Generative Design

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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.


Written by Sivam Krish

July 10, 2015 at 1:28 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

Book Review : The Design of Design

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A heavenly perspective ?

The “Design of Design “ –  is a rare book on design. It is an attempt at a heavenly re-marriage, between the theory of design and the practice of design –  that have long been divorced on earth. There is still hope in heaven, as earthly boundaries and practices do not matter from such an elevated perspective. Wonder if you noticed the church in his cover ? May he be blessed.

From such heights he is allowed to discuss computer architecture and building architecture in same breath.

Design education does more harm than good

You may have met in the corridors of engineering department, professors who specialize in design. Their main mission and obsession is to take the “irrationality” out of design, often by developing processes and diagrams that engineers are happy to digest. It makes their world safe cosy and predictable. But not for Brooks…

One obvious injury of accepting the Rational Model is that we miss-educate our successors“.

Now, I wonder if academics could be accused of a greater crime?

They don’t like his book

It’s obvious why. They say, that he is saying nothing new. They are quite right. Prof.Brooks is saying nothing new. Nothing new at all. But what he says people are reading. His previous book : The Mythical Man Month: Essays on Software Engineering  – published in 1975 still sells 10,000 copies a year. Perhaps they find it useful ?

Academics on the other hand are paid to push the boundary of knowledge. But the problem of this academic pushing is that no one except themselves seems to know where they are pushing it. Only other academics are qualified to recognize that it is being pushed in the right direction.

But Fred has street cred

Fred fathered the field of computer architecture, well before most of us were born. His breath and depth of knowledge and experience in design is beyond doubt of great value to those who practice design. This book is a result of a life time of experience and reflection. In his own worlds…

“Its time for mature reaction”

His book is just that. It is indeed a mature reaction.  He brings to the fore the fallacy of rationalizing design. He puts the designer in the driving seat. Design he says, is about the designer and the process of design is best charted by designer who often has to fight tooth and nail to maintain what he calls “conceptual clarity” – which he vests with critical importance. He recognizes emergence (though he does not cal lit as such) playing a critical role in design. He emphasizes the obvious. That design is a co-evolutionary problem, where the problem and solutions need to co-evolve in a creative environment.

His examples in architecture are tepid. His house looks like a house, even thought is near the beach (and not like a skinned fish). Ghery would certainly not be impressed. He seems not be clued-in into the new developments in computational design – which are beginning to bear fruit. Perhaps he is still reacting to the older generation of academics who in vain attempted to bring rational process onto deign. But most importantly he is not saying anything new.

Prof Brooks has got most of the important things about design right

These important things are not new – because they are fundamental issues. Prof Brooks should be credited for bringing them out with such great clarity as a collection of essays that are easy to read. They are amongst the best writings on the theory of design – because he destroys the rest of them.

We now have less to read 🙂


Written by Sivam Krish

March 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Vasari : Autodesk gets it right

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Early CAD was about replicating the drafting board. Latter it become a visualisation tool. But engineers have been using it for long as an analytical tool. Now, it’s all coming together in a potent way.

Vasari is a surprise – because it is well conceived for modeling designs (instead of drawing) in an integrated analytical environment. But this is something that could have been done two decades ago. All the bits and pieces were available then. But corporations tend to take their time for theirs is a captive audience, that first have to be stepped out of the drawing board and gently into 3D from 2D.

Most software companies that I know are driven by users requested  features added on top of each other. They   lack   what Clinton called the  “ The Vision Thing ” .  But that’s dangerous, because you can get it wrong. Autodesk now seems to have vision. It has proven that vision can be acquired. The acquisition of companies and people seem to have given Autodesk now a distinct advantage in structuring architectural design tool in a way that they should be.

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Written by Sivam Krish

January 9, 2011 at 12:37 am

So tell me, what is new ?

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Engineers are schooled differently from architects. They think differently.  Often, the one that deals with  plumbing will know little about  wiring : they are specialists. Engineers work by setting tasks and goals. They achieve them efficiently – often at the lowest cost and effort. Architects in comparison are messy, but often get paid more by the client. They get to tell the engineers what they want done, often after they have conceived the design, and using their own private creative processes that are often driven by experience, ego and branding considerations moulded into a design philosophy – that separates them from lesser architects.

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Written by Sivam Krish

November 11, 2010 at 1:40 pm