Architecture and the Art of Making Muffins

Architects want more control over the entire design process. From the early stages to the final solution. The trend is towards programming and parametric design in order to quickly evaluate alternative solutions. The path leading there for ÅWL architects is through a developed template file and database design.

Everyone knows architecture is about houses. But it is about more than that. Everything between the houses is equally important. We usually jokingly say that "architecture is everything that lies between investigation and interior design". There lies a lot in that. Before it is time to design and build the individual houses, a lot of work has already been done by community planners, planning architects and other stakeholders. This phase usually goes by the name "early stages". Several architectural offices have today acquired that competence inhouse and build the architecture all the way from start to finish. ÅWL Architects is one of these modern architectural offices, which also wants to integrate and sharpen its digital design tools.

A 3D model with smart building bodies drawn with the ÅWL template file. Illustration: ÅWL Arkitekter

Template file for early stages

ÅWL has developed a template file for Archicad to use in early stages of the projects. Nassir Kassab and Camilla Berggren-Tarrodi are architects and BIM managers at ÅWL Architects. They have both worked in the detailed planning phase and have full understanding of the work processes between the client and other disciplines and therefore they were able to produce a working template file.

We actually work with existing tools in Archicad, but we use them in a more creative way in early stages, Nassir and Camilla continue. We can work in the BIM model and in 3D and make connections to surface calculations for example to living area measurements (BOA). The connection between changes in floor plans and stories means that we can get facts “in real time”, for example key figures. All of these composition tools are available in Archicad, but instead of flooring, ÅWL uses an entire building. Then you can work more freely, just like in a regular Sketchup file - but in an intelligent BIM system!

Nassir and Camilla say that many at ÅWL Architects are good at other things than Archicad and 3D and the aim has been for the template file to create a bridge between 2D and 3D so that more people can use Archicad already in the early stages of the projects. There are several goals that the template file must meet in order to be optimal, Nassir and Camilla say. The first goal is that the template file should be able to speed up the design processes and help the architects to be able to make good decisions. Goal number two is that it should also be simple and intuitive to use. The file must contain "smart littera" which means that if you change the model, it should be possible to automatically update lists linked to the file. The file should work with so-called "expression-based properties", i.e., properties are defined via mathematical formulas.

It resembles Excel a bit. You enter information processed according to formulas, Camilla says. Goal number three is to minimize sources of error, which is part of ÅWL Architects' quality assurance. Other good things are that the file can be updated in real time automatically to the BIMx app on a tablet or mobile and that connection to analysis, visualization and even VR is possible. ÅWL Architects also has a collaboration with Nolliplan Nordic for further research and development of the template file.

There has been a demand for such a template file for several years. The existing one did not fully fulfill the function that a template file for early stages should. In order to produce it, a feedback process was then initiated after the needs analysis to fine-tune the target image. The actual production of the final template file took about 100 hours. So far, there is no direct connection between volumes and floor plans, but it will probably be added to the template file in the future, Nassir says.

Several important key figures can be retrieved automatically from the smart building bodies. Illustration: ÅWL Arkitekter

Data based design and Grasshopper

"Geometry is the core of the design process for architecture" was written in the preface to the book "Architectural Geometry" which was published as early as 2007 - and of course it is. Over the years, architects have used basic geometry for creation. That the City Library in Stockholm consists of a cylinder that stands on a straight block or that the Globe is a sphere is not at all strange. But if we take a look at, for example, the Kunsthaus Graz art gallery in Austria's freeform design with algorithms or the Olympic swimming pool "Ice Cube" in Beijing's three-dimensional Voronoi diagram, reality immediately becomes more complex. The architectural spaces are of course always measurable in three dimensions. Conversely, we can of course see it as everything we can measure can also be transformed into architecture. ÅWL Architects is working to integrate database design into projects via Grasshopper.

Grasshopper is a plugin for the design software Rhinoceros (Rhino) and can be connected to Archicad. In Grasshopper, it is possible to define scripts and rules for how the model should behave and establish different relationships. ÅWL has been initiating the development of a Parametric design process for about two years to develop solutions that suit the office's working processes. The office has Archicad as a basis for moving forward in the developing process.

It is like "making a muffin", Nassir says. If you change the quantities and which ingredients you have in the mix, you will get different results.

The base products are Archicad and Rhino. Between Grasshopper and Archicad, the conversion to Archicad objects is handled by the Grasshopper Connect function. You can keep a live connection or break it if you wish, Nassir says. Archicad links to Grasshopper which makes calculations and sends them back to Archicad. ÅWL is also looking forward to a link between the template file for the early stages and Grasshopper.

Twenty years ago, everybody was working in 2D, then in 3D and BIM and now we are switching to open source with smart solutions and customized versions. The ambition is to connect Parametric Design to Archicad. We want to move forward into the future with Grasshopper, perhaps with new features included as time goes on. In Archicad 24 there are also opportunities to create your own scripts, Nassir continues.

A BIM model sits as a core in the work process during different work stages. Illustration: ÅWL Arkitekter

Architecture, the tools, and the future

How will architects work in the early stages of projects in the future? For Camilla and Nassir, it is clear that both architectural experience in combination with programming knowledge will be relevant for the projects. Analyzes become driving factors in the design process and being able to do these quickly in order to be able to test many alternative solutions will be crucial.

Life cycle analyzes, the number of kindergartens needed and daylight on yards and in buildings will be easier to study and it will be needed, Camilla says. But the gut feeling is still required in the projects. The question of programming, parametric design and template files will affect the identity of the offices is of course difficult to answer.

It is possible to evaluate many proposals in a short time, which is good, Nassir says. But the architect still has to make the assessment. Maybe we architects should make clear demands on architecture?

Of course, the computer cannot read architecture and there is certainly a risk of uniformity if the architects are not involved in the process, Camilla continues.

There are good examples of that calculations have given better architecture as a result, Camilla says. For example, in a square that was part of a project. The customer wanted the square in one place, but the architects wanted a different location. Wind calculation of the design proposals finally decided in the architects' favor this time.

Both Camilla and Nassir agree that more expertise in Grasshopper is needed to develop the office's work even more. Maybe ÅWL typology will be built into the program. If so, template files, scripts and logarithms will have value. "Architectural espionage" may appear when experiences are transformed into data. Data will become more valuable the more "intelligence" you put in. Parametric design leads to a more dynamic design instead of static, but it is of course important to be able to feel that the architect has control over the design so that it is not the design that has control over the architect.

The template file we work with contains a lot of things that can be generally useful for many people, Nassir says. We discuss with Nolliplan about the sale of the template file. We also have ideas about parametric design that will develop more over time.

The possibilities are limitless to "smart up" the process, Camilla concludes.

The book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig was for some unfathomable reason mandatory reading when studying architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in the 80's. How that book made the students better architects is still an open question. It probably would have been better with a book on baking recipes even back then. Maybe it will be something for the future? Possibly with one or two ÅWL muffins?

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About Hans Loord

Hans Loord is an experienced Architect SAR/MSA and a seasoned journalist. He began his CAD journey as early as in 1985 and has worked with several different CAD applications over the years. He has also a keen interest for photography, art, politics, communication, design and then some. 
Hans can often be found on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest or LinkedIn.
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