Communicating Measure

Alternate Means to Communicate Measure / ESR5 / Innochain

1. Reflection

1.1 Research Goal

The goal of the research project is to examine how complex simulation-based design can be collated and communicated internally, within a design team, and externally, with the various stakeholders involved in the design process.

Creativity is no longer an isolated act of ideation, but a collaborative phenomenon.

This proposal starts from the belief that creativity is no longer an isolated act of ideation, but a collaborative phenomenon. Digital techniques have already upended the modernist principles of mass production and standardisation. As Mario Carpo notes, they are now “unmaking the Albertian, humanistic principles of allographic notation” (Carpo, 2013). This completely changes the focus of the digital shift in architecture from “mass customization to mass participation” (Carpo, 2013). As such, computational techniques need to provide the tools for “mass creativity”.

Cedric Price’s (in-)famous quote thus becomes even more relevant in the contemporary context: “Technology is the answer. What is the question?”. The recent digital shift in architectural design practice has generated a wealth of applied technical solutions that tackle various fragmented and highly specific problems. Nevertheless, we believe that the research goal of the “Alternate Means to Communicate Measure” programme is strongly aligned with the latter part of Cedric Price’s quote - namely the quest for articulating a valid question that can provide coherency to the complexity of the digital design environment.

After outlining key issues affecting the current state of the art, the proposal builds a holistic investigative framework drawing on insights and methodological approaches from science and technology studies to strengthen its core technological research direction.

1.2 State of the art

1.2.1 Multiplying stakeholders

The parameters of the design process have greatly expanded in breadth within the contemporary digital turn in architectural practice, exponentially increasing the amount of data that has to be analysed, processed and interpreted.

Moreover, the current design process - from concept to construction site - has never before involved such a great number of stakeholders. Among these we find the architectural design team, technical consultancies (structural, acoustic, etc.), policy makers and politicians, financial models, and local communities. As such, the role of the architect as “master builder” is straining under the burdens of contemporary practice.

As mentioned in the broader scope of the research project “Communicating Design”, this leads to a fragmented environment, where the friction of disciplinary differences is not allowing for a streamlined design process. Moreover, communication becomes a difficult and time-consuming task and often suffers from the fact that the various stakeholders involved are not sharing the same vocabulary and concepts.

1.2.2 The promises of BIM & Parametric design

One of the methodologies that try to tackle the issues of disciplinary separation is manifested in Building Information Modelling software packages (Garber 2013), such as Autodesk, Microstation, etc. While successful to a certain degree, they failed to gain wide adoption because they severely limited early design creativity due to their focus on information standardization.

Furthermore, BIM caters only to the specialised, “dry” information exchange needs of the technical parties involved in the design process, mainly architectural design, structural engineering and climate engineering. BIM tools are not flexible enough to cater to “non-technical” stakeholders, such as the client, public institutions and the community.

A quasi-separate trend is that of parametric design techniques, embodied in software such as Grasshopper or Dynamo. This approach allows for unlimited flexibility, restrained only by the user’s scripting knowledge (which can be used to extend the tool to process virtually any kind of data) and the computational power of available hardware platforms. The shortcoming of parametric design lies within the aesthetical agenda that it was developed to serve. As such, the design methodologies have evolved towards generating a specific set of architectural expressions that have limited or cumbersome applicability outside their intended agendas.

1.4 Critical reflection

A current trend among digital design is the emphasis of complexity in the detriment of its legibility. This leads to a fragmented involvement of the stakeholders, furthermore generating possible conflictual relationships between parties. As such, critical stakeholders are kept out of the design loop and are alienated from the process. The resulting compromises later on in the design or implementation phases are difficult to enact and that do not necessarily result in the creation of “value”.

The relevance of the data sets that are used to define the design space is crucial to the design process. Easily quantifiable datasets or parametric inputs are sometimes being used indiscriminately, regardless of their relevance to the design assignment.

For example, meteorological data, while crucial to the design process, usually has an impact that is dwarfed by that of building code regulations regarding energy efficiency and the principal concepts used in implementing it. Another relevant example is the absence of intuitive financial analysis tools that can bridge the gap between conceptual design and the market forces that motivate a cross-section of the involved stakeholders. To put it bluntly, one of the main parameters of design, cost, is curiously marginalized in the current design process, and is seen not as a meaningful constraint, but as an oppressor of quality.

Beyond this, there is a wealth of other parameters that influence and define the design space of a given project. Some are the target of other InnoChain research topics (structural engineering).

