Generative Design

The future of CAD

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End of CAD : Part II

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This is the second and final part of End of CAD.

What is genetic representation?

While we have clear representations of design in the biological world, this is not so in the design world. We have geometry and after many decades, material properties tagged on to it rebranded as BIM to which many aspects are now being added. This is certainly a very positive development and should have been the way design should have been the moment we started using computers for design. It was not; due to the enormous conservatism of designers who were only open to tools that allowed them to do better what they did on paper.

The big difference in genetic representations over current parametric BIM representations is that they contain within themselves greater design possibilities in other words; they cover a larger design space as they operate on build instructions instead of the final geometric form. The representation would be cellular and relativistic. It will not be based on Euclidian frameworks that lock geometries to planet earth. Cellular geometry would refer to each other in a very different way. Cells may be added and deleted and the rest of the geometry will readjust with ease in this relativistic frame work. Such a frame work would allow designers to add and delete rooms with ease at a schematic stage as the rooms will form themselves with walls, doors and windows in relationship with other rooms. Genetic representations will also be able to tie into other important pattern based schemes such as circulation schemes, very different to the way they are currently developed. The fundamental difference is that genetic representations will not be just sketchy variable geometries but information structures that are vital for the designs self formation, fulfilling requirements that are essential for its viability.

At the same time, a good part of CAD will revert back to what it was originally created for – CAM controlling machines for manufacture.   Those who make things know most about what they make and will play a vital role in structuring that information. They will be tasked to set limits on what can be made and what is feasible. In other words, they will seek to control design space. They will do this with filters – for manufacturability, cost, performance and for a wide variety of engineering aspects. The genetic models will be accompanied by filters that control the bounds of their expression,  to help keep their expression within desirable and feasible limits.

This is not a futuristic proposition. The current unstated trend in fabrication is to open up the capacity of factories to consumers with minimal friction through “configuration systems” and Genetic models will be their natural extensions, allowing designers and non-designers to explore beyond pre-configured offerings.  And by enabling this in the best possible way, they will seek to keep their machines busy. Thus genetic models will become the most efficient medium through which they would seek out orders for their services. Thus they and not designers are likely to be their promoters.

What will CAD be?

It took nearly a decade for the CAM program, written to control CNC machines to become what is known as CAD.  It took another few decades for it to move from paper based 2D representations to 3D and a decade more to marry it with data to form Building Information Models (BIM).  Genetic representation of design would be about extending BIM with abilities of:

  • Genetic representation (capable of representing larger design space)
  • Cellular Geometry (components will manage their own geometry)
  • Self-design abilities (through embedding knowledge)
  • Constrain management (through use of constraint filters)

Future CAD systems will be web based and most of them will run web browsers calling web hosted API’s to support more complex operations. While late stage design will deal with large amounts of data requiring massive amounts of computational capacity,  early stage design will not. Current HTML5 capabilities are ample for design exploration. There are now browser based CAD systems that are able to handle designs of medium complexity.  CAD companies will offer cloud based API services – which will operate on genetically structured models (in other words software as a service model).  APIs will help keep design interactions light and easy on the browser, relieving them of the computational burden that current PC based systems struggle with, giving them instead the ability to call upon significant computational capacity as and when needed.

What will the designer be?

To answer this, we need to ask a bigger question “What would design be?” in a richly connected computational medium,  design is likely to be very different.  It would be more about search.   Genetic frameworks will allow designers to search for prospective generic solutions that may be modified into feasible and desirable designs. It will be about enabling the client to experience different possibilities and understand the various limitation and their effects. Computationally, it will be about enlarging the creative exploration space.

When the burden of design is carried by computation, the designer role will be mostly about intent management.   Designers are likely to extend and modify genetic structures as biologists do with living cells, to achieve objects that are different from what they were initially evolved for. Like biologists, they would come to accept genetic frame works and be willing to tweak individual aspects instead of re-design every aspect of it as architects do now with buildings.  Their role will increasingly be in defining “purpose” – that is beyond the reach of computation. Not that we know how to do this. But we may imagine how this may happen. Avoiding the details of implementation, let us see how this may work on a simple house building project.

When Joe wants to design his house

If Joe is part of 95% percentile of new house creators, he will not be going first to an architect. He will explore within the constraints of this site, the budget and building regulations of various web deployed house forms. He will be able to walk through and around them and be able to explore possible designs and make changes. He will be using a free browser based system for this that makes use of socially authored genetic models. Unknown to him, contractors and suppliers will be involved in an online bidding war to give Joe the best deals as he continues to explore possibilities. All contractual, logistics and fabrication aspects will be computed in real time. He will be informed of the cost of the building and the changes he is making as he is making them.

