Computers Will Design
Our Cities

How Architects Use Computational Design to Build a Better World

September 2, 2013

Managing Partner, NBBJ

We live in a time when computing power is redefining the ways companies make money, and people experience the environment around them. Big data and sophisticated computation allow business leaders to make more informed bets on the future. Likewise, architects, engineers, planners and designers use the latest computing methods to design smarter and more innovative environments.

Architects who embrace computational — or parametric — design tools are changing the science of design. Computational design allows architects to gain a much better understanding of how their ideas will work in reality, whether on the scale of a city, a single building or a single person walking into that building. It helps to quantify measurable factors, from cost to energy consumption to social impact and more, while also addressing aesthetic concerns such as artistry and meaning.

Consider three examples:

  1. Buildings are significant consumers of energy. By nearly every estimate, they account for more than 33% of total global energy use, and up to 67% when considering all the resource-consuming devices and systems within those buildings. Computational design can reduce that impact by scientifically predicting the outcome of “passive design solutions” — factors that cut energy consumption, such as materials which retain or give off heat, or devices which shade against the sun and reduce the need for air conditioning. Architects have no excuse for designing buildings that haven’t carefully considered energy management in a passive way. And the payback is enormous thanks to immediately lower energy costs, which can then be factored over the life of the building.
  2. Computation can also lead to efficient stewardship of construction materials. For instance, at NBBJ, the firm I work for, we used parametric design tools to calculate the most efficient structural system for a stadium in China, which resulted in a 65% reduction in steel used compared with similar facilities. In the face of high worldwide demand for steel, conserving resources in this way is not only ethical from a sustainability perspective, but it also makes good financial sense.
  3. Designers are in the early stages of using parametric tools to enhance local communities at the micro scale of an individual building and the macro scale of an entire city. Architects can build a hypothetical urban plan in a computer model and then change parameters (block size, zoning regulations) and the distribution of public spaces (parks) to run simulations that predict the likelihood and pattern of future investment. By altering the parameters, planners can fine-tune a plan to encourage economic development and innovation, while making it as easier for people to meet one another and form social bonds. Computational design determines not just how to allocate resources, but how to construct the social fabric of a city that is healthy, safe, meaningful and inspiring — that’s when this tool becomes truly transformative.

It’s often said that the architectural profession is slow to evolve, but right now a radical change is unfolding in how design firms can be relevant and valuable. There will always be a role for creative intuition when architects interpret the results of computational design. But the architecture firms that will be leaders in delivering a better tomorrow are those that can marry the art of design to the science of design.

This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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