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

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

Are we like bacteria now ?

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Bacteria under observation

We are now reaching a new threshold in computation and sensor technology – where what we do, how we behave and to some extent how we feel can be computationally modeled. Your credit card company and Google have been doing this for some time. They can predict many aspects of your behavior as accurately as a biologist can predict the reproductive behavior of bacteria. The acceptance of our collective behavior is difficult for us humans, as  we wish not to degrades our status to that of  bacterial blobs. While we live in  denial, we allow street cameras, credit card companies and Google to monitor the most intimate aspects of our life. Monitoring our behavior within buildings in comparison  is much much easier.

We behave within buildings in predictable ways. Buildings make us behave in predictable ways. Perhaps this is the purpose of buildings. If we then invert the concept, and model our behavior, instead of just monitoring, it may open interesting possibilities. We will be able to design our behavior in an entirely different way. We may be able to induce certain behavior and from it satisfaction of the kind we desire.

Daniel Hambleton is onto something. The attempt to yoke experience and form is likely to re-shape the future of architectural design. Crowd simulation seems to be a mature technology now. ( another video on of crowd simulation).

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Written by Sivam Krish

August 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Why design will reach for the cloud

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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

By designing Inventor into the cloud our users can consider many alternatives saidRochelle. “These computer simulations have been restricted on the desktop due to the hardware limitations.”

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Written by Sivam Krish

July 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm

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