Building Design

Smartgeometry Event Pushes Limits of Architectural Design

16 May, 2013 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

Professionals and students alike collaborate using advanced computational software and conventional tools.

The Smartgeometry event is home to some of the most advanced thinking and application of computational software that you're likely to find in the architecture field. So why does a visit there feel for a moment as if you've stumbled into a kindergarten classroom?

The answer is all about tools. Smartgeometry revolves around hands-on workshops that, in their efforts to challenge current design methodologies, are just as likely to call on pencils, paper, utility knives, and duct tape as they are to turn to highly sophisticated technologies. The 100 participants — including designers, engineers, architects, craftspeople, and university instructors and students — tap digital as well as physical media to explore concepts and take them from idea to design to production. Indeed, choosing the right tool for a given task was a guiding principle at this year's event.

Smartgeometry 2013: Constructing for Uncertainty

Smartgeometry Group, the organization behind the event, is a handful of professionals who volunteer their time in pursuit of their passion for computational design. Bentley Systems, developer of GenerativeComponents computational design software, is a cofounder and major sponsor of the event.

GenerativeComponents is one of a handful of computational design solutions on the market that uses algorithms to automatically iterate design options within specified boundaries. It captures and exploits the critical relationships between design intent and geometry, enabling designers to quickly explore a broad range of what-if alternatives for even the most complex buildings. Designs can be refined by dynamically modeling and directly manipulating geometry, by applying rules and capturing relationships among building elements, or by defining complex building forms and systems through concisely expressed algorithms.

Hosted by The Bartlett, the University of Central London's faculty of the built environment, Smartgeometry 2013 was themed "Constructing for Uncertainty." It explored how building professionals can use technology to design spaces, buildings, and cities in the face of variable economies, forces of nature, and even occupant behaviors of the future. Officially, organizers stated that the event would address "the transition of computational design from the hard space of the ideal to the soft reality of an uncertain built environment."

Shane Burger, director of design technology at Woods Bagot in New York City and a member of Smartgeometry Group, explained to the media that today's users of building design and construction software technologies face a major limitation: Only a subset of the relevant factors in design can be represented in standard CAD systems. "As users," he said, "we must drive computational systems to assume new roles and subsume more domains to meet the needs before us. We must consider issues of time and permanence within a cultural and technological landscape of constant change. … As designers, we must deal with realities and future uncertainties of context, material and immaterial, and their manifestations in scale from spaces to buildings to cities."

In addition to the four-day workshops that kicked off the event, Smartgeometry included Talkshop, a series of panels discussing topics such as "Technology and the Future Culture (from Open Source Computing to Synthetic Biology)"; a symposium featuring several renowned speakers, including Michelle Addington, a Hines professor of sustainable architectural design at Yale University; and a press conference focusing on real-world applications of concepts that originated at Smartgeometry, to which Cadalyst was invited by Bentley Systems.

Inside Smartgeometry

Smartgeometry, celebrating its tenth anniversary, introduced its first published volume, Inside Smartgeometry. The group doesn't publish traditional conference proceedings because the information that would be shared is collected in the workshops that take place during the event. Although discoveries typically emerge later as part of many subsequent efforts across the industry, organizers said, that information is not distributed or widely discussed during the remainder of the event. Inside Smartgeometry looks at how Smartgeometry came about and matured with and through the emergence of computation within architecture over the past decade. It highlights important developments identified by conference organizers.

Hands-On Exploration

The hands-on workshops that kick off the Smartgeometry event, also known as "clusters," comprise people, knowledge, tools, materials, and machines for participants working together within a common framework. They have been described as "thought experiments" in which group members actively participate in developing knowledge or understanding about a particular topic.

Ten clusters made up this year's workshop. One, Adaptive Structural Skins, explored how to form the load-bearing enclosure of a new generation of buildings through parametrization, analysis, optimization, and form-finding. Participants employed physical media as well as GenerativeComponents and its STAAD plug-in to design and validate the structural integrity of various design options. They developed and analyzed structures that could move and adapt to changing conditions and explored ways to make them adjustable. Looking to origami for inspiration, they developed options using sprung steel (the same material used in tape measures), which carries a load when not folded. Participants created ideas in paper form, then simulated them and "made them more structural" using software technologies. Some options could be folded and locked into position, they found.

Participants in the Adaptive Structural Skins cluster show off several design iterations created by hand.


Other clusters included the following:

  • PAD (Probabilistic Architectural Design) addressed the coupling probability theory with parametric architectural and urban design. It explored the range of probable structure heights and road networks within the development, analyzing and simulating the nearby network of London roads and associated building heights to understand the relationships between building heights and the road connectivity and capacity. It looked at a range of respective building heights to optimize a given design based on sun exposure required for each building with the goal of minimizing surface temperature of the building and maximizing the volume while remaining within the constraints of what the road network can support.
  • Computer Vision and Freeform Construction explored the use of augmented reality to facilitate precise physical construction of digital models for complex-shape, thin-vault structures using various materials and video sensors. It used video cameras and computer-vision techniques to facilitate the fabrication and construction of two different thin-vault structures using foam glass and Catalonian bricks. Each structure is self-supporting, even during construction.

Master mason Carlos Martin Jimenez of Spain played a key role in the Computer Vision and Freeform Construction cluster, which married augmented reality technology with old-world craftsmanship.

