Flux was founded by three ex-Google engineers and an architect and was spun out of the semi-secret Google X Lab. It was a venture that attracted 8 mill US$ from stellar group of VCs. Their plans were for sometime shrouded in secrecy except their intent to crack a well known problem : “Architects and engineers work in silos, data systems are disparate and not as advanced as they could be, and when contractors work on buildings, it’s just inefficient.” Sure. But how was Flux going to change that ?
“A powerful mission unlike any”- DFJ Partner
This is exactly what great VC’s like to fund and is what we have heard so far : Google technology could halve construction costs. Google’s secret development unit has developed a technology that could earn the company $120 billion a year.. Google planning a BIM-busting app for construction?…With the global construction market estimated at $5 trillion a year, why not enter our turf? From their web site we learn that The founding team sought a radical solution to reduce the environmental footprint of buildings, while simultaneously addressing rising demand for buildings driven by rapid urbanization….Our vision is to seamlessly join together and optimize an array of tools that allows architects and engineers to work at the speed of thought. All this will be true if the plan goes well. And yes the CAD industry can do with a good shake up and a Goolesque one would be a good one.
5 years latter
Its perhaps time to take a look at what this 25 member team has produced. Co-Founder Jen Charlie provides some insights. Clearly they seem to have coded the building codes in way that it can be used in design – creating a legal build envelope by “combing through dense zoning and land-use codes“. Though it is not a significant achievement technological achievement, it is a useful one and some thing that makes sense. Because it is about coding the building code.
The other main thrust according to CEO Nick Chin is the “ focus on integrating our system with industry-leading BIM and CAD platforms.” He states that ” We are building two classes of tools: the first class connects existing tools together to allow seamless execution of complex workflows, and the second class captures design intent.”
The Business Model
Investor Steve Jurveston was obviously sold on the business model (as you van see in this video starting @ 24 sec ). Flux’s CEO Chen states that ” Having tools like Flux Metro can also help architects’ business models, especially for firms that are moving towards compensation models based on the full value created, rather than on hours spent. Data-driven collaborative cloud-based technology helps with this new business model by allowing us to design better buildings in less time.” In short to compensate design firms based on net value created. This may make perfect sense for real estate developers but this not the way things work for architects. So we can guess the potential clientele to be the builders of mega city scape. Now will they be interested ? I really do not know; because I don’t really hang out with them. Flux’s approach looks very much like a top down play; a bit odd for company that built its business from a bottom up play.
My own experience with the more established architectural firms is on of extreme work process conservatism accompanied by high levels of confidence on their own human abilities. Just because a bit of computational cream is applied onto their press releases, it does not mean that they have interest in computational design processes except, to implement what they humanly dream of.
I am curious to find out if the VCs spoke to the 60 something architectural teams that take on mega projects. They would have met some star architect and a team (often with a computational expert). Not sure if they assessed what they thought of reducing the number of of CAD monkeys with some really clever apps ? . Getting these successful old men set in their ways, is certainly the greatest challenge for this venture. While we applaud Google in taking on mega challenges wanting to”find ways to apply Google-scale thinking to tackle these important issues” , I believe that convincing this extremely computationally conservative profession is bigger than a Google size problem. Chen would probably, now agree with this.
I hope they crack it.If they do, it will be better for all of us. I have nothing but admiration for all those who attempt to break barriers. However formidable that they may. I appreciate what it entails. Startup often iterate their plans before they find a viable business model – as Google did; provided the funds last and the team stays motivated and able to re-invent purpose.
Google is good with data. They know how to store it, search it and make sense of of it. Much of what we see in Flux’s endeavors appears to be based on data management and data integration. Other than that, architect Eli Attia seem to have made some contribution in its early stages “Five years ago, he took it to Google X to turn it into working software. Now, he says they’ve stolen it” and he is following his claims with a lawsuit. To his credit he does have a patent application filed in 2008 :
“Exemplary systems and methods for automated design, fabrication, and construction management. A selection concerning a building shape and a building size is received. A database is consulted to determine what design components are associated with the selected shape and size. A report is generated a building design comprising the determined design components.”
It seems to be a construction management based component selection system. Other than that, there seems to be no significant technology behind this venture. To their credit they make no claim of new technology either. CEO Chin clearly states that “we are focusing our efforts on improving collaboration during planning and early design, enabling data-driven decision making, reducing information latency, and building knowledge communities“. He acknowledges that “BIM is a mature technology; design and construction firms have invested heavily in it to achieve greater efficiencies and tackle increasingly complex projects. Instead, we’ll focus on integrating our system with industry-leading BIM and CAD platforms.” It is indeed a very positive move to bring the disparate disconnected data in architecture in operable form within an HTML5 framework. This part of the venture is timely and will most definitely grow ,but there are quire a few others attempting the same.
What made Google Google ?
