt. Furthermore, the big data landscape is getting increasingly competitive. Firms without experience in data science will be at a disadvantage. Data science conversations are becoming more and more commonplace within the AEC industry and general public and, secondly, it's important to recognize excelling at any one type of big data application can require a deep understanding of the underlying math and science behind the data. This is a specialist knowledge many big data firm already have, and small and mid-size architectural and engineering firms will struggle to get. Venture capitalist Matt Turck's 2017 Data Landscape poster graphically represents the competitiveness I'm trying to express in writing. There are an absolute ton of smart, driven, and hardworking firms coming for your dollars. My hope with this article is that a defence can start to be built, and, on a whole, we can get data science working for architecture.

Before proceeding, it's worth describing some reasonable constraints on our approach to the topic. The rapid growth of big data in modern life brings many different characteristics of the field forward; here we are going to discuss the topic strictly in terms of building design management, that being the study of architecture in terms of economics and business analysis. Left aside for the moment are more existentialist questions related data science's role in architecture, such as whether it's a good thing or not to let an algorithm totally determine the form of a building. Instead I favour of questions of adaptability. This technology is coming toward the design studio and we need to try to get out ahead of it. Where I need to admit bias is that I have a strong belief data science can help myself, and my readers, build more valuable architecture.

It's the math itself which really distinguishes the study of data science. Many fields of math intersect at various points with data science, any one of which is worthy of its own international conference. Every subdomain of the topic is deep. How to bring all of this together in a single firm is one of the main goals of building design management. There are three broad areas to consider if facing a big data request in an architectural or engineering setting:
  1. Infrastructure
  2. Computer Science
  3. Analytics
Infrastructure. This refers to all the physical characteristics of the system or network to be used for work and is meant to be as broad as possible. Questions regarding multiple monitor computer setups all the way to browser-based BIM software hosted in the Cloud are all valid objects of study. Having a firm grasp of the computer and network infrastructure used in the AEC industry, including its costs and capabilities, and how it scales, all create the framework necessary to support technology users carrying out the following two points within a firm.

Computer Science. At the core of this category is supporting the needs of a high-performance computation architecture department or some other per project application of the subject. Distinguishing performance in this field is signalled by a depth of knowledge with several types of programming used in the industry (or fluency in several different programming languages). This includes familiarity with generative design (which encompasses branches of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and neural networks) and geometry (mostly within the field of finite mathematics, such as combinatorics and graph theory, but also classical and differential geometry). On the horizon, leaders will soon be expected to support additive construction techniques within a firm like architectural 3D printing or construction drones. Finally, how predictive mathematical models are developed and relate to statistics has a substantial influence on our last category.

Analytics. If above was about programming expertise in data science, this category is about getting the answers you want from your data. Having been involved in the field now for years, asking good questions of your data still seems to be more art than science. Several different branches of mathematics, such as linear algebra, matrices, and discrete optimization techniques, are involved in analyzing data. Network analysis can also be a powerful tool because as the data is analyzed, it often starts to reveal all sorts of complex connections within the data to that can be exploited (such as adjusting a product's supply chain). Building performance analysis in its many forms – thermal, structural, etc., – are all examples of activity in this field. Once all this data is in the model, it's time to analyze its form and predict its behaviour.

Conclusion. Ultimately, all three areas should be addressed on every project. This framework will help support better decision making about data science topics in architecture. Assuming one of the hallmarks of creativity is open mindedness, if the architectural and engineering field considers themselves creative at all, it's important we be openminded to welcoming data scientists and robotics engineers into the design studio. The creativity of the field can also be a source of adaptability.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Planning A Sustainable Data Center

The architectural qualities of data centers is a relevant topic of study because the structures:

  1. Play an important role in many organizations' expansion plans.
  2. Control vast amounts of moving information important to society.
  3. Consume an amazing amount of electricity. (Sometimes as much as a mid-sized municipality.)
We've covered elsewhere that sharp aesthetic design is no longer incompatible with sustainability. However, on the last point above especially, data centers have become an interesting exercise in what happens when a single building function is prioritized above all others. A great effort has been made to optimize the sustainability features of these buildings and therefore there are things we can learn to apply to our own projects. 

The first thing is to build a context around their low rectangular profile. This quality is arrived at by addressing issues of constructibility. In the design of a data center's characteristic rectangular shape, the use of repeating and modular details is maximized to ensure a short build time. The energy saved on a compact design and construction schedule can be considered a sustainability feature in-and-of-itself. If the data centers have offices, they tend to be very standard and unimaginative as the designers have no freedom to affect the structure of the building. Still, interior quality can be quite high when given headquarter's blessing.

Unless one really likes the techno-industrial stylings of data centers, their aesthetic qualities can be poor. Some buildings try to mitigate these concerns with advanced and well-thought out cladding systems (top image), but the fact remains designers are fundamentally limited from ever truly experimenting with form. A nice exception to this is South Korea’s GAK data center (bottom image), but most of the time, it has to be simple and rectangular at the end of the day. What one normally discovers with this constraint is visually very weak corners. They always kind of droop away. (The use of entasis in Greek architecture was to counter this effect.) So if the interior design is detached from the structure and exterior architectural quality poor, why are data centers continuing to be built?

Data centers are severing their primary function well: committing everything to reducing power consumption. This is a reasonable goal since electricity will, by far, be the biggest operating cost of the building. The electrical and mechanical engineering skills on display in these buildings is fascinating and building systems sophisticated. Power savings are normally addressed within the industry one of two ways: Lower powered chips can be used, which the architect has no control over. Or ultra-high performance heating and cooling systems are installed, which strike at the core function of data center and the role of an architect to figure out and coordinate. The electricity consumption is so dense inside these structures it expresses itself on the exterior with rows of cooling units. Backtracking from there, the cooling system is carefully designed to remove heat from the racks as efficiently as possible. Electricity consumption is fanatically tracked. The optimization on display here is emblematic of the high-performance building technology and techniques we should be trying to apply in all modern buildings.