From the Design Quarterly: Crunch time for innovation

August 21, 2018 Aubrey Tucker

Data-driven design, parametric design, and real-time visualization are reshaping the design process


Technological change in the design industry advances rapidly. Currently, we see the design process changing with the availability of technology that harnesses the power of data. Computational design bridges the gap between complex sets of information and the digital, visual representation of design in 3D, and it presents this information in real-time.

To catch up with the latest thinking on these innovations, we spoke with Stantec Innovative Technology Developer Aubrey Tucker.


Austin Oaks, a mixed-use project in Austin, Texas.


What is computational design?

In a traditional design process, designers will rely upon their professional qualifications and experience to solve design problems. With computational design, designers manipulate design elements parametrically and then explore computationally. This emerging design process includes generative design or parametric design, in which you’re creating multiple options or iterations by manipulating parameters—data values.

[Adapted from the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 03 – Technology Driving Change. Read and subscribe to the Design Quarterly now.]


How did we use this process at Austin Oaks?

With Austin Oaks, a mixed-use project in Texas, we wanted to look at different aesthetic options while being mindful of the client’s concern about costs, and we had access to a specific manufacturer, so we had to design within those parameters. Once we created a script for that data, we were able to iterate over half a million options that were physically possible for the exterior based off the manufacturing constraints. We harnessed data to optimize design for value-engineering on the external sun-shading system. A common analogy might be thinking about the process like a mixing board for producing music. The data feeds into the mixing board, and the designers simply turn the volume up or down on aspects of the design approach, material composition or assembly.

Where else are we using this?

One interesting application is slab automation detailing. In structural engineering, they spend a lot of time doing rebar detailing for concrete slabs, which takes hours to translate from calculation to modeling. With the tool we’ve developed, we can specify each slab in less than 90 seconds by reading all the information from the calculation software and simply modeling it in Revit. This is a huge benefit to our clients and makes our design process more efficient.


Austin Oaks in Texas.


Which are the points at which computational design would be a handy tool on new building project, for instance?

It’s the dance at the beginning of a project where you figure out the size of the building footprint and core spaces—and in the case of commercial developments it’s when you determine if the project is financially viable. Designers are planning for the building essentials from bathrooms and common areas to egress plans, and corridors for fire exiting. These decisions really affect how space is laid out within a building, and how much leasable, retail, or shared and amenity space will be possible.

If you look at it computationally, you can make those elements parametric, and you can look at more building forms. You can explore more creative and iconic shapes, not just a simple glass rectangle. You can look at playing with more interesting facades, making a building more dynamic in nature—creating a building that will stand out in the skyline. You’re enabled by the technology, you’re not conforming to it.


What’s the biggest benefit to the early stage architectural work?

Once you move into the design development stage, computational design helps designers explore how skin termination works, consider buildings systems more deeply—essentially _q_tweetable:You’re enabled by the technology, you’re not conforming to it._q_making the building systems and components more integrated. You can incorporate the effect of light louvers, daylighting, and new wellness factors such as the depth of daylight penetration in a space. In design, it enables us to look at manufacturer’s options and model those efficiently.


How is parametric design connected to the visualization of design?

One of the best things about taking a computation design approach is the ability to represent the push and pull of the parameters visually, to see what’s possible. You can use real-time visualization to run through a lot of options during your time presenting to the client. You can have them wear a VR headset like the Oculus Rift and walk them through a design option. With parametric design, a client can make a suggestion or ask for a design change, and you could realize the change in front of them. In the 3D immersive environment, we can support more informed design decisions, show our client sightlines and other spatial qualities.


How does real-time visualization benefit the design process?

You get more interesting conversations and feedback using visualization. Let’s say a team is designing a hospital. During a user engagement session, they are walking through a proposed unit design with hospital staff and there is a concern raised about storage space. Using visualization, both the design team and the end users can see the issue. Whether you’re doing a VR walkthrough or just a video walkthrough on a large screen, the third dimension leads to a deeper understanding than drawings or renderings can convey.

You get much more interesting conversations using visualization around the day-to-day needs, how occupants use space and how the design criteria impact the finished space. That’s the biggest benefit of real-time visualization.

Part of this process is managing client commentary so that it’s captured and can be incorporated systematically. With Royal Columbian Hospital, we tracked design and client commentary within Revizto which allowed us to tour high coordination areas, prioritize design effort, and delegate tasks.


Austin Oaks in Texas.


What’s next for parametric design?

Interdisciplinary connections. We’d like to a create a passive connection between building performance engineering and architecture in our workflow. We can do more building performance tests earlier in the process of architectural design. So, if a building is exploring wildly different aesthetic options, the design team could be simultaneously testing the building performance effects and that means better performing buildings for occupants and for our planet.


Four technologies we’re looking forward to

1. Twin Motion is a simplified version of the Unreal game engine, and it’s really powerful. It enables us to create high-end real-time graphics with atmospheric effects and bring them into virtual reality. Think immersive video game.

2. Oculus Go is an untethered headset. It’s a wireless, more mobile VR headset that we can bring to a client’s office.

3. The Matterport is a 3D Camera that captures real-world environments in immersive digital 3D.

4. Crane eye is a form of passive reality capture. Every time the crane is moving, it’s taking pictures, building a detailed view from above. It’s cheaper and easier with less red tape than drone photography.

About the Author

Aubrey Tucker

As the Regional BIM Lead for British Columbia, Aubrey Tucker oversees the use of BIM and technology to deliver great projects and win new ones.

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