In fact, Joe will not be “designing”. He will be building his dream house in a virtual environment.  Of course; his design will be made from a kit of parts – as most houses are – but a highly variable kit.  APIs will provide advanced computational services required for design on a pay per use basis. For example, he may use an API to modify his design to recover energy bills. Professionals too will provide outsourced services for prospective clients, monetizing their time, skills and reputation using the same hosted framework. This is not entirely a futuristic scenario; this is simply an extension of what is currently happening.

Beyond CAD

CAD in its current form is struggling to adopt itself to early stage design. The increasing use of slider bars is a sign of designers coming to terms with the need for variability. CAD in its current from   lacks genetic structures that are capable of capturing commonalties (though BIM is a good start). It is only able to represent design information in geometric and material form. It operates at a very low level because in essence,  it is a mash up between a drawing board, data table and a pocket calculator. But then,  it does all the low end work very well. That accounts for its current popularity.

But at the highest level, design is about design intent. Currently and for the foreseeable future, it is likely to remain the domain of the human designer. CAD will,  in good time develop the capacity to support human designers in managing design intent. It is a long way from it now and in doing so, it will transform itself to connect the two extreme ends; the design intent with design representations.

The greatest disadvantage of the lack of genetic structures is the lack of compiled knowledge on design. Every designer starts off with a clean sheet of paper as though no piece of architecture existed in the world before. The commitment to make a design statement or to create differentiation is seen by many designers (especially star architects) as their primary role. In this there seems to be a clear commitment not to learn from or be influenced by previous design works of others, except for differentiating their work from others. Knowledge consolidation requires common data structures.

For example, if we knew of desirable configuration of rooms within a house for optimal thermal comfort,  (at a higher level, above CAD presentation of the design),  analysed from various house forms in a particular region, we can apply this knowledge during the design process at a very high level. While CAD representations allow us to analyse the performative aspects of designs, they do not facilitate the embedding of knowledge within the design process in generic ways that could be made use of. Design knowledge as a result is housed in the designer’s head and it is not shared with other designers.


CAD will evolve to facilitate end user play – enabling end users to design what they wish. Genetically structured light-weight representations will populate the web, seeking engagement with potential users.  They would behave intelligently and show respect to constraints set by manufacturing companies that seek to sell their services through them. They would have the ability to alter their own designs and interact with other virtual design representations that share their platform of creation.  They would allow APIs to act upon them to refine their representations as desired by the end user. They would allow designers and creators to connect to each other seamlessly, extending the promise of what is possible and desirable beyond what we can now imagine.


Like to thanks to members of the LinkedIn Group on Generative Design for their interaction and in helping to evolve my thoughts on this.

Written by Sivam Krish

February 21, 2014 at 10:44 pm

What is missing ?

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I just returned from ”Design the Dynamic”  design conference in Melbourne and would like to share what I heard, felt and learned. This conference was based on Design and  Computational Fluid Dynamics, often referred to as CFD. It was preceded by a 4 day workshop in which impressive progress was made by students of RMIT in prototyping rigging up and analyzing an interesting range of design concepts.

The symposium on the last day had the usual cocktail of presentations from practicing architects showcasing their current work and work processes, academics discussing issues that are relevant to the academic world. Also present were those who connected random thoughts to random words illustrated with equally random images. Noticeably absent were the representatives CAD companies. Perhaps because they are aware of the irrelevance of the rest in a game that is now defined, led and played entirely by them.

The symposium however was interesting and here is what I learned from it.      

Winds can shape form

Streamline of wind flow and pressure

Not only are the dunes of deserts shaped by wind; buildings too can be shaped by winds. Wind can be a generative force. An interesting presentation by engineer Peter Felicetti based on collaborative research with Prof. Mike Xie and JIWu Tang showed how twisted shapes can drive wind upwards and provide an aerodynamic lift that works against gravity. In tall buildings, even though wind forces are significant they  are only a fraction of gravitational forces, still they can help shape them.

