Collaborative parametric design

Author: Rob May

Date published

5 May 2021

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Collaborative parametric design

Date published

Rob May

Date published

5 May 2021


Rob May

Rob May explains how collaborative working practices can improve design outcomes. He also shares his thoughts on the evolution of parametric design and why it’s so valuable.

Where to start with parametric design

If in doubt, draw it out.

What? I thought this was a blog about parametric design.

Well, it is, but it’s important not to forget this ‘golden rule of engineering’. It’s a great starting point for lots of things, including parametric design or thinking about any complex workflow.

Recently we’ve been trialling something called the ‘Five-Fifty-Five’ challenge. This means setting a challenge to part-solve a problem and doing the following:

  • Spending five minutes doing nothing but thinking and sketching how you’ll go about it

  • Spending 50 minutes having a go

  • Spending five minutes summarising where you go next so you can hand over to someone else to critique or complete

We’ve found this format works well for small to medium sized parametric tasks. The first five minutes are valuable because they create the opportunity to think and sketch out a workflow or approach.

The last five minutes can be used to tidy up and label things for others to easily understand.  It’s good to see nowadays that more people are using process like this. It creates organised scripts with defined groups and naming from the outset.

Whatever the problem you’re trying to solve, I’d recommend taking some time to do the following:

  • Sketch out your workflow

  • Think about the inputs and outputs required

  • Consider how you’ll join the two

This process is a bit like flow-based programming.

Are parametric design skills becoming the norm?

There are various initiatives in the industry to build computational skills. Examples include the IStructE computational design and digital workflows and Buro Happold’s in-house ‘Hackademy’ global initiative.

We are now starting to see the result of these, and parametric design is becoming relatively ubiquitous. If you scroll through your work social media feed, you’ll see the amount of parametric activity.

One of the results of this is an abundance of scripts. This is something that practices are starting to grapple with, and platforms like Swarm are looking to try and help solve.

A mantra we’ve lived by is ‘share skills over scripts.’ But as skills mature, there are naturally useful scripts that it makes little sense to keep rewriting. This means centralising some sample/ simple scripts is useful for repetitive use as well as training.

Once scripts, or parts of them, become well used, turning them into code or plugins can be a much more sustainable way to scale and deploy tools. This was one of the reasons we created the BHoM.

More people are upskilling and creating and using more scripts. This means paying attention to the next stage in adoption which is refocusing. Just because you can script or automate it doesn’t mean you should.

Keeping new skills or abilities balanced and in context with others is important. New skills must complement hand sketching, report writing and project management for example.

Upskilling senior staff is helpful. It means they have a better ability to keep parametric design in context. They can plan, manage and stay focussed on the output or task at hand.

The value of collaborative parametric modelling

Some years ago, the industry talked about ‘lonely BIM’. This was a time before we had centrally shared BIM models in the cloud or on servers.

In these early days the shift to BIM was like earlier shifts ie by platform rather than by behaviour. The key opportunities in connecting people together around a common model were missed.

Much of the industry has now reached BIM maturity.  This means more people working simultaneously in the same model space and collaboration moving from the physical to the virtual.

Similarly, there is a lot to be gained in connecting our parametric models together. This means working collaboratively not only on central information, but also the logic, or ‘know-how’. Platforms such as Speckle help with this.

They allow you to connect scripts together live. This means the logic of one part of a building or problem can be linked with the logic of another, rather than just the geometry or information.

What does this mean for the future?

The AEC industry and design are moving at an ever-faster pace. The pandemic and a shift to working from home has exacerbated this.

Our new working day involves back-to-back video calls and rapid generation of sketches, ideas and models. These are used to solve and communicate design problems.

The ability to do things quickly on its own, isn’t necessarily useful. What is very useful is the ability to prototype and test solutions quickly to achieve a desired outcome.

When planning some parametric studies early in a project, I hear the argument ‘that’s great, but I can do that faster manually’. To this I often respond ‘fantastic, but can you do it again ten times with slightly different inputs and outputs in the same timeframe?’

There are many companies that put rockets into space now, but few can land them again for reuse. We must shift focus from ‘look what we can do’ to ‘what is the goal and what’s the best way to get there’.

Ultimately, we can use these ways of working to make a real difference.  An example would be building in fundamental goals such as embodied carbon targets directly into our workflows. This would mean we can track and improve carbon savings in much the same way we track and improve steel tonnages.

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