How Algorithms Are Designing Better Buildings
How algorithms are designing better buildings. When giant blobs began appearing on city skylines around the world in the late 1980s and 1990s, it marked not an alien invasion but the impact of computers on the practice of building design.
- Thanks to computer-aided design (CAD), architects were able to experiment with new organic forms, free from the restraints of slide rules and protractors. The result was famous curvy buildings such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Future Systems’ Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham.
Computers are now preparing to change buildings once again, this time with algorithms that can inform, refine and even create new designs. Even stranger shapes are just the beginning: algorithms can now work out the best ways to lay out rooms, build buildings, and even change them over time to meet the needs of users. In this way, algorithms are giving architects a whole new toolbox for understanding and developing their concepts.
At a basic level, algorithms can be a powerful tool for providing exhaustive information for the design, construction and use of a building. Building information modelling uses comprehensive software to standardise and share data from across architecture, engineering and construction that used to be held separately. This means everyone involved in a building’s genesis, from clients to contractors, can work together on the same 3D model seamlessly.
More recently, new tools have begun to combine this kind of information with algorithms to automate and optimise aspects of the building process. This ranges from interpreting regulations and providing calculations for structural evaluations to making procurement more precise.
Algorithimic design to make better buildings
But algorithms can also help with the design level , helping architects understand how the building will be used by exposing secret trends in current and proposed constructions. This may be spatial and geometrical features, such as the ratio of public to private areas or the natural air flow of buildings. They may be patterns of use showing which rooms are most and least frequently used.
Or they can be visual and physical connections that show what people can and can’t see from each point of a building and enable us to predict the flow of people around it. This is particularly relevant when designing the entrances of public buildings so we can place services and escape routes in the best position.
Algorithms may also be used to enhance the ability of designers to think about and generate shapes and arrangements that might otherwise not be possible. Instead of drawing floor plans according to their intuition and taste, architects using algorithmic design input the rules and parameters and allow the computer to produce the shape of the building. These algorithms are often inspired by natural ideas, such as evolution or fractals (shapes that repeat themselves in ever smaller scales).
Combining these three uses (managing complex knowledge, revealing patterns and creating new spatial arrangements) is the next wave of algorithmic design that will really transform our ability to enhance the built environment. For example, Zaha Hadid Architects, already known for its unconventional curvy constructions, uses algorithms to automatically check thousands of internal layout choices, or to find an arrangement of facade panels that prevents an irregularly shaped building from being prohibitively costly.
Algorithms are also important for new constructions, such as the Filament Pavilion in the V&A Museum, and are modified over time in response to structural, environmental and visitor use data. Algorithms are now now creating the COVID-19 pandemic office arrangements that allow the highest number of employees to work in a building while at the same time being socially safe.
Self-organizing layouts in algorithms
My colleagues and I recently showed how algorithms could create a self-organizing floorplan for a care home, laying out the rooms in the best configuration to improve the experience of dementia patients. To do this we combined three types of algorithm, inspired respectively by ant colonies, artificial intelligence systems based on the brain, and crowd modeling.
We built our algorithms to follow design criteria based on numerous previous studies and projects, condensing them into four main rules for the algorithms to be followed. The building had to be divided into units of maximum size. Each unit had to have an accessible functional kitchen, a dining room not used for other activities, and multiple lounges or activity rooms of varying sizes.
The result was a new home care layout that arranged private rooms and common areas in the most convenient way to make the journeys of residents around the home as short as possible. This shows how the right combination algorithms and, most importantly, the input of designers can help to produce self-organizing designs that would otherwise require a huge amount of laborious work or otherwise not be possible.
Instead of replacing architects, as some have pessimistically predicted, algorithms are becoming an important tool for building designers. It is expressed in the increasing importance of technology in postgraduate courses, research centers and foreign firms. More and more designers are investing in the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence in architecture.
As advancements in computer science and technology are growing exponentially, it is difficult to imagine how algorithmic design will evolve in the future and how the construction industry will change. But we can certainly predict that the use of algorithms will soon be a standard way to increase our ability to see the invisible and to design the unthinking in our buildings.