Complex design issues engage with multiple actors, objects and contexts simultaneously. Notions such as “quality” and “value” need to be collaboratively be redefined on a project-by-project basis in order to be relevant to all stakeholders involved. Furthermore, we must identify the crucial interaction points and their associated need for type and depth of information and define the necessary design tools that enable their communication.

1.5 Research direction: Strategic design + Service design + Parametric design

Architecture needs to look back and take some cues from several disciplines that have already formulated theoretical frameworks around the aforementioned issues, namely service design and information architecture.

As such, we need to elaborate a coherent framework that correctly identifies all the stakeholders of the design process, the articulation points of their interactions and their shared interests or goals. After this initial scoping phase, tools that can meaningfully communicate the relevant information in the relevant scenarios can be developed. These will articulate information flows and, by using emerging technologies in the realm of 3d scanning, augmented & virtual reality, will allow the designer to meaningfully communicate and, more importantly, collaborate with all partners.

To conclude, we strongly believe that this research initiative addresses a central issue in the contemporary design methodology landscape. We have a set of technological solutions that are catering to various specific problems, but no heuristic integration between them and no easy way to communicate their output. We would like to make the first steps in developing a framework that would allow for the expression of creativity from all actors involved in the design process.

2. Proposal of principal methods to be employed in the project development

The research project can be seen as having two primary avenues of research that directly inform and strengthen each other. These are the articulation of a framework (2.1) and its application (2.2). The former can be seen as a strategic design exercise that borrows heavily from the fields of service design. The latter consists of applied research into the development of design methodologies that answer the needs identified in (2.1).

2.1 Framework articulation

As mentioned above, the transition from mass customization to “mass creativity” lacks a coherent approach or any established methodologies, outside the realm of technical collaboration. As such, this project proposes to investigate how the architectural design service positions itself in its global context. The goal of this initial research effort is to pen down a framework that articulates the interaction points between all stakeholders involved in the act of design, the key interaction points between them and the shared interests and goals that characterize those interactions.
To do so, we shall apply analytical methods adapted from the well-established domain of service design during (but not limited to) the first planned secondment at the industry partner (HENN). A tentative enumeration of the main analytical methods that will be employed include the following: stakeholder maps, expectation maps, service staging, customer lifecycle analysis, business model canvas .

2.2 Framework application

Based on this initial research, we expect to outline several intuitive design methodologies that would facilitate the identified needs in terms of information exchange. Emerging technologies (such as mobile 3D scanning technologies, motion detection controllers, Virtual Reality headsets & Augmented Reality techniques) will play a significant role in the definition of the future “design & meeting room”, which we see as the final scope of the research endeavour. The aim of this applied research effort is to augment existing CAD/BIM design packages so that they can also enable meaningful communication across disciplinary boundaries.

The direct methodologies to be used are dependant on the software platform itself and the desired implementations; nevertheless prototypes can be easily developed around packages such as Grasshopper, Dynamo or other industry standards.

3. Theoretical orientations

Architecture & related design principles are now moving into the computational age – the use of digital techniques is now ubiquitous both in academic and non-academic environments.

This research situates itself in an as-yet unexplored niche of contemporary architectural theory regarding the digital medium: a “tectonic” study of the tools themselves and their relationship with all the users of the design act, from the designers to the clients, from politicians to municipalities and communities.

The nature of the research, i.e. studying parameters and their inflexions, situates itself in the non-modern theoretical framework outlined by Bruno Latour (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern 1993). More specifically, the actor-network theory (ANT) lends itself as a solid base upon which we can build up an applied framework for the built environment. ANT proposes to evaluate and understand a subject by revealing the combinations and interactions of elements that participate to its existence (Latour, Reassebling the Social 2007).

The architectural design process can easily discover its new identity inside a non-modern framework.

The new materialist framework towards which we are theoretically oriented (whose roots can be traced into antiquity; see, for example, Lucretius) effectively dissolves the dichotomy between Modernity’s two main ontological zones, that of Nature and Culture. Bruno Latour introduces the notion of quasi-objects, objects which are no longer defined by a specific category to which they pertain, but are identified only by the rhizomatic network that links them together (Latour 1993). Parametric, and by extension, computational architecture is a (class of) quasi-object(s). It loses its modernist independence as advertised by Patrick Schumacher (Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture. 2011) in favour of facilitating meaningful articulation of all the relevant parameters pertaining a certain design problem, yet it can easily discover its new identity in a non-modern framework.

Ongoing research project @ The Bartlett, UCL

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