Google was not borne out of data. It was born out of connecting text data that was previously un-connectable. Looks like they were hoping that Flux will do for architectural design what Google did for the world of words. And if they did it they would reap benefits in billions based on building costs instead of puny but broad based add revenues that powered much of Google’s early growth. Flux is clearly not a broad based venture. It is a top down model that is clearly reliant of real estate developers interested and willing to share savings that come out of better designs – with the support of compliant architects. Not that it cannot happen, but it is far shot, particularity in regions of the worlds that are building the mega cities.
It is not connecting of text data that made Google into Goolge : It is the understanding of text data. It is linguistics (the science of language structure) that helped Google mine the meaning behind text. Vast fortunes were made with this ability and the worlds was made a better place. Now does such a structure exist for buildings ?
Yes it does. It is vaguely referred to metaphorically as a “seed” by co-founder Jen Carlile. No reference so far to genetic models or generative schemes – they seem to be shockingly behind times. Looks like, they are trying to build a search engine ignoring the science of linguistics.
Can parametric play create variations like this ?
This is naturally occurring variations in vegetables that don’t reach supermarket shelves – beautifully documented by Uli Westphal in his Mutato Project in his attempt ” …to document, preserve and promote the last remainders of agricultural plasticity.”
One of the limitations of parametric play is the qaulity of variations that can be made. Nature is able to do that by playing with parameters during formation while designer are doing that now mostly with parameters of end geometry.
It is now possible with scripting and in packages that show build history to accesses the developmental stages now that should allow skilled parametric designers to create designs like this.
The annoying thing about discussing generative design with architects is their inability to disassociate design technology from geometry.
Architecture has long been married to geometry. In the Western tradition, this geometry is of a particular typology known to mathematicians as Euclidean geometry. There is nothing wrong with Euclidean geometry – it is just that the Western architectural tradition comes with a religious view on its virtues. A classic example is the master of the modern movement uncle Corb writing a “Poem of the Rectangle”. This particular geometric religion was soon to be passed on as the International Style.
As the world got bored with this kind of geometry, a new geometry was needed. And of course architects are in the business of providing just that. But this time round, their intellectual justification and logic was not up-to scratch; so convincing noises had to be to made – to make up for the long slip from the role they once played in knowledge making. Meanwhile the world had really globalized and star architects just needed to shine.What geometry they used to shine was no longer that important – but shining is.
In the middle of all this – I am planting tomatoes in my garden. It is the beginning of it is summer here in South Australia, but the occasional winds from the South Pole has started to take a toll on them. They need support.
I has to choose between an optimized architectural solution that comes int he form of straight machine cut vertical poles and ties that “proper” gardener use so that the tomato trees appear to be supported according a deeply cultured architectural structural sensibility that is pleasing to the civilized eye or a collection of branches that gardener had left behind.
So I am trying this experiment; since I know for sure, that tomato plants don’t suffer from architectural sensibilities. I want to see how they fair with crooked randomly placed unsightly bunch of branches, in comparison to the architecturally rationalized one.
Will let our readers know at the end of summer.
Future breakthroughs in CAD is more likely to come from the design tools for creating microscopic wet wear than from the crude tools known as CAD designed to combine metal and concrete into architectural artifice. Because the latter is bound to be dumber. We wish it to remain that way servile to our limited imagination.While the design tools for cells, organs and organisms are being designed to operate beyond human imagination and in the mode of discovery – opening up unimaginable possibilities.
Interesting both Bio and Non-Bio CAD started off life similarly; representing geometry and design data. Ah.. then they got cleverer as they attempted not only design, but to make design better – one objective at at time – usually through optimization. Both CAD systems now do single criteria optimization reasonable well, because before you optimize you need to define a “design problems”. Once you make design into a “problem” there is no problem there after. All you need is to call in the engineers – they all now carry with them a bag of tools for optimization. But even then, they can only do “single criteria optimization” in other words solve only one problem at a time.
The trouble starts when you have more than one criteria and that is a real problem; because all real design problems are multi criteria problems. Here the “problem sovlers” have a real problem. Though some may retreat into a theoretical multi criteria problem solving mode, most of them know that they have no idea how to solve it. And it is here that Bio CAD is beginning to overtake, because those who fashion it know that problems and solutions don’t appear at once – they are grown through a complex developmental process.
Next generation Bio CAD
From a review of genetic computational tools
The first generation of tools dealt predominantly with singular objectives such as codon usage optimization and unique restriction site incorporation. Recent years have seen the emergence of sequence design tools that aim to evolve sequences toward combinations of objectives. The design of optimal protein-coding sequences adhering to multiple objectives is computationally hard, and most tools rely on heuristics to sample the vast sequence design space.
The article revives a wide range of CAD tools and there are some interesting similarities with architectural CAD. Interestingly most of the CAD tools are open sourced, community based and operate online. Some of them like clotho are platforms (like grasshopper) allowing users to create component CAD systems that they can create, share and connect.
