Monthly Archives: October 2014

Google’s BIM-busting App for Design and Construction

By Randy Deutsch AIA LEED AP

Tom Preston-Werner, co-founder of Github, believes there will only be two types of jobs in the future: people who code computers, and people who get bossed around by computers.

“In the future there’s potentially two types of jobs: where you tell a machine what to do, programming a computer, or a machine is going to tell you what to do,” says Preston-Werner.

“You’re either the one that creates the automation or you’re getting automated.”

Remember the “Google[x] to revolutionize the construction industry” headlines from this time last year?

Google technology could halve construction costs

Google’s secret development unit has developed a technology that could earn the company $120 billion a year, and,

Is Google planning a BIM-busting app for construction?

Google’s secret is secret no more

Flux, a 25 person, 2 year old company, the first — and so far only — startup to spin off of the semi-secret Google[x] research moonshot lab and incubator at Google dedicated to projects such as the driverless car and Google glass, has set out to automate the AEC industry.

It’s about time we take notice – and sides.

Google[x] is the company’s main initiative to diversify its sources of income.

With the global construction market estimated at $5 trillion a year, why not enter our turf?

First, a little background.

The Google X engineers initially called the development of the invention Genie (after the genie in Aladdin in “1001 Nights”). Genie, the development team told Google’s management, was a platform with online-based planning applications to help architects and engineers in the design process, especially for skyscrapers and large buildings. The platform includes planning tools of expert architects and engineers and advance analytics and simulation tools. Genie standardizes and automates the design and construction processes with unlimited design options, enabling an architect to preserve the building’s uniqueness in the urban environment.

In the report, the Google X team estimated that Genie could save 30-50% in prevailing construction costs and shorten the time from the start of planning to market by 30-60%. The Genie team estimated that the platform had the potential of generating $120 billion a year for Google, and so Flux was born.

Former Gehry Partners architect, Michelle Kaufmann, co-founded Flux with ex-Google software engineers Nick Chim (who is also CEO), Augusto Roman and Jen Carlile.

Flux says they are in business to address urban population growth.

In short: we’re going to increase our urban population in the next 35 years by 3.3B people – which nearly doubles our urban population from right now – and, depending on the size of the building, will require between 6.6 million and 33 million new apartment buildings by 2050 to house them all.

And so the need to see buildings not as one-offs, built from scratch, but from seeds.

Buildings as Mother Nature would want them to be

From a talk Jen Carlile, Co-Founder of Flux, gave in October 2014 at KeenCon,

Using Data to Improve the Built Environment:

Today we build individual buildings as though Mother Nature built each one from scratch, rather from seeds.

Flux asks: What if we were to build buildings from seeds? Seeds that took on different forms and characteristics depending upon where they were planted?

The thinking goes, if we designed this way, we could leverage data and design and build buildings by the thousands in the time it currently takes to design one.

Tool #1: Coded within the building app are all the rules that the building needs to grow or auto-generate: the structural system, HVAC, façade, etc. It knows, for example, that it needs external sunscreens on the west elevation to reduce late afternoon heat gain. These rules are all encoded into the building seed. (See the video within the video that starts at 8:30.)

They use the analogy of the Monterey Cypress tree, which takes on a different shape based on where it is planted, the prevailing winds and conditions of its location and site.

In the same way that if you plant three separate Monterey Cypress seeds in three separate locations you’ll get three separate trees; if you place three separate building “seeds” in three separate locations you’ll get three separate buildings.

In other words, the building takes on different forms based on the different sites it is placed on.

The software “designs” all of the bathrooms, fire stairs, ducts. Because all of the rules are encoded within the building seed, you can make changes to the building. When you do that, the building regrows.

The seeds of change

To address the urban population crisis, says Jen Carlile, we need to stop designing individual buildings and start designing building seeds.

The time it takes to design and build needs to dramatically decrease.

Tool #2: Another tool Flux built helps with organizing data, making it more actionable and more universally accessible. Think of it as a feasibility study algorithm that, once you identify a site or sites, instantaneously assesses entitlements, massing, building program, building performance, leasable area and overall project budget.

Simon Rees, Associate Principal / Structural Group Leader at Arup in Los Angeles, in a talk he gave in late October 2014 about a data-driven, integrated project named P12 that involved input from ARUP, Flux, Gensler, Cupertino Electric, Turner Construction, among others, calls this Wrangling Geometry from the data.

