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The Parametric Bottom Line

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The ability to react quickly to design changes was one of the huge benefits CAD brought to this business of designing buildings. Even the clunkiest of programs automated drafting to manage it to some degree. It’s not that architects suddenly had time on their hands. The pace of work quickened and fast design became the new normal. BIM extended the reach of computational processes to outside architects’ offices to further reduce the risk of abortive design. Fast redesign became the new normal.


When New York by Gehry – formerly known as 8 Spruce Street formerly known as The Beekman – changed mid-crisis from apartments for sale to apartments for rental, the building was redesigned to have lower floor-to-floor heights that magicked an extra six or seven floors of rentable space into spreadsheets.


Parametric design made recalculating the cladding no more painful or costly than it would have been to redesign more conventional cladding. IF one is going to design curvy stuff then parametric design lessens risk if there’s a danger of a design changing. It has this advantage even if those parameters don’t define curves. Basically, it is insurance for architects.

This gives a competitive advantage to architects using such technologies and potentially attractive benefits for clients employing those architects for projects with a likelihood of change and abortive design work i.e. most.   


• • •

It irks purists when people conflate ‘true’ parametric design with algorithmic design and pimped-up BIM as I just have. They maintain algorithmic design deals with quantitative efficiencies whereas parametric design invokes the magic art fairies. It may all come down to a difference between parameters and linked variables which, if it exists, is all in our minds and I suggest we snap out of it. The general belief is that parametric techniques facilitate better design by allowing more ‘possibilities’ to be explored. Here’s that belief being propagated.

“If there’s one thing I learned from midterm, it’s that it’s hard as hell to explain these projects to a jury in less than six minutes, and unfortunately a lot of the discussions invariably include detours into how the process works and what exactly the parametric inputs and geometric objectives were meant to show. The general gist of the attached image is showing that after 23 generations of designs (100 designs per generation) the form started optimizing for structure and placed the columns at opposite ends of the space frame to minimize deflection. The columns include programmatic space and another goal was that they begin to clump together and cease to be columns, but begin to evolve into stalagmite forms hanging from the roof. The challenge moving forward becomes to begin to wrap the design possibilities into a coherent narrative regarding an airport in the completely insane site in Mumbai.”

The last sentence shows how the belief that design possibilities and the project brief are totally separate things is being propagated as well. Elsewhere, I’ve called this dysfunctional. However, if there are all these design possibilities then presumably they are the result of a design process but from where and what?

It used to be the case designers would select criteria they wanted to have influence the final result, and also decide how they would interact in the final result. Scripting is analogous to these processes designers traditionally did in their heads, perhaps with a sheet of paper to record steps of a process and its results. If we ignore the fact that some relevant criteria traditionally accounted for unconsciously and as a matter of course may still be resistant to scripting, then we can say that scripting is a true creative process and not the computers generating the universes of permutations as they did for our hapless student above. Despite being a true creative process, scripting is regarded as grunt work for realising the design inputs of a scribbler elite. This is called progress.

When to stop the computers generating those universes of permutations is another genuine design decision, and the process of selecting from amongst them is another. These too are tasks designers have traditionally and often at the same time processed in their heads to arrive a solution that works.


There are no statistics for comparative rates of success between these two approaches but what scripting has done is to make certain types of design idea easier to communicate, document and construct. What this has done is bring about an increase in the amount of architectural ideas that need scripting but I can’t see any improvement in the quality of those ideas or any change in the use to which those ideas are put. 

Yours truly, AR, April 2003
GM, AR, April 2003

This still holds. Parametric design simplifies the design production process by ordering architectural design into a Fordist production line of ‘inspiration’, selection (of criteria), translation, synthesis and selection (of solution). It all sounds very 20th century to me and still very much the same Model-T even though you can now have it in any colour. And shape.

What makes me think this is not too far from the truth is how little emphasis is placed on the creativity of scripting as codified mental selection and synthesis, and how much we’re encouraged to celebrate the design irritant said to begin the process. We hear much about the many ‘possibilities’ generated but little about the criteria for processing them. What good is a universe of possibilities if the scripting was inadequate? Or the initial irritant flawed or, God forbid, the wrong one?