Rough & inaccurate tools are still very useful

The results of the 4 day projects that preceded the conference were also presented. Results from various CFD tools of two extreme kinds were compared. Whiles the tools like Vasari reduced the complexity, they were discovered to be less accurate than more advanced analytical tools such as ANSYS that are usually operated by experts.  However, tools like Vasari were found to be useful despite their limitations and misuse by the “Jonny English of CFD” as a presenter described himself, because they can be fixed quickly with a bit of timely expert input. It also seemed that the loss of accuracy was mainly due to Johnny English effect . Those with better understanding of CFD could drastically improve the results over Jonny using the very same tools. So this way, Johnny is in the game. He has his role and the experts have theirs too.

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Written by Sivam Krish

November 26, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Whatz the clouds got to do with it ?

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The cloud brings together the possibility of massive computational resources and connectivity in an unprecedented scale across a wide range of business, educational and entertainment activities.

Are the Architects ready for the cloud?

The answer is ” No”.  But, will they get there? ” Yes”. Most likely, in the  same wrong way they adopted CAD – to replicate the drawing board with CRT screens  – without consideration to the true potential of computers. This was a big jump for many architects. It happened  only because they were assured that the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) was better than the drawing board. Companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Autodesk are all now busy building the rail roads in the kingdom in heaven – in which platforms of great promise will dominate the next era of human dependence on computation. So, everyone will get there for sure.

But what will design be in the cloud ?

I believe that the cloud will  initially be used in the same way that computers were used to replace existing PC based practices. PC bound CAD systems will soon be operating on cloud platforms. Speed and connectivity bonuses are good enough to lure most CAD dependent designers. But once they are all there, it is likely to transform the practice of design in way that it was transformed by the PC/CAD revolution. But then, without them realizing it, the clocks will be turned back on them. Design processes will go back a few billion years – to where design began.

Design will be – as in nature

Nature in itself  is a massive computational environment that has evolved over billions of years. Its key virtues of building complexity based on shared code and ability to explore possibilities through random exploration using highly evolved strategies and methods will come to dominate the art of design – orchestrated by human designers, the way humans have harvested the potential of natures design capability to turn grass in to wheat and rice and wolf into dog; primarily by manipulating a highly evolved refined and structured design processes.

Design as it is now

Before we consider the lofty heights that clouds can take us to, let’s review where we are with CAD now. The turbocharged drafting machines now connected to data-bases powered graphically by games technologies have got us quite far. A diverse set of capabilities and professional work practices – are now slowly coming together; but mostly at the back-end of the design process. But here it is too late, as all the important designs are already made and opportunities to make significant improvements are limited. It is known that more than 80% of decisions and commitments are made in the early stages of the design process (shaded in green) where now computers play a very limited role.

The codification and comodification of CAD

Most CAD packages now handle the drudgery of 3D manipulation fairly well. The dark regions shown – is dominated by code that reduce design labor ( most CAD companies have similar capabilities in this area). The push now, is into early stage design, where significant improvements can be made. Software like Grasshopper and platforms like Vasari are now extending the reach of CAD into early stage design. Further up stream is generative design.

What the clouds mean for generative design?

It is like asking what gasoline means for your car? Generative design can drink it all – all the computational capabilities that the cloud can provide. It will soon be possible to roll apparently dumb, random and computationally intensive approaches that nature has chosen in its great wisdom. Hopefully, it will be based on an open and shared genetic infrastructure – so that knowledge generated will not be lost but be shared and built upon.

The fundamental change will be the ability to consider multiple possibilities in virtual environments. In sharp contrast to the singular and somewhat perturbed linear approach mastered by designers on account of their limited mental processing capabilities. The design processes now used by designers are based on the limits of the processing capability of the human mind and its ability to consider only a large but limited number of possibilities. Kasparov is no longer the champion of chess.

The maturing of many CAD technologies has already greatly reduced the human labor in taking early stage concepts to reality that is close to real, making it possible to consider multiple possibilities of great maturity – instead of dumping them at the end of a doodling process as part of an ancient design ritual.

Written by Sivam Krish

October 25, 2011 at 12:45 am

End of the road for the turbo-charged drawing board?

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End of the road ?

We are now amidst an interesting change. The era of automating the drawing board seems to be drawing to a close. The architecture of today is increasingly difficult to draw with straight lines. There are many repeated components of various sizes. Fabrication companies are now  able to crank out shapes that were not possible before. The cost of customisation is also continuously reducing. The virtues of straight line – sung by the modernist architects inspired by an ancient geometric legend, seem to interest nobody. It has now lost its rationality and more importantly its appeal.