Embracing the full complexity of the design and construction process, grounded in real estate data, P12’s goal was to reduce the design and construction of a large-scaled building to a 12 month cycle: 3 months for design, one for permitting, and 8 for construction.

They use the example of zoning codes that dictate what can be built on a site.

The tool pulls in data from neighboring lots, buildings, vegetation. It looks at overlay zones, view corridors. Then it looks at the building code, generating the buildable envelope for a site.

Using downtown Austin, TX as an example, Flux’s software Metro purports to provide a better way to visualize Austin’s development code by

  • aggregating multiple data sources in one place: data from cities, tax assessors, and third-party sources, so you quickly understand the parameters for a land parcel;
  • helping developers and land owners to visualize their parcels by situating proposed projects into the surrounding landscape;
  • showing only the development codes that are applicable, including conditional overlays and uses; providing a quick assessment of project potential. “If and when you are ready to go deeper,” says the website, they’ll “provide helpful reference links to deeds, entitlement history, and permitting history.”
  • taking a snapshot of the project and share with anyone, getting stakeholders aligned around a common vision
  • rendering zoning incentive and building usage impacts on the parcel and massing.

They make the process transparent so you can see where all of the data is coming from. So up on you monitor, as part of the tool, side by side with the building massing is the building or zoning code and all of the rules that can be derived from it.

As Simon Rees put it, browser-based exploration democratizes access to otherwise industry-specific information such as zoning codes and building models.

Calling BF Skinner

After using the tool for a while, says Carlile, you can develop an intuition as to why the buildings are shaped the way they are. “What we often think of as artistic license is really just the manifestation of a rule set.” This represents one of the exciting ways that the data feedback loop can inform – and over time, improve – one’s intuition.

In the spirit of openly sharing technology in the software industry, making the design and construction process not only more transparent but more efficient, and reduce the time it takes to design and build buildings, Flux asks: What if there was a standard library where people could build upon the work of others, as opposed to solving the same problems over and over again?

We already have that technology: it’s called the human mind and memory.

I think the population growth storyline and Mother Nature metaphor don’t mask the underlying opportunity to best greedy developers at their own game by charging for this software as a service (SaaS.)

i.e. Free test-drive on 10 parcels $100 per additional parcel (introductory price.)

33 million buildings will be needed by 2050. That’s 33 million rules-based, design-by-constraints, deterministic, GMO seeds.

Constructors will be needed who know how to componentize, commoditize, and put the buildings together quickly.

The technology raises questions such as: Should humans be performing modeling tasks that a computer can perform?

I did feasibility studies for building developers most of my career and on most days I felt like I had the best, most creative job in the world.

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is that code searches aren’t drudgery that needs to be performed by computers. While the most cursory first looks can be made by computers, any building designer knows that interpreting the code – whether zoning or building – can be every bit as creative a task as designing the building itself. I have myself doubled the size of the allowable square footage of a project without seeking a variance based on nothing more than creative interpretation of the code. A computer can read a code, but it can’t read between the lines of a code book: only humans can.

The tools appear to be quite sophisticated. But a structural- nor software-engineer shouldn’t be touting the upside of these services or technologies. In the two presentations I have seen on the software, each look at a comprehensive, integrated system from their own narrow perspectives.

Flux needs someone as a spokesperson who sees the big picture. Someone who orchestrates large teams and knows the complete assemblage of building design and construction – not just from their silo, domain or point of view.

Something Jen said in the Q & A after her talk in particular hits home:

I think of it like APIs. You can have an API for a structural system. If you can connect your structural API to your fabrication machine, you no longer have to have humans involved.

For the foreseeable future, Flux’s Metro and other tools require the input of designers and other experts – in other words, human input. I wonder how team members such as Arup and Turner Construction would feel hearing that what they are contributing to may soon put them out of business?

More on where Flux is headed with all of this here.

Not building in Austin’s Central Business District? Subscribe to Flux’s mailing list to find out when they launch in your city.

Watch Jen Carlile, Co-Founder of Flux.

Read: Google X spin-out Flux is harnessing data to make designing buildings better.

Images: Flux



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The 7 Convergences in Contemporary Practice

by Randy Deutsch AIA LEED AP

Last summer over early morning coffee in Cambridge, Phil Bernstein – whom the past couple summers has joined me on the second day – asked me what I covered on the first day of my two-day Harvard GSD BIM leadership seminar.

So I gave him the run down. BIM as a database, interoperability, the seven convergences…

Wait. Again?

In all the times I’ve spoken with Phil, he had never before asked me to repeat myself.

So I listed them for him.

