Archive for the ‘Software’ Category
It is refreshing to see promising research and useful methods emerging from lesser known quarters. Despite decades of academic research the “layout problem” as it is called, is till today solved by intelligent guess work.
Christian Derix, director of Aedas R&D Computation Design Research (CDR) group seem to be close to cracking a rather long standing problem. A problem that obsessed early design researchers from the end of world war 2. Architects returning from the war seem to have been keen to shake out the “irrational: image of their professions. Their engineering colleagues got back to peaceful production and were focusing their efforts on improving production and making it efficient. 50~30% of production costs are attributed to what is called transport cost, or the cost of moving material from one place to the other.
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
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.
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.
Much of architectural design is now about tweaking parameters. While we are yet to master the fine art of parametric design, there is much excitement about it. Perhaps too much of it. Thanks to it, most architects are now aware of the benefits of parametric design – where modification can be easily made and (parametric) variations easily explored.
Parametric play is now enjoying its day in the sun.
While parametric approaches to design are being formulated and built into work processes, something even more interesting is beginning to happen. Architectural geometry is now going through a post parametric revolution.
For a long time in architectural history, proportioning played a pivotal role. Proportioning is the precursor to parametric play, where the overall structure of the design is formed and fixed while its proportions are altered to find the most desirable form. It is powerful and useful. But limited in its capacity to create diverse forms in terms of topology. CAD packages could easily implement this, because they are driven by parameters anyway. But there was something else about CAD packages that remain hidden – perhaps for a bit too long. But remember, in the early days it was difficult to get designer to use CAD, you had to give them the impression that nothing had really changed and that they can now do in a screen what they used to do with pencil and paper.
After CAD, all geometric forms were inevitably authored by programs. But these programs were hidden. CAD companies went out-of-the-way to provide a veneer that kept the designers minds in the era of paper and pen. Perhaps, they did not guess that they will grow out of it. Perhaps this guess was right, particularly in Industrial design. But it is not so in architecture.
No more shame
The new generation of cutting edge designers now seem comfortable with code. Add-ons like grasshopper have made it much more easy to author code. Code has made it easy to create complex and repetitive forms. These forms can even compete with spaghetti in terms of geometric complexity.
Most cool designs are now authored by scripts. We are now at the end of simple parametric play. As the programmatic nature behind the construction of the geometry is exposed, it is natural that designers will start re-arranging bits of scripts to create more interesting forms. This is beginning to happen.
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.
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.
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.
Cloud computing is now a reality, providing reliable and scalable computational power to many enterprises without the associated costs and internal IT teams. But what does it mean for Generative Design ?
It is simple. It will remove the major bottleneck – computational capacity. It will open the flood gates, making massive amount of computational capacities available for the computational exploration of design. It is a blessing. Design exploration requires computational horsepower. Generative design needs lots of it. Lots and lots of it.
Applications in design
Initially, this massive computational horse power is going to benefit rendering. You can now use 100’s of CPUs to render realistic images. DreamWorks has begun to use it. Fujitsu too has launched its “EngineeringCloud” for computer-aided design (CAD) and analytic software. So has Autodesk. Both Vasari and Centuar are cloud based platforms along with Neon, a rendering service, Butterfly, an online CAD editor, and Photofly,a service that allows you to create 3D models from digital camera pictures. The advantages are obvious
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.
This is a great example of the shape of things to come. The magic combination of online tools, genetic models and digital fabrication. ……thought I heard some one say “User Generated Content” .
Damn it . It can now do products. Enjoy the dress rehearsal.
more on > sketch chair
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 ?
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.