Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Celebrating the Architecture of Zaha Hadid

There have been various tributes to Zaha Hadid over the past year and now it's my turn to contribute. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I accept an architect's portfolio can vary in quality over time. However, I didn't have any problem picking out four of my favourites for this piece, leaving Wangjing SOHO and her work for The London Science Museum's Architects' Mathematics project as close runners up for inclusion. Hopefully this piece strikes a loud celebratory tone, even if I can't help but mention some of the buildings' neglected details. What I really want to throw a party for is Hadid herself. She has an amazing story and I really admire her tenacity to build. It's definitely something I can identify with. Her extraction from the Middle East and representation of that culture in modern architecture has improved our cities immensely. She had the honour of being the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize in 2004. I will end by saying if you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it with at least one friend that needs a smile.

Heydar Aliyev Center, Azerbaijan, 2013
A small problem about this building cropped up in the preparation for this post: It looks good from every angle. This fact made it difficult to pick a favourite perspective. Once in view, it's a hard building to take one's eyes off of. Hadid really seems at her most inspired here. The interior is a bit strange, with the main entrance foyer in pure white. I know it's to accentuate the forms but the atmosphere has always struck me as a bit sterile. I've never heard any reports back as to the auditorium's acoustic performance but I imagine its relative remoteness plays a factor in that. Returning to the exterior, it will be interesting to see how the future treats the glass finishing, the main building tiles using a glass-reinforced polymer and the plaza a glass-reinforced concrete.

The Jockey Club Innovation Center, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2014.
This building in particular does such a good job channelling the futuristic style of Japanese science-fiction anime. I don't know if that's what Hadid was aiming for when she designed this building, but overall, the building's stance does an excellent job communicating its forward-thinking purpose; the perfect message for a university. Many buildings in our communities don't stray far from the traditional rectilinear form and wear their value engineering as an aesthetic. I really applaud the clients for their open mindedness in this project. The way the facade twists and wraps around the exterior adds a lot of visual interest to the building.

Library and Learning Centre University of Economics, Vienna, 2013
This building is also really interesting from the air but I liked this view of the main entrance better. The interior, for the most part, sticks to all white again but I think the spaces are much better handled in this project and don't seem so sterile or monolithic as the Heydar Aliyev Center above. Here I think the comparison to postmodern Japanese architecture is also apt because that is a category of architecture which also highlights the sophisticated possibilities of pure white interiors.
Investcorp building, Oxford, 2015.
I wanted to include this smaller project from her studio because it showcases her excellent conception of novel interior spaces and approach to matching modern architecture to traditional settings. Sometimes whacky curvilinear rooms never really work functionally but much of Hadid's work pulls off this difficult balancing act between form and function. The interior views of this building confirm how much planning and effort went into designing these spaces. The exterior is where I see the most Middle Eastern influence but have been struggling to find the words to express it. Housing some of the facilities for Oxford's School of Middle Eastern studies, I imagine this project was meaningful to Hadid. It's parametric roots are obvious but somehow it's proportions exemplify the dignity of the region that couldn't be accomplished by a Japanese of North American architect. That said, perhaps others will see this building distinctly in the modern international style that could be placed anywhere.

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.