How Computational Design Is Taking Construction to New Heights

The advent of the computer saw construction’s potential take a leap forward with CAD and BIM. Now advances in computational design are helping the industry—from architects to on-site contractors—deliver better buildings more efficiently.

A brief history of design methods 

Human beings have been erecting buildings for thousands of years, and for most of this time they have been designed using hand-drawn plans and diagrams.  

But the advent of the modern computer in the late 20th century changed everything. The introduction of personal computers and rapid improvements in computer processing opened up a realm of possibilities for designers, developers and contractors. 

First came computer-aided design (CAD), which emerged from MIT in the US in the early 1960s and gave a huge boost to the architecture industry. A decade or so later came the first iterations of building information modeling (BIM), subsequently evolving into what we know today. BIM became an agreed-upon term in the early 2000s, eventually morphing into a series of standards, helping architects and contractors create computer representations of the buildings they want to deliver.  

More recently, we’ve seen the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to support the construction process. 

Throughout these developments there have been advances in computational design, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in construction’s creative process. 

What is computational design? 

Effectively, computational design is design by computer. While computers have been aiding the design process for years, the increase in capabilities is promising to take those working in the built environment to places they’ve never been before. 

Designers have used their creative flair and knowledge to come up with a concept, then applied technology—modelling software, for example—to take this forward. 

Computational design takes this process further. An architect will tell a machine via a range of inputs to develop a specified output. Given that the computer is more powerful and has greater capacity than a person, various design processes can be shortened.  

The idea is that computational design will help those involved in the design and delivery of built assets make better use of their time in the creative process. As problems arise, they will be better placed to solve them, thanks to the use of computational design methods from the outset. 

How does computational design work in practice? 

Arup’s Peter Debney notes that in traditional building design, “numerous decisions are made early in the process, such as structural type, column spacing and floor-to-floor heights, either by experience or by tables in scheme design guides. The detailed design then makes the layout work, determining section sizes, reinforcement layouts and details, though design development across the team can lead to costly changes to the scheme.” 

Computational design, Debney argues, takes parametric design—”where the design is driven by algorithms controlled by the designers so that the team can explore values such as column spacing”—and calculates the quality of the design automatically.  

“This quality assessment is fed back into the algorithms, automatically adjusting the input values until the quality is maximised,” he adds. 

Debney highlighted the example of London’s transport body, Transport for London, which needed a huge amount of its land bank—2,200 sites totaling more than 16 million m2—assessed for potential development. 

“Ramboll used an in-house tool to explore site geometry, access, site-specific constraints and preferences to generate potential site developments automatically and hence estimate likely cost, value and return on each site.” 

“This approach allowed greater quality of information early in the project and to achieve scheme design assessment at scales that are impossible without automation.” 

What are the main subsets of computational design? 

Computational design has a series of branches or subsets. We’ve touched on parametric design. Another is algorithmic design, along with generative design. 

Algorithmic design uses algorithms—a set of procedures aimed at solving a problem—and applies them using a design methodology based on the nature of the problem it is trying to solve. 

Generative design sees a designer input what she or he is looking for in terms of an end product and the computer creates a 3D design of that product. The inputs need to be clearly defined, and what the end product is for needs to be considered. 

According to Aurelie de Boissieu of the University of Liege, generative design “allows designers to define problem spaces through sets of well-ordered rules and instructions, and ranges of possible inputs clearly defined in domains. From these definitions, generative systems will create ranges of outputs.” 

Benefits of computational design 

There are numerous benefits of computational design. Computer drafting software helps in speeding up drafting. The storage of complex documents can be extended, allowing for better and quicker access. 

Then there’s 3D scanning, surveying and data gathering, which can be fed into creating 3D-printed models, speeding up design schedules. 

Computational design can result in better simulations, better project management systems and improved risk analysis.  

Meanwhile, robot technology and AI—guided by computer programs—have become the latest additions to the designer’s computer-based armoury. 

Installing intelligent technology into a building, such as responsive air conditioning systems, which can sense when a room is occupied and come into operation—or switch off—accordingly is another facet of computational design’s capabilities. 

The future of computational design in construction 

As construction seeks to become more efficient and reflect the desire from clients and other stakeholders to be more sustainable in the face of an increasing threat from climate change, it is clear that better designed buildings, with design and delivery errors kept to a minimum, is the way ahead. 

The use of computers in construction design will inevitably increase, going from a “nice to have” tool, or one offering a competitive boost to a company, to an “essential to have” asset, which will become an integral part of any company’s design process.  

A new breed of architects—environmentally savvy, steeped in modern technology and fully aware of the power and scope of computational design—will be able to exploit computer programming methods and lead the industry into a new era of efficiency, productivity and better buildings. 

Of course, there’s the adage “garbage in, garbage out.” In other words, computers and the work they do are only as good as the information they are given by human beings.  

Still, this won’t stop the march of computational design. Instead, it will probably serve to highlight the need for vigilance and encourage generations to come, all imbued with new IT, programming and design skills, to boldly take construction where it has never gone before. 

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