  • Projections of Reality strived to create a working prototype of a physical urban model augmented with real-time analysis. It explored ways to capture real-world models and create digital models of them through scanning equipment including point cloud devices and Microsoft Kinect sensors. It analyzed various characteristics of the digital model to project analytical data back onto the physical structure — for example, developing the digital model, analyzing factors such as the impact of solar radiation, and viewing this data overlaid onto the live image of the physical structure, creating a hybrid physical and analytical view of the structure.
  • Transformational Strategies' goal was to investigate strategies with integrated analysis and multi-objective optimization software, such as GenerativeComponents, to explore the apparent dilemma of optimization for an uncertain future. It challenged how we conceive of transforming an existing city into one that is sustainable and environmentally resilient.
  • Thermal Reticulations explored ways to measure the gap between the prediction of performance and the measurement of reality for facade design. Advanced methods and technologies were used to harness empirical data and examine various ways in which designers can simulate entropy within thermodynamic systems, using simulation aimed both at building efficiency and heat flow. It studied the difference between the simulated thermal performance of digital models compared to the real-world thermal performance of actual constructed physical models through the use of Arduino chips and temperature sensors. Models were manufactured with built-in sensors and exposed to heat lamps using infrared cameras and Arduinos to evaluate the temperature of various parts of the physical model.

Real-World Applications

Conceptual exploration pursued in the clusters at Smartgeometry are ground-breaking, but would mean little if findings couldn't be applied in the real world. During Smartgeometry 2013, Bentley Systems hosted a press conference in which presenters shared projects that have applied discoveries that originated at Smartgeometry events over the years.

John Ball and Paul Rogers, of the London firm Robin Partington Architects, described the challenges of a firm designing diverse projects with four generations of employees, all of whom have different areas of design tool expertise. How do we control quality of design, and how do we employ technology to help produce these things a lot quicker? Rogers asked. How does the workflow proceed with the older generation sketching and the younger generation using CAD [and other related technologies]?

"While we will concentrate heavily on technology today, because that's why we're here," Rogers continued, "it's not the only thing we use. We have to use the appropriate tool at the appropriate time. So we use yellow trace, we still use the phone, we still go through the modeling process. And the tech that we use … again, is using the right tools at the right time." Project team leaders should resist the pull to use only the tools they know and instead should tap the various skills of team members, he said.

The firm's Park House project, for example, "we're calling a combined workflow," Ball said. "It's the first time for us to see the evolution of parametric modeling and how we use it." Because of the shape that was generated by its contextual components, he said, designers generated the curve based on their 3D modeling expertise at the time and an understanding of the geometry. Is building this type of curve more expensive? "If you understand the technology, it shouldn't be."

Park House, London. When one curved wall of glass meets a differently curved wall of glass, "you can't illustrate that in 2D," said architect Paul Rogers.


Rogers concluded, "Technology refines but doesn't change our fundamental approach to design, and the whole team gets involved with the 3D modeling workflow."

Lars Hesselgren, director of research at PLP Architecture, SmartGeometry Group director, and visiting professor at Chalmars University, addressed the theme, "Design in Digital Machine Age." Referring to computational design technologies that help generate optimal design options, he said, "I believe optimization will be the next frontier when it comes to architectural design." Use genetic algorithms to generate and evaluate design options based on your design goals, he advised architects. Results are often unexpected, not necessarily progressions or evolutions from other options.

In a few years' time, he believes, clients will ask architects, "Why haven't you looked at a million alternatives?"

The intellectual effort of doing things will be partly mechanized, he forecast. "This is a radical revolution of how we're going to approach design in the future. … And we're beginning to get there." He cited the example of London's St. Pancras Station project, where his firm was brought in to help the architects use GenerativeComponents to diminish the visual impact of the large structure.

Vladimir Masinsky, building information modeling specialist and architect at the U.K. firm Dexter Moren Associates, offered insight into projects that tapped generative design when he was a computational designer at BDP. One of those was the IKEA shopping mall in Beijing, China.

"I was brought over [to that project] to use GC to assist with problems they were having integrating the roof with the rest of the design." The building owners wanted a sustainable design, but it had to be simple enough to easily translate to the Chinese building team.

"Everything you see is executed by planar elements," said architect Vladimir Masinsky of this shopping mall roof design. The 1.3-km-long structure shifts and varies, "but it's very, very simple."

"GC helped us generate a lot of drawings. Once you have the geometry, which is run by the script and variations are given, you work out the detailing, the connections; using experienced people in our office, you write a very simple script that reads all the different variations and produces all the drawings." The final design reflects all the varying conditions along the boundaries, such as reflections, loads, size of elements, and building codes, and also could be built in China because it's so simple, he said, adding, "We used GC and MicroStation to generate renderings and drawings for the client, and they were quite pleased."

Bentley Systems' Role

Huw Roberts, vice-president of core marketing at Bentley Systems, explained to the media why his company takes an active interest in an event such as Smartgeometry. How does this technology connect with the real world of architectural design? he asked rhetorically, and why is a company like Bentley so actively involved?

Smartgeometry clusters, he explained, often produce information that the company can apply in its development of software for building design, construction, and maintenance. He cited what has been learned when clusters have encountered circumstances and challenges related to software and hardware interoperability. "We learn from those," he said, and the company has applied that knowledge in areas such as point-cloud processing and mobile applications, including the mobile API for its i-model format for open information exchange.

"All of those ideas spawn from being involved in these research and exploratory activities," Roberts said. "Obviously, GenerativeComponents [was perhaps] the first child of our research activities decades ago. We're integrating that with optimization engines, such as our Darwin system," which uses genetic algorithms to predict where pipes might leak. Bentley is integrating Darwin with GenerativeComponents, Roberts explained, effectively taking a commercial product and bringing it back to research.

Roberts concluded, "Today we've looked at what has been realized using this technology — what is real. [What we learn here] gets applied. … What is real is founded in the ideas that come forth from SmartGeometry."

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