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Has Google forgotten how it became Google ?

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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.

Computational Technology

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.

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Written by Sivam Krish

July 10, 2015 at 1:28 am

What is Algorithmic Design ?

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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.

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Written by Sivam Krish

March 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Nature does not design

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Despite the significant interest we have in nature as a source of design inspiration, we do not adopt  her design methods, except for  genetic algorithm, developed by John Holland in 1975. This however is  an  optimization method and not a design method. Her design solutions however, have begun to inspire the design of new products through the emerging field of bio-mimicry. But these are based her vast repertoire of design solutions and not based her design methods.

Even though nature’s design processes are now known –  they remain purely as a source of inspiration. Why then are her methods of no practical use to designers? I am beginning to suspect some fundamental problems.  Here are some of them :

Natures has no intentions

Design seems to be by definition a human driven process. Humans have intentions. Nature does not. God on the other hand may have intentions, but if he cared about nature he would not have created us.  The book the “Selfish Gene” (published 30 years ago) illustrates the claim that it is not life forms but bits of code that compete for self replication – which could then be seen to be the only intention  if there was any. So nature is into code play.  Disturbingly, nature’s design processes seem autonomous and direction less, and worse it is driven entirely by the selfish propagational interest of bits of code – that hitch hike on living forms.

This model of autonomous and mutually dependent conglomerate of code competing with each other to propagate seems to be an impractical and uninspiring model for designers to adopt. More depressing is the fact that the resulting biomass that we so admire is only a packaging for the all important the bits of code to  propagate itself. Once the packaging is gone past its usefulness and makes errors in replicating the code, it is dully discarded (suffering death) while the code moves on to younger packages that can do a better job at replication and propagation.  The deviousness of this strategy is nauseating. Our body bags are nothing but code replication devises. Whats even more annoying is the fact that the intentions of these bits of code seem to be independent of the bodies that carry it. A good part of design history remains in great awe of this package and it is hard to think that the very brain with which we understand this i,s just a small part of this package. I am not sure if we will every come to terms with this.

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Written by Sivam Krish

February 20, 2012 at 6:40 am

Conversation with : Prof. John Frazer

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I vaguely remember reading his book which you may remember from the early days of computer aided design – for its blinking led lights in the cover, which was fairly weird then for a book on architecture.  It was a pleasure to hear him speak in the design conference in Nov. In such conferences are often presided by the established. Their views are known and  often, they have nothing new to say.

Then you have the cutting edge folks – whose presentations sound like teenagers discussing sex, “I did that this and that, and then…..”  listened intensively by an equality excitable audience ready to applaud the finale of  resulting in orgasmic geometric forms. Generative design, has sadly become the means through which such  geometric entertainment is now effortlessly created, leaving little room for restfulness or reflection, or any form of serious thinking for that matter. I wonder sometimes if the refusal to be easily aroused, is an “age thing”, being no longer a teenager and having to deal with them instead.

As thoughtless forms take over the screen and as I hear freshly spun design philosophies blurted out with the accompaniment of architectonic lullabies, it provided for me – the perfect time for a conference catnap, only to be woken up by Prof.Frazer. His lecture was delivered with the thumping energy of a British steam engine. You can see him live in an AA lecture. The things he had to say were of interest to me and perhaps I thought, to the readers of this blog. So I approached him after his lecture and kindly, he agreed to be interviewed.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm

The long standing layout problem

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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.

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Written by Sivam Krish

December 12, 2011 at 12:00 am

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