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Computational Design will change the way designers work

October 27, 2019

We are in a kind of Cambrian explosion of AEC technology.

Different approaches and business models are proliferating rapidly even in an industry that often describes itself as staid and conservative. Driving these developments is not fundamentally new technology - almost everything is a variation of SQL, json, and vector mathematics. The innovation is happening in understanding how the old technology can be used to do architecture and construction.

There are two kinds of technology that are really interesting at the moment. The first one is a set of data technologies that describe buildings digitally. This - in all its varieties - is normally called BIM. It is a subset of database technology (basically some geometry types with attributes.)

The other type of technology is one that describes a process of design. This is normally called computational design. Computational design is a verb - something is done - BIM is a noun. It is a thing. Computational design creates BIM data.

You don't need computational design to create BIM data. You can design manually by clicking and dragging (as per Revit). But being able to automatically create BIM data changes the way you work with it. As someone famous once said: quantity has a quality all of its own.

Everyone needs different data

A different view on the building data model
A different view on the building data model

In most modern design firms a 'design' is a digital description of a building - a BIM. This certainly helps, but the model actually needs to be multiple BIM models.

To the structural engineer it is ideally well connected polylines representing an analytical model to which structural parameters can be added. (Things like Young's modulus of steel and other fascinating properties I don't understand remotely).

To the architectural visualization artist that same structure should be presented as meshes with a colour and texture.

To the financial analyst the model is simple areas.

To the facade supplier the model is an excel sheet of uniquely serialised panels and parameters.

The designer needs to be able to create a new BIM, for a specific use case as quickly as possible in order to get good data rich feedback. This is the only way to make good decisions. There is no other way to rigorously explore design options.

Making data computationally is free

Free data production
Free data production

When the BIM model is made by hand there is no revolution.

Say an architect models a design in Revit. There is no analytical model (it would take too long to create), so the architect uses the Revit model they've created to publish a pdf, which the engineer marks up with a fat pen. There is no excel schedule so the facade supplier is ignored until later on.

But when the BIM models are made computationally the process scales.

Computational work for one building works for (almost) all buildings. The mesh model and analytical model and the excel sheet are all produced simultaneously at no additional effort from the designer.



Is the BIM a native Revit file? Or is it Archicad? The big vendors will try and make you decide, but  the answer to both questions is yes. It is also svg, and a json and etabs and IFC. It's even a shapefile sometimes. I think I've even seen ASCII art. Because the model is being created computationally the file format has to be open. It cannot be anything else except bits on disk legible to the big programming languages. If it is not open the computational designer will not be able to work, because they operate on the data directly.

Consultant work changes

It is free to create any format. Therefore any consultant can specify a format to receive data and this is not an onerous demand. The consultant can operate on the data machine to machine without manual intervention. In many cases a consultant will be replaced by a machine. This is the future of consultation.

Computational design is the future of design

Design is about creating. Designers that can efficiently create data will be the ones who can efficiently use data.

At Giraffe we're working to make data creation as intuitive to designers as a fat pen. We are building software that allows designers to create BIM models without friction. We have created the ability for teams of digitally enabled designers to collaborate in real time by exposing computational design scripts they've written in any language via API to any platform.

We are always looking for people interested in inventing the future. If you are interested in making your design process more rapid and data driven, or if you have useful scripts or data that you would like to expose to the wide world, or share usefully within your own firm, let's talk.

- Rob