Wednesday23 July 2014


Entering another digital design dimension at the University of Bath

Design developed in Rhino
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From 3D modelling to design practice, the University of Bath is sharpening its digital skills, say Andrew Watts and Paul Shepherd

Second in a series on how archi-tectural schools are responding to the latest technology.

The first year of the MArch (RIBA part II) design studio at the University of Bath investigates design as “material systems” that are explored through 3D modelling rather than primarily 2D undergraduate projects. The engineering aspects of design, both structural and environmental, are developed through an investigation of the “behaviour” of construction systems when the forms are altered geometrically.

Rather than develop a series of options to solve a design, a single parametric model is used with fixed and other criteria which can be stretched and pulled until an optimum solution is found. A single design model can thus provide solutions that can be explored through rapid prototype models using a range of modelling tools — from 3D printers to laser-cutters.

Strands of projects are developed in parallel rather than sequentially, weaving parts of projects together. Strands of social issues, site specificity, language of the base “component” of the design, and spatial organisation are developed in parallel so that each scheme builds up into a thesis — a specific approach and a “kit of parts” developed by each student as they progress through the course.

The tools used are Rhino, Digital Project, Ecotect and Autodesk 3ds Max, which allow projects to transfer quickly from wireframe model to 3D render. These emphasise a 3D method of working so that the “behaviour” of the complete design can be explored continuously as a consequence of changing the relationship between volumes on screen.

This contrasts with the thin slices of plan and section that are the conventional tools of architectural exploration. Renders provide views as experienced within the completed building which are environmentally specific to geographical location, time of day and day of the year. This ensures designs are developed technically and aesthetically to provide buildings with a clear social purpose.

The urban environment is the field of activity for studio designs, starting with the interaction of new buildings within an existing built environment. Techniques for dealing with historic buildings are explored through study options in the second year of the MArch. Rhino is used for basic modelling of complex surfaces, while Digital Project is used to describe the components and assemblies that form the building. These provide tools that connect directly to rapid prototyping machines so that the evolving project can be built as a complete set of miniature components and the actual number of parts calculated. This enables environmental studies of embodied energy to be undertaken with relative ease.

The studio focuses on new forms of construction in a range of materials from concrete to cardboard. Projects are described constructionally through a parametric model and as an Airfix-type kit of parts — usually for one specific part of the building — rather than as sets of 2D details in plan and section. These material systems are developed through a single primary material rather than as a collage of different materials which are conventionally used for visual juxtaposition rather than technical performance.

The use of material systems lets projects develop without a specific stylistic preference, and the design evolves to reveal a performance-informed aesthetic.

Digital design in context

At Bath, we believe it is crucial to put our teaching of digital design methods, parametric modelling techniques and scripting into the wider context of professional practice. To this end, we organise seminars by some of the world’s leaders in digital design techniques.

This year’s speakers included Julian Vincent, who talked about the uses of biomimetics in architecture; Spyros Stravoravdis of Ecotect, who demonstrated the use of environmental modelling software to inform design; and Shrikant Sharma and Lawrence Friesen of Buro Happold, who showed what can be achieved by applying programming techniques to the design process.

In addition, Ulrika Karlsson of Servo visited the department to discuss materiality in design, and Robert Aish of Autodesk presented a fascinating history of the development of parametric software.

By exploring the innovative ways in which digital tools are being used in practice by both engineers and architects, our students are able to identify the contexts in which these methods can be of benefit and to incorporate them into their design projects.

To facilitate this, students are given support and training in such parametric modelling software as Digital Project and Grasshopper, the parametric component of Rhino. This is complemented by tutorials in writing macros and scripting.

Digital architectonics

In response to the fast-paced development of digital technologies in practice, the department of architecture & civil engineering has developed a new MPhil course in digital architectonics, starting in October 2009. The name refers to the science of digital architecture, and the course seeks to prepare students for practice in the world’s most innovative offices.

Its aim is twofold. First, it responds to the recent influx of parametric and 3D design modelling software being introduced into practice by providing theoretical and practical understanding of how software tools are constructed, extended and operated. This is based on the principle that to get the full benefit of their efficiencies and creative designs, these packages must be extended and tailored to meet specific project requirements. Second, it aims to develop a critical understanding of how these tools and methods contribute to and are influenced by current design practices.

This one-year course is aimed at practising engineers and architects who want to develop their skills in this area, but will also act as an accelerated route into PhD-level research for those who wish to take their research interests further.

Designs for a digital future

Bath University MArch 1 students developed 3D designs for water taxi stations in Dubai that would form a set of new buildings for an existing public transport network.

This design was developed in Rhino with the aim of making models of polystyrene formwork that were scale models of the real fabrication process of pouring concrete.

Daniel Moor
This design was developed in Rhino with the aim of making models of polystyrene formwork that were scale models of the real fabrication process of pouring concrete.

