Generative Design

The future of CAD

How big boys & girls helped CAD grow

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We discuss here, the pioneering efforts made by leading global architectural firms. Big boys and Big girls – because they are  mostly led by the maestro’s of the architectural world. Their firms manage the design of big, complex and ambitious projects. CAD as it was, was not good enough.

They had smart people in their firms who started using CAD intelligently, well before the well know tool makers could envision how their souped up drawing packages can be structured better for digital design.

But all these cool stuff ;  BIM, Generative Design, Simulation, 3D visualisation, 3D printing now forms the staple of architectural education we will ignore such stuff as we skim through the key claims of some of these major global players:


SOM – two decades ahead in the use of BIM

SOM defined the very nature of the concept of Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the 1970s and 80s with the development of AES” – and claim to be the pioneers of BIM. “A model-centric approach necessitates all parties collaborate on identical information – maximizing design efficiency while minimizing technical errors. SOM believes that “Value-Enhanced BIM” – simulating environmental conditions

So we see here the intelligent use of CAD, data bases and simulation tools.

Gehry Technologies – made curvitecture possible

I guess we all remember good old Frank, who hammered out first the funny shapes that started a global fad of curvitecture. Well, it was not easy. AutoCAd could not create such stuff so Frank moved on to CATIA. But all his exploration was done with card board  mode models – not CAD. It must have been an absolute nightmare then  to fabricate and assemble the curvitecture and firm must have struggled through it developing tools and methods that found demand outside the Gerry office. The core of their offering is Digital project built on top of CATIA. It comes with a slew of add-ons that assist construction management, MEP systems & visualisation. The main distinction seems to be the movement of what was done with older Euclidian geometry based packages such as AutoCad into CATIA a package that can handle curved surfaces.

KPF – great synthesisers

Thought little is available on the design process, KPF approach led by Lars Hesselgren is based on Smart Geometry. Apply summarised as :

As the design progresses, a change to one component in the system automatically drives changes to other related components. Using this approach on even the most complex structures, designers can quickly explore a broad range of alternatives, speed their design iterations, and generate designs that are freer in form, more efficient, and more fit for purpose.” – Has intent become reality?

It seems however, that most of the iterations are driven manually.

Normal Forster and Zaha Hadid seem to have little info about their CAD based processes in their web site. Not surprising. Big Clients go to Big Firms because of their reputation of doing “out standing” work. Not because of the CAD processes that they use. So, the reality is that it is not that important in comparison to the visionary leadership of the founder – which has nothing to do with CAD. Most of them went to school and learnt architecture before there was CAD. Their formative understanding of architecture is most likely to be divorced from CAD. It is doubtful if they would let CAD process interferes with their signature mental processes. Yet, without the digital slavery – their ambitious undertaking would not have been possible. But this was left to the backrooms computer boys.

The Back Room Boys

These are the folks – working for big firms plagued by the need to deal with ever-changing design data who began figuring out how to deal with it. Most of them seem to have been too busy to discuss this with the rest – especially academia – which was on its own track. Since CAD was doing extremely well the big venders seem not be bothered with their issues with the exception of Bentley Systems that ably supported this sector.

Obviously, AutoDesk realized that something was amiss. So they made a smart hireRobert Aish a visionary thinker who previously Bentley’s director of research. AutoCAD also made some judicious acquisitions of Revit Technology Corp and Square one Technology (now Ecotect), but only after their use and relevance was obvious.

Relieving us of Digital Drudgery

So we need to thank these firms for sparing us the digital drudgery resulting from frameless computational approach to design – that these firms had to once grapple with. These firms have a wealth of knowledge and great diversity in their approaches that is unfortunately not shared in detail except for marketing efforts. Strangely architects teach their students through “crits” and a critical culture is its core. But, leading members of academia seem to have been in awe of the efforts of these firms – without the critical role they are generally expected to play in debating, discussing and refining new methods. A great opportunity to compile the learning’s and methods developed by these firms has clearly been missed. These firms created valuable knowledge, skills and work processes, in a time when the giants of the CAD industry were too busy transporting paper based drawing process into screens and when architectural academia was out of sync with the realties, needs and possibilities of its times (let alone the future). The efforts, deliberations and achievements of these firms helped reduce the digital drudgery that we would other wise face. Their attempts to reduce it played a critical role in shaping in what we now know as generative design.

In summary :

The firms run by the Big Boys and Girls of architecture helped the transition of CAD   ( initially ill-conceived as a drawing tools ) into representing computational models of design – an important precursor for generative design.


This is the first of a series on why Generative Design means different things to different folk. Next we will be discussing how Spring Chickens bring in the energy and enthusiasm that is vital for the next stage.

Written by Sivam Krish

December 18, 2010 at 11:22 am

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