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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

The evolution of Bio CAD

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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.

BioCAD

 

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.

Written by Sivam Krish

October 16, 2014 at 11:51 pm

The Future of CAD

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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.

 

Written by Sivam Krish

August 2, 2014 at 11:16 pm

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

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