Oh those, he said distractedly – and returned to whatever he was doing.

It was then I knew I was onto something.


The convergences in question have both practical and emergent antecedents.

Since the downturn in the economy in 2008, architects and other design professionals have been expected to design and construct in a manner that uses fewer resources, while still innovating, adding value and reducing waste.

Deliverables have to take less time, cost less money to produce, while not compromising on quality: expectations that are unrealistic at best, often resulting in a negative impact on outcomes, working relationships and experiences.

Old paradigms such as “Quality, Speed, & Price: pick any two”- no longer apply. Owners expect all three – Perfect, Now and Free – on almost every project. Traditional linear thinking no longer works in this converged upon world.

At the same time, emergent forces and technologies have come together in the second decade of the twenty-first century that have developed to the point where they make real-time integration of all facets of the design and construction process possible.

An unstructured, as of now unnamed group of twenty- and thirty-somethings have met the challenges and opportunities of this moment with skill, verve and aplomb (you know who you are.)

Closing Gaps vs. the Eternal Now

The metaphor of closing gaps is based on linear thinking: two events occurring in succession or transition are brought together or bridged.

With increasing demands to make decisions in real time, design professionals are moving beyond the linearity metaphor and thinking in terms of simultaneity, super-integration and convergence.

Emergent tools, work processes and the cloud make real-time convergence today a reality.

Those in academia, the design professions and industry are experiencing a tectonic shift approaching a real-time/right-time meeting point marked by multidisciplinary integration, intersections, interactions – and daresay collisions.

Because areas of professional expertise are converging on transdisciplinary teams increasingly made up of data scientists, computer scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, statisticians, strategists, scripters, and economists working alongside design professionals – it is no longer adequate for students of architecture, engineering and construction management, or for design and industry professionals, to strive to learn and master individualized skills.

Being proficient in any one domain – whether skill, technology or tool – is no longer sufficient. As I’ve written elsewhere, being proficient is no longer sufficient.

Adapting to the new world of work requires learning to think simultaneously on several fronts, and from several points of view.

This is the world of convergence thinking.

There are seven convergences in contemporary design practice that occur at the meeting of two seemingly opposite forces:

  • Virtual and Physical World
  • Data and Intuition
  • Parametrics and Computation
  • Visualization and Model
  • Design and Fabrication
  • Conception and Construction
  • The Practical and Ineffable

As this is a blog post, not a dissertation, here they are in capsule one at a time:

  1. Virtual and Physical World

Real-time tools enabling man-machine interaction in design and construction are being developed on the UIUC campus. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality is entering the construction space with implications for how buildings are designed. Software now provides intuitive, real-time answers to wickedly complicated questions, which in turn enables much better decisions.

How can students of design and engineering, and their educators, work together to help leverage these tools throughout the building lifecycle?

  1. Data and Intuition

In lieu of buildings as buildings, or buildings as documents, we’re now seeing a convergence of buildings as data. Design firms are already leveraging data to make better decisions, bring about better insights, and make better buildings.

Where do employees who can do this – understand buildings as databases – come from? How are they learning to effectively and creatively accomplish this? Is this something that can be introduced in school or in practice?

Working with data and analytics not only informs, challenges and validates intuition, but over time changes (i.e. improves) intuition. Convergences such as the data/intuition feedback loop are quickly changing the way design professionals work, the way they think, communicate and interact with one another, and thus have implications for the way they learn, train, and practice.

  1. Parametrics and Computation

Existing BIM tools are in the process of becoming more computationally aware.

Converging parametrics and computational tools. We are now able to compare alternative building designs on the fly – in real time – assuring teams that they are on the right track, meeting the owner’s and building inhabitant’s criteria, comfort and needs from the start.

Converging processes and people. Using Grasshopper plug-ins like Platypus – developed by firm employees, not corporations, disseminated freely on Twitter, not via software resellers – individuals are now able to communicate and collaborate on the design of buildings in real time.

Are architects going to sit side by side with hackers, computer scientists and algorithm builders? Right now, several offices already have architects sitting side by side with hackers, computer scientists and algorithm builders. The future, in other words, is already here. Are we preparing our students for this future? Who will lead this effort? Who, in other words, will be the glue?

  1. Visualization and Model

Tools are currently being developed where visualization reacts directly to analysis, in the 3D model, without the need of producing additional reports.

What impact will this have on the way we currently teach structures, and the daylighting and energy analysis of buildings?