This water taxi building was developed in Digital Project and tested in Ecotect for environmental performance. The structural design software was also used for laser-cut components for the physical model.

Luke Dewey
This water taxi building was developed in Digital Project and tested in Ecotect for environmental performance. The structural design software was also used for laser-cut components for the physical model.

Developed in Rhino from sketch stage, this project used a physical model made with laser-cut components that were a miniature version of the full-size computer-cut components that would be used for actual fabrication of the building.

Alan Carruthers
Developed in Rhino from sketch stage, this project used a physical model made with laser-cut components that were a miniature version of the full-size computer-cut components that would be used for actual fabrication of the building.

Original print headline - Entering another dimension


Readers' comments (8)

  • I suppose one has to be just recently out of Architecture school, or else at the cutting edge of some prestige Practice, to begin to understand this stuff - even though eager to follow, because it's clearly important, to this pre-computers ex-Bath graduate. Why can't academics write with the aim of being widely understood, instead of this mystifying in-code, a close cousin of corporate market-speak? I wonder if the seminar proceedings are available - esp Robert Aish's.

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  • without looking deeper into the course that is highlighted, it sounds more like using 3D programs to freeform 'blobs' / 'wraps' in virtual space. With words used as parametric in relation to pushing and pulling a node in 3dimensions using a modelling program, takes a easy and presently overly used methodology in schools to create none considered space, and suggests its at masters level this none relational design exists? Dig deeper in to parametric design and you'll come across a whole host of none 'named' programs using this method more apporpriatly, or create your own digital programs developing an understanding of programing to programmable buildings, to really use paramtric design as it should be. Set values that edit the design through relations to schematics set up by the proposed. The building is adjusted automatically through the increase value of traffic (as a simple example of parametics beyond 'freeforming' from ones own whim) The are already course that run at a fundimental deeper level in understanding digital architecture, rather than 'lite' digital design as what is descused here. More of these courses as mentioned above will only serve to water down some of the excellent conceptual digital art/architecture and design that is already going on at a few universities. in simple words, it sounds like students are being taught how to use programs to create form without relation to its purpose. Its use in the industry and how to intergrate CAD better in the work environment. Nothing to do with the digital design and or parametics within architecture!

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  • "If you can't explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms she understands, you don't know your subject well enough. Some architects, instructors, and students use overly complex (and often meaningless!) language in an attempt to gain recognition and respect. You might have to let some of them get away with it, but don't imitate them. Professionals who know their subject area well know how to communicate their knowledge to others in everyday language." 101 Things I leaned in Architecture School, M. Frederick, MIT Press, 2007

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  • Interesting to see Robert Aish migrating to Autodesk from Bentley, where he started GC parametric modeling I believe. As a practice we have been using GC, Rhino with the Grasshopper plug in and Paracloud, for most of our design work for real clients with real projects and we are not, I think, a "cutting edge" practice. Advanced geometry, prametric or just "blobs" whatever you want to call them, this brand of software has a huge potential for designers and engineers alike, it actually makes for performance based design which is really the way forward for architectural practice. We would welcome any students coming out of Bath Uni. with this level of CAD expertise.

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  • These kind of prametric development tools have been around for quite some time and extensively used in universities in the U.S and here as well at London Universities. The techniques used are only 'a new dimension' for the university of Bath and no one who has even the slighest knowledge of the programs described would disagree. The level of self-praise and complacency seen in England sometimes is astounding.

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  • Parametric’s and Nerb’s modeling has been around for some time but have seen further development with companies such as Gehry Technology creating DP (used to create the Olympics “birds nest” by Herzog & De Meuron) and Rhino 4 adopting and striving for more user friendly parametric plug ins. It is good to see that more are realizing the capabilities and benefits of using such design software. Like everything it is good to be as ‘up-to-date’ as possible.

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  • Parametric's ok that many be highly benefical but James I find it rather amusing when u mentioned programming or creating your own software.... yawn ... sure it has its benefits to achieve programmed 'progammable' 'perfect' buildings but as architects were designers not computer programmers !!! ...lets not take on too many dull roles! ...

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  • The heated discussion about the merits of 3d parametric design is taking a very similar trajectory to that of eco-architecture in that some are latching on to it as an up-to-date trend eulogising and postulating the new design procedure as a new architectural movement. Others are feeling out of the loop, depressed and confused by the impenetrable language, abbreviations pseudo philosophy and more again are in the middle, seeing it for what it is; a new method to be introduced to the design process which has positive benefits as a tool through which design can expand. I would tend to be in the middle - it is a means to an end, not the end itself. I won't be doing any Dubai Towers for rich sheiks anytime soon as with most others, so i will appropriate it to my own design process. Parametrically speaking it will be used alongside considerations and variables such end user satisfaction, planning authority amenability and my own intuition.

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