There seems to be a clear evolution here. Bio CAD seems to be moving from rule (or grammar) based creation tools into tools that can handle some of the complexity of biological design processes which are still being discovered by scientist. Hopefully from these efforts we will learn the wonderful ways that nature exploits to explore vast design spaces that allowed it to fashion complex organisms like our selves capable of understanding our own making.
This is the compilation of my previous blog posts on the end of CAD.
As the era of using CAD as a tool to drive pre-computer paper based design process draws to a close, the type of CAD as we know today is likely to disappear . Unprecedented connectivity, cloud based computation, consumer creation, direct digital manufacturing, human behavior modelling, altered business models and increasingly powerful game capabilities in devices is set to dramatically change not only CAD but the creation process itself towards genetically based design processes.
The more I get into discussions about computational design, the more I realize that it is a waste of time. It is a waste of time, because computational design is not something that academics of architects care to define yet insist on talking about. Not because they have time to waste, but because it is an important con. It is a con that is deeply rooted within the history of architecture, from the day emperors hired the porto-architects to fashion in stone representations of their cosmic connections.
The Mythology of Mathematics
Few would fail to see the mythology of mathematics embedded in architecture. Secret proportions, magic ratios and Sustras for cosmic orientation continue till today. Architects are burdened to carry such secret knowledge that can give their patrons an edge over others. A long long time a go, they did have a genuine edge in terms of their understanding of mathematics materials and construction. But those centuries have passed. The profession has greatly matured and diversified. Architects have lost the intellectual edge – as know all’s. They are no longer at the cutting edge of science. But they desperately need to be seen at that edge. It is this pressure, that has forced them to embrace the use of computers in design and also to make its use mysterious – giving rise to computational design.
But this too, just did not happen. Most architects detested CAD when it was first introduced. The big battles in the faculties of architecture in the 80’s was about “should we use computers in design” or not. The promoters were few, but they persisted and soon they became professors – just for saying that computers are good for design. They keep saying that, and that is about all they have to say. Because they have nothing to say – they invent langues and field in which they alone are masters.
Professors of Computational Design
This is not to say, that there weren’t those who genuinely saw the trasformative potential of computers in design. They were a few. They too unfortunately had to connived the faculties imbued in Greek mythology that computers can be used to give architectural grammar a boost. By doing so, then they opens the flood gates for the dullest and the most opportunistic of architectural academics. Some even obtained professorships by connecting Chinese history with high-school quality animation. Conferences after conferences helped give each other credibility. Some academics prided themselves in publishing over 500 papers – that is more papers than one would visit the toilet in a year. Yet, it hard to find a professor whose work in this area has had the slightest effect in the way buildings are designed. In sharp comparisons members of the faculties of mechanical engineering and computer science created a wealth of new possibilities on which our CAD systems are now based.
But there is another aspect of the profession best explained by Garry Stevens in his book “The Favored Circle” that finally clarified for me, why such a heavy load of theoretical nonsense enjoyed such credence. Garry explains that “Institutionalized Cultural Capital is constituted by academic qualifications and educational attainments, knowing things and being certified as knowing them” making it possible to conjure into existence make belief knowledge , that is only now beginning to be questioned.Computational Design has become some sort of cultural capital of the field. Garry introduces the concept of “field” which may help understand the particular nature of this field. He sates that ” as a conservator of societies cultural capital, the educational system of necessity changes slowly….” and this slowness arises ” from no particular defect in architectural training, but from the very structure of the field ”
The New Dynamic
While architectural academia is being increasingly forced to accept the paradigms of performance measurements and search for global ratings – it is most likely to intensify it current publication obsessions, while an entirely new world of knowledge structure is emerging in parallel. User communities around CAD companies, open source intransitives and the vast amount of education material is is now openly shared is creating significant amounts of new knowledge and skills without formal frame works. These have now pretty much overtaken universities as the primary creators of skills and knowledge in this area. It lacks however, methods of authentication and compilation of knowledge that university based knowledge systems provide. It will be interesting to observe how knowledge emerges withing this highly distributed network. And there is hope in it because it is live with activity driven by people who are passionate about what they do.
Cells contain massive amounts of information. If we stretch the total DNA in our bodies it will be about 16 to 32 billion kilometers. Now, that is a lot of code.
We cannot pack in more information than that. If we were to include the exact location and dimensions and geometric details of the circulatory system for example, as we would do in a CAD file, it would require more than trillion kilometers of code. Hence, nature constructs such designs with code. This is beautifully explained by Prof.Robert Sapolsky’s in his Stanford lecture.
Why use Algorithms ?
Algorithmic code is good for creating very complex geometries with small amounts of data. It works very well with the way nature constructs using cellular components. The fractal (or self similar) nature that you see in trees and leaf veins and arteries is due to this. But the code here is embedded in the cell itself and cells organize themselves to create complex forms based on of relatively simple code.