The pros and cons of digital workflows

Words:
Stephen Melville

Digital collaboration is essential but don’t let generative workflows stifle your individuality

Collaboration is essential in project work. This article focuses on the way structural engineers work; the positive aspects and what we believe is the dangerous and inhibiting side of technology.

My practice uses the 3d modelling platform Rhino and its generative modelling plug in Grasshopper as our default CAD and structural analysis tools. Some call this ‘parametric’ design, we call it ‘getting on with the job with the most effective tools available’.  Generative modelling defines an object as sequenced commands in a computer script. This defines the geometry of the structure, the applied loads and evaluates the structural performance. If we want to change the geometry using simple input parameters the analysis results update automatically. Conceptual design is more productive and more fluid, ideas can be quickly tested and influences from real world physics and evolutionary science can be encoded in the script to conceive leaner structures or to adapt to complex forms. This allows us to work with other designers more efficiently and to go further, more quickly. 

Often, we exchange only the computer script, not 2D drawings or 3D models. A recent example of this is ‘Galaxia’ the central temple of this years Burning Man festival by Mamou-Mani Architects. Arthur Mamou-Mani and his team first defined the spiralling tent like form as a Grasshopper script.  We added our structural analysis components to that code and then checked the structure worked. Where it didn’t we tweaked the original geometry, added some elements of our own and sent the code back again. This design to and fro continued until everyone was satisfied. With limited time and its complex form, Galaxia couldn’t have been delivered any other way. 
However, there some dangers with this workflow. First, this great exemplar of modern digital communication can be tough to communicate with. Interconnected components in a script can look like an impossible tangle of spaghetti wires. Secondly, an abstract list of code too easily allows the interconnected components to be copied to another project, apparently saving time but potentially replicating unrecognised original errors. 

As defined by Rittel and Melvin M Webber in their 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, a building is a ‘wicked’ problem in which a huge number of inputs go into a solution but the most critical influences cannot be easily identified. With that in mind, by defining the inputs to computer script at the start of a project we may be overlooking the most significant contributions to solving the wicked problem. Early stage design, where computation is potentially most useful, is where designers have the most conceptual freedom. Generative design can force a set of predefined inputs and a symbolic representation onto what should be a fluid and open process, stifling playfulness and preventing serendipity. 



Stephen Melville is director at Format Engineers

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