• • •

There’s no such blind faith in this next example. These people know exactly what they want and how to get it. They’ve taken many of the thought processes of architectural and urban design as well and automated them to quickly arrive at a dense urban solution.

It seems genuine in that its design decisions are shaped by the same variables by which the project and its performance are to be judged. 

If it is found that something has been missed, then it can be incorporated to improve future outcomes. For example, you may’ve noticed some of the interior floor plans were a bit ropey but we can be sure a slicker mapping can now deal with floor plate and plan variations around columns and shafts. It all seems to work wonderfully if you want your town to look like a leaf and, apparently, we all do.


We also seem to like it when apartments of people above or below us don’t have the same floor plate. Pushing floor plates in and out presumably generates value-adding variations in line with latest market data. Much was also made of non-right angled blocks which also seem to be what value-adding ‘choice’ looks like these days. All it needs are some 3D-printed, bio-mimicking cladding and dubious screens and every trope of contemporary architecture will be represented. But not for me thanks. I’m a person, not a caterpillar.


This Ludwig Hilberseimer urban scheme uses an obvious repetition to save on design, documentation and construction costs for the purpose of delivering a product of controlled quality at lower cost. Both it and the previous scheme do the same thing but the former provides illusions of individuality, organic growth and, for what it’s worth, contemporaneity. It’s just that the cost difference between not providing those and providing those has shrunk. Were that cost difference to ever shrink to zero, something more classy will surely come along so we can continue to pay more for it. It’s what we do.

The associative design authors have been able to automate design, documentation and construction processes to lower overheads. I don’t know if those savings have been passed on to end users but they do seem to have made quite a successful practice for themselves in a very short time.


What we do know is that parametric design processes have made it easier and thus possible to produce designs that could not have been realised in previous decades, even if someone had or had wanted to conceive them. This has given many of its results a novelty value in the marketplace and in media space – a USP. Another is that, for a client, the lowered risk and potential savings of parametric design processes are very attractive in economies and markets susceptible to fluctuation – i.e. most. This is a virtue of process and not of appearance as we are led to believe.

Whereas a building having the economic advantages of prefabrication usually looks like a prefabricated building, one having the economic advantages of parametricism doesn’t necessarily have to look like a ‘parametric’ building.

Whether they do or not, designs that have followed a parametric design process have the ability to quickly respond to change up until the time construction begins. After that, they respond to change no more or less readily or happily than any other project. However, if they look ‘parametric’ they can continue to represent responding to change. Architecture as frozen parameters. (This is an after-effect of Post Modern sickness: representing something being more important than actually doing it or, in the case of Parametricism, continuing to do it.)


The killer potential advantage of parametric design is its ability to respond to economic factors. A lot of heartache could have been avoided if the universe of design possibilities for New Tokyo Stadium had been spewed out with a respective universe of costings but ‘parametric design’ isolates itself from any parameter of tangible value. (We have this in writing.)

The folly of this has been exposed. There are many other quantifiable parameters out there that could so enrich the parametric soup. Why not add environmental ones to both the concept and practice?

Clients already appreciate the risk management advantages that parametric design offers. After the Tokyo debacle, clients must be now demanding a degree of influence over the process of selecting final designs from universes of possibilities each with their respective construction, running and environmental costs. I see marriage on the horizon for parametric design, environmental performance engineering, quantity surveying and project management. They were meant for each other.

This paper, in Advanced Engineering InformaticsVolume 25, Issue 4October 2011Pages 656-675 by Michela Turrin, Peter von Buelow, Rudi Stouffs may help bring that about. It’s $39.95 for a better look.


I welcome this research despite it presenting commonsense as The Next Big Thing. My only misgiving is how the authors assume the goal is the alternative that offers the best performance. Commonsense says this ought to be so. I’m not convinced we’re there yet.

• • •

Graph paper with a design irritant defiantly rejecting the tyranny of graph paper.



  • I think I agree wholeheartedly, except that such design has given us a vocabulary and grammar we didn’t have before…except perhaps in comic books. Maybe it simply creates architecture as film set but even though it is machine refined, it becomes part of the palette of shape and space that designers can use…along with reevaluating the possibilities of new and old materials.