The rise of curvitecture

What’s interesting about design are trends. Because each trend destroys a previous trend and with it, the tools designed to author it. Curvitecture is primarily a result of reaction to an Euclidean trend that swept the world – as the “modern movement” which imbued mass manufactured forms with aesthetic and rational qualities.  Its overwhelming success,  the mass confusion of what is considered bio and curved and overriding attention seeking goal of architects  has helped fuel a trends that have now wrecked the Euclidean sense of Geometry. It s forms, rationality and aesthic will soon be buried in architectural history.

Anything is possible now

Being creative is about moving to the edge – especially the edge that is being extended by new technology, engineering and manufacturing capabilities. Architects entertain the attention deprived world by authoring unseen shapes of great complexity – which mostly do not relate to increase in performance despite their significant cost.Being and looking “bio” is certainly a justification that works, because now being bio is being good and also being efficient. So there is a case for funny forms.

Why programs need to draw

It is impossible to draw a rat’s nest on AutoCAD. But it is possible to do so using programs that can handle the geometry of individual elements. Each element has common attributes that can easily be created by programs. Incidentally, we were built that way. We are a result of genetic constructional programs that told our cells how to and when to design themselves. Drafting board-inspired CAD packages are unable to handle the complexity of the kinds of shapes that are now being authored. A reassuring reaction is that only a small portion of building are funny shaped and the bulk of what is built can still be drawn with a drafting board.

In the name of efficiency

The era of the turbo-charged drawing board is not to end too soon perhaps the way drawing boards themselves vanished from design practices. To prevent is pre-mature demise, a late but smart decision has been made to marry it to databases so that it can better handle the grunt work of design. This strategy seem to be working. BIM is breathing new life into old CAD. It is bringing obvious ways of working with computers (long obvious to companies like archiCAD) into mainstream use.The assocaited cost savings makes it an easy sell. The advantages are significant and architects are too busy either singing its praises or getting on board. But the age gap is catching up with them; because the next generation designs very differently.

Cheap, smart, socially authored software

The design schools of today will give you a better glimpse of the future of CAD in architecture. They are now skewed towards scripting based tools – where designs are more transparently authored by programs. In the case of grasshopper, these programs are disguised as drag and drop boxes – giving late teenagers the thrill of connecting them with wires. The network around the grasshopper community is a global collaborative R&D team that is continuously developing new ways of authoring design. Many of them can program too.

The turbo-charged drawing boards, though now newly married to databases, and renamed  BIM certainly is a late stage marriage of significance to the those who are in mature practices, whose choice of CAD is skewed towards realizing designs . But those who wish to use CAD as a creative tool  need to look elsewhere.

Written by Sivam Krish

July 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

Digital Sketching

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Computers are great for finalizing designs and lousy at developing them. In the the early stages, the design is under evolution. Early stage design exploration mostly happens in the designers mind inspired by incomplete doodles. CAD is cumbersome. It cannot provide  the magic fluidity of the pen,pencil and mind combo. But this seems to be changing. Thanks to tools like grasshopper it is now possible to rapidly sketch designs and consider variations collaboratively. This is now beginning to take hold in architecture. Thornton Tomasetti -presents some excellent examples;

Interestingly, the work processes of  this engineering firm was inspired by seeing students use grasshopper in schools of architecture. Grasshopper is now reaping the benefits of its open approach (the ease of interfacability  for pumping data in out to various analytical packages)  and large and dedicated user community. So architects and engineers can now share same early stage geometric data and build on it.

Tools like grasshopper are now making the very same transition that open sourced software made. People asked the same questions. Would you run a commercial application on free software ? Whom can I call if I have a problem ? This stuff is good to play around, but would you build a building worth millions of $ with it ?  The answerer is yes, and it is happening now.

Once engineers start using it, it will acquire an aura of reliability and respectability (despite its insect name). When engineers ask architects to provide them with grasshopper models architects will assume that this is serious stuff – this is good not only for sketching but also for building stuff, analysing stuff and further along the line for contracting stuff. But there is nothing to get excited, it’s all still parametric play (mistakenly called generative design).

I can see these engineers highly amused by what they can now do with the tools  they picked up last year. They are yet to see what is to come. Such cleverness will soon be commonplace. Cleverness will soon be about using the cleverness of computers. Getting computers to explore, instead of them driving the designs . But we must thank these folks because they have taken the first step in demonstrating what can now be done.

Written by Sivam Krish

July 25, 2011 at 1:27 am

A good example of Generative Design

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Good examples of generative design are hard to come by – because there aren’t many, especially, in architecture. What is often claimed as generative design usually turns out to be designer-driven design. This is perhaps, due to the late discovery of parametric history based design by architects and perhaps the failure of design academics to define Generative Design.

