The challenge for the software developers was to create a computational design tool that could enable a wider group of architects to design innovative buildings with an equivalent geometric fluency, but without the need to resort to special scripting.
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The Bishopsgate Tower, by KPF, is the first major building with a form completely designed and developed using GenerativeComponents. The building was approved for construction in the summer of 2006 and will become the tallest building in London. A striking feature of the 60-story, eco-friendly building is its "snake-skin" design, which the architects designed through parametric modeling.
Taming Geometric Complexity
GenerativeComponents is a model-oriented design and programming environment that is being offered as an add-on to the MicroStation software suite from Bentley Systems. With this tool, architects can manage and control formal changes using computational design to produce rule-based geometric architecture.
The key to understanding the power of this environment is the distinction between digital and computational contexts. A word processing system is digital, but a spreadsheet is computational. Word processing software records content, but a spreadsheet provides, in addition, another kind of representation that is executable.
In the same way, a traditional digital model embodies static data about a design, but a parametric model offers expressions and relationships with which the components, and ultimately the whole model, are generated.
The Bentley researchers developed the GC environment around the premise that computer-aided design lends itself to capturing the geometric relationships that form the foundation of architecture. They say that architecture is fundamentally about relationships, many of which are geometric in nature or can be expressed geometrically.
The beauty of the parametric modeling system is that once the relationships are defined and the parameters established, changes made by the designer to the key geometry and parameters are automatically applied throughout the model. The designer is thus able to explore many quick alternatives without having to rebuild the model each time.
Science Meets Art
Santiago Perez, a professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston, has been working with parametric modeling for several years in design exploration and rapid prototyping. He says, "Perhaps the most significant shift occurring today is the migration of advanced technical (coding) skills from what was once the domain of computer science and programming, into the hands of visual and spatial designers."
Perez points out that today's emerging digital protagonists are no longer satisfied with "surface" or even speculative form, per se, but rather with the confluence of fluidity and rationality that working with generative form-finding tools provides.
Using GC, designers work graphically, basing their exploration on both intuition and experience in architectural design. The work is captured in logical form as a series of operations that is itself a program. GenerativeComponents provides a series of transitions between conventional design to a more algorithmic approach to design that involves end-user scripting and software development.
Geometric models are built based on components and relationships among the components. The components can be created by the user, but the program also functions with a library of standard components from MicroStation, as well as with discipline-specific components from Bentley Architecture and Bentley Structural.
Once relationships are established among components, the GC user can explore various alternative configurations by applying different parametric values, such as floor-to-floor heights, column spacing, window sizes, room layouts, and so on. The entire building model is then regenerated automatically. Database extraction is also associated with the model, so that corresponding documentation is also generated automatically when the model is revised.
One remarkable benefit of this technology is the ability to explore unconventional building forms through digital fabrication. One component may be, for instance, a curved roof surface. As the curvature and boundaries of the theoretical surface are changed, the designer can test the constructability of the design by unfolding the panels into two-dimensional shapes.
This model can be used to prepare the geometry for digital fabrication. Since the unfolded model is still associative to the design model, it updates as other components in the design model are manipulated. The associative nature of the components is fundamental to the process.
GenerativeComponents has been available in a beta version since the spring of 2005, and a number of validation projects have been conducted with firms including KPF, Arup, Grimshaw, Morphosis, Buro Happold, and ShoP Architects. The software system will be released by Bentley early in 2007.
The Smart Geometry Group is running a series of seminars in which this new technology is being explored with highly experienced professionals. The venue alternates between the European Union and the United States. The next workshop will be held along with a conference and reception at the end of January 2007 in New York City.
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Elizabeth Bollinger is a professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, University of Houston, in Houston, Texas.