How new data and analytical tools boost practice

Developing its own in-house modelling and data tools has helped one practice expand its ambitions, reach and capacity

Workflow diagram showing traditional design process vs new. Pilbrow and Partners' working methodology shows the complex internal and external inputs coming together at an early stage.
Workflow diagram showing traditional design process vs new. Pilbrow and Partners' working methodology shows the complex internal and external inputs coming together at an early stage.

We established Pilbrow & Partners in 2013 to develop an architectural design approach that fully integrates the latest available resources in technology, modelling and data. Design innovation and insight are central to our work and we harness a wide spectrum of evaluation tools to assist in research, appraisal and optimisation.

Over the last four years, we have invested in in-house modelling capabilities to provide accurate real-time feedback on development options. Our research group, led by Ralf Lindemann, has developed these capabilities in response to specific project demands, but we are now using the tools routinely across all new jobs in the office.

We believe in the power of in-sourcing: developing our own tools and systems gives us an in-depth understanding of the implications of alternative design approaches. We can work faster, with greater accuracy and we can deliver better results for our clients. The opportunity for architects to harness the power of new analytical and data resources is enormous and we believe the practices that do so will thrive. 

Time series of data mapping showing clustering of an industry sector over time.
Time series of data mapping showing clustering of an industry sector over time.

In its most basic terms, architecture might be understood to be the development of the best response to a specific brief and site. A traditional workflow would encompass research into the brief and the site in preparation for design which might be developed iteratively testing alternatives to develop a final proposal.

Our working methodology has changed our engagement in all three stages of work: allowing us to interrogate and contribute to the brief, to better understand the opportunities and constraints of the site and to evaluate and analyse the merits of alternative design approaches. 

Interrogating the brief

We’re working with Tileyard, a specialist cluster of music companies in King’s Cross. Over the last eight years, Tileyard has developed to become the most significant such cluster in Europe, with over 400 companies sharing a dense network of connections to support their growth and development.

Such clusters are not unique to the music sector; other work we’ve undertaken for biomedical and technology clients demonstrate similar network effects. To understand better the operation and development of such clusters, we researched publicly available data sources such as Companies House filings. These enable us to track the inception and growth of clusters across London and to anticipate how a site might best engage with the economic potential such clusters provide.

Workflow showing a data mapping study on how business clusters evolve over time in Rhino/Grasshopper software.
Workflow showing a data mapping study on how business clusters evolve over time in Rhino/Grasshopper software.

This research demonstrated the strategic importance of Tileyard to the wider London economy, securing support from statutory consultees for their future expansion. 

It also shaped our winning bid for the restoration of 8 Albert Embankment, the Fire Brigade’s historic headquarters, which drew on research into local economic strengths in Lambeth. The concentration of media and cultural organisations near the site suggested the establishment of a planned incubator which will foster start-up companies providing services in the digital and cultural sectors.

Understanding the site

From concept to detail, our work is developed through 3D modelling. The accuracy and completeness of context information is critical to efficient design.

We now routinely laser scan rather than photograph new sites, building accurate 3D local context models that are placed within our wider city model. We overlay information about the site’s historical development, planning context and surrounding proposals through research undertaken by our in-house planning team led by Catherine Jenkins. This context data draws on city-wide information relating to strategic and designated local views which enable new proposals to be rapidly assessed in relevant townscape prospects. We integrate transportation and pedestrian movement models to understand site accessibility and publicly available data on issues such as air quality to understand its environmental quality. This research draws on 3D mapping technology and geographic information system (GIS) software. 

Visualisation of traced 3D model overlaid on point cloud scan.
Visualisation of traced 3D model overlaid on point cloud scan.

Evolving the design

Our in-house modelling and evaluation tools inform the design process. From the outset, options are tested in 3D CAD models which develop in detail and complexity as the design is progressed. We use a mix of off the shelf tools and others developed in house to appraise environmental impacts such as daylight, sunlight, rights of light and pedestrian wind comfort. The proposals for 8 Albert Embankment, for example, were informed by these amenity considerations; this was sensible in the context of an earlier scheme proposal for the site that had been rejected at Inquiry on these very grounds. By careful iteration we delivered a scheme which maintained the developable area but avoided negative amenity impacts on neighbours. It also delivered significant benefits to the quality and coherence of the public realm.

Our design process is collaborative, seeking to draw on the skills and experience of the whole design team: consultants, stakeholders and clients alike. To foster this participation, visualisation tools are essential to communicate the emerging design. The studio is supported by specialist rendering and model making teams, both of which directly use the 3D source data developed by the project teams. We are increasingly using game development software like Unreal and Unity3D to underpin real time visualisations linked to immersive VR outputs.

Using a variety of interoperability tools helps us to better collaborate within the design teams and to provide seamless data exchange. For example, BIM collaboration tools like Konstru allow for seamless data transaction without tedious file transfer and data conversion. This approach means we can deliver uncharacteristically satisfying design processes that are goal-oriented, efficient and fast.

Comparison of the daylight & sunlight analysis for 8 Albert Embankment development proposals showing the rejected inquiry scheme (above) against Pilbrow & Partners’ winning bid proposals (below) minimizing daylight losses to neighbouring properties.
Comparison of the daylight & sunlight analysis for 8 Albert Embankment development proposals showing the rejected inquiry scheme (above) against Pilbrow & Partners’ winning bid proposals (below) minimizing daylight losses to neighbouring properties.

Next steps

The pace of change is accelerating, offering great scope to further expand our capabilities. More data sets are becoming available and better tools will allow powerful insights into economic, social and environmental aspects of a site’s context and potential.

We are exploring evolutionary design techniques and algorithms to optimise design solutions for a site within a given set of parameters. Today, these techniques are still in their infancy, but development of artificial intelligence tools in the coming years will increase the power and utility of such approaches.

We see expansion into cost consultancy and engineering as the next logical steps of our practice’s approach – or the establishment of strategic alliances with like-minded consultants to offer better integrated services to our clients.

As a profession, architecture has at times felt under pressure from the growth of specialists who have taken over the traditional areas of the architect’s responsibility. This erosion has been accelerated by new approaches to procurement and design. In-sourcing and the development of new areas of expertise gives us the power to reinforce our role at the centre of construction.

It also potentially opens up new areas of business, allowing us to offer new services and insights for clients. For example, Pilbrow and Partners recently received its first commission for a data mapping study to explore the operation and development of clusters in selected university towns outside London. We will use our latest analytical techniques to suggest fruitful areas of real estate development in these provincial cities.