An interesting example of generative design is presented by Nate Holland at the ACADIA conference as part of his research. Nate is indeed practicing generative design as his work process exploits the computers generate and  search capability  in exploring of design possibilities at the two vertical extremes of the building: Firstly, at ground floor to locate the best shop location and then at  the top levels to orient the towers according to the best views.

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Written by Sivam Krish

May 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Why MCAD platforms are good for generative design

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Generative Design – that is, computers generating design – is yet to happen. It is currently confined in its computational form to the confines of reasearch labs. it has been there for some time. When it  gets out to the real world,  it faces two real challenges. One is the setting up of generative schemes and the other is the selection process which needs to analyse the merits of  thousands of designs.  The CAD system in which designs are generated plays a critical role in both these.

Many may not realize that Design – is a relatively new word (appearing in the English language only after the 16th century) when the art of conception and execution took separate professional paths. Before that, there were only artificers – folk, who just built stuff.

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Written by Sivam Krish

April 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Code against Code – a Darwinian theory of software development ?

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The mechanical era produced many marvelous characters, Charles Darwin being my favourite.  Admired by me for his  great contribution to the theory of design and also for his marvelous beard. Always wondered how he found the time to groom it ? amidst his all-absorbing work. I guess, it must have helped him preserve his dignified composure as he reeked havoc amidst the  Christian community,  the biologists, zoologist and geologists of his time.

His then controversial theory is now used by scientist of all hues to understand and interpret how things evolve. We have discussed in this blog how his theories of evolution applies to design. But  since software plays a defining role in generating designs, should we not stop to think how this  theory may apply to the tools of design ?

a community of code ?

Code  now plays a critical activity in the determination of architectural form. Its effect on architectural form is now apparent. Its evolution and its use within the younger architectural community is beginning to play a defining role in architecture; mainly because designers have now started to play with code in a way they have never done before.

Now does this require us to assume that this code needs to be open sourced ?  cranked out mainly by hippie types? argues not ; an, an  interesting article -  A Darwinian theory of open source development strategies. It argues for a healthy co-existence of proprietary and open source software each building on the strength of the other each having particular advantages that is necessary and healthy for the development of software.

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Written by Sivam Krish

February 12, 2011 at 7:24 am

What CAD companies mean by – generative design

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In my previous article on why generative design means different things to different people – I had left out the views of CAD companies. Companies are profit oriented and their take on  generative design is different from the rest.

CAD is sold on efficiency

Efficiency is about eliminating all that is stupid and unnecessary. There is merit in that. CAD companies like it too. They have an interest in improving efficiency and the and gaining greater market share. These two pressures drive them and their  interpretation of generative design.

If you were a CAD salesman, you could only say two things to tell your prospect :

  1. It will save you time and money
  2. Because you can do cooler than your competition

Now, with those who are using the stuff that your company created (and if is quite crummy) an upgrade is an easy sell. They will complain about the price, but will ” make the investment ”  – in the hope that it can be recovered through efficiency gains, especially if they are convinced that it is the “standard”. Bill Gates did well by doing that.

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Written by Sivam Krish

February 3, 2011 at 11:00 am

Design by DLLs

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DLL stands for Dynamic-Link-Libraries; small pieces of code that can be called by programs operating within the windows operating system.

There are two types of  CAD

One is an ” all-inclusive ” offering .  All what we need is written into the CAD software so that nothing more is needed. The other approach is to provide just a graphic and 3D  data manipulation capabilities – an approach taken by programs such as Rhino. They are light and affordable. They come a with a large selection of DLL’s produced by active & passionate communities. These DLL’s achieve specific tasks for which they are authored. They achieve them exceeding well;  often better than the all-inclusive general purpose packages – an A la carte approach to CAD.

The advantages of the  all-inclusive approach is  often explained in marketing material that go with it. interestingly, marketing material is needed for such software – because in the old world of software development, you find out what the market needs, create code that can do it, test it,  package it well before its flogged. They also provide a number to call – if you have a problem with the software. They give you the feeling that you can  call the same number if the building you design with it falls over. But on the otehrhand, their pretense of comprehensiveness is somewhat real. They connect nicely to other analytical packages and do the things that they are supposed to do well – satisfying the needs of most design firms. But the creative lot are an unstable lot. They change their minds too often.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm


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