  1. Design and Fabrication

Convergence of design and fabrication. University, not trade school, students today learn to operate robotic arm fabrication equipment directly from their CAD and BIM software.

What are the implications for not only education and practice, but for the trades and industry?

  1. Conception and Construction

After winning the international design competition, it took Jørn Utzon 6 years to figure out how to build the Sydney Opera House shell structures, and by that time he was no longer on speaking terms with the client or the contractor.

Flash forward 50 years: Nathan Miller as the lead computational designer, and later Andrew Heumann, leader of NBBJ’s design computational group, designed, fabricated and all but constructed the Hangzhou Stadium from their laptops.

How are the boundaries between two historically separate entities, design and construction, converging? What are the implications for the way we learn? For the way we practice?

  1. The Practical and Ineffable

As David Ross Scheer has discovered design professionals are increasingly challenged to realize meaning and agency within the constraints of computational tools.

Who are the individuals that are succeeding at this need for the transference and making of meaning brought about by increasing convergence of technology, tools and processes?

Implications for education

The seven convergences have implications for both education and practice.

Convergence requires multidisciplinary participation, merging STEM subjects with those in design and the arts.

We need to educate designers to work compatibly and effectively with those from across different domains and fields.

Like it or not, this is where design practice is heading: we need to understand the implications for education and training, research and development.

Implications for practice

Architecture is a complex undertaking requiring the input of many individuals with varying interests, backgrounds and expertise. This has not – and will not – change.

What is changing is the way these individuals are working, communicating and collaborating. Their individual contributions are converging. In response, they are integrating their efforts – not multitasking. To meet today’s demands for speed, affordability and quality – they are taking and making smart cuts, not shortcuts.

They are currently learning to do this at conferences, at informal meet-ups, in online forums, via gaming, and in social media.

If you aren’t in the Grasshopper forum, or follow them on Twitter, a whole epoch might pass you by.

The linear design process transforms – and increasingly tightens – as a result of the introduction of convergences in contemporary design practice workflows.

A new book

There is a need to clarify and concretize what is happening at this moment in time for those who aren’t following.

Books – whether physical, digital or audio – are seen by some as antiquated technology. But in the middle of the second decade of the third millennium, they are still the best means we have for synthesizing moments and movements, giving them a name, and as importantly, a language that can be understood, shared and discussed by others.

The seven convergences will be explored in a new book I will be writing in 2015.

For those keeping score, convergence is the next natural succession in the research from my previous two books on building information modeling (BIM,) and data analytics in the AEC industry.

Specifically, the practice-based research for this new book aligns with, grows out of, and builds on my current research on the collaborative leveraging of data in design that has led to my in-progress book, “Data Driven Design and Construction: Strategies for Capturing, Analyzing and Applying Building Data,” (John Wiley & Sons, 2015) a +400 pp. publication providing practical information, useful strategies and technical guidance to practitioners, educators and students who are looking to leverage data throughout the building lifecycle.

As a meditation on the impact of technology on the education and making of design professionals, this new book – Convergence – can go a long way to help explain what is happening now in the world of design, as well as to discuss the implications for the future of practice.

I would love to hear from you. Anyone

  • for whom this topic strikes a chord, rings true, captures the zeitgeist
  • who works in any of these areas, or knows someone who does
  • who thinks there are too many listed, or sees something missing
  • who has something to say on this topic.

Email me at or let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Design Smart. Build Smart. Live well.

Note: Today’s posts are by guest blogger Elijah Gregory, a high school senior interested in all things BIM. If Elijah represents the future of our industry, we’ll be in good hands.

The Purpose of BIM: IPD to Life Cycle Management

When envisioning the future through the eyes of an early 2000’s film, we see men dressed in sharp, all-black suits, women in sleek, all-black dresses, and almost all business processes completed virtually. Phone calls are made through technological-emulated telepathy, balance sheets are brought up and thrown around a corporate board room on a series of screens mirroring a Tony Stark creation, and we see security officers responding to seeing breeches in a building through a hologram. The hologram always struck me: how could the security officers see through the entire building and manipulate the model? How did they know where the attackers were? Of course, the concept, Hollywood animation at the time, is encroaching upon reality. The future of BIM lies in life cycle management.

Currently BIM acts just as the acronym implies, for modeling of a building and information extraction from the model. The system works from the Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) process of construction which ties together architects, engineers, construction companies and owners. Through BIM, all stakeholders in the construction of a building can contribute.

Architects typically rely on the modeling aspect of BIM. Through the software, architects can create the drawings of the building, a model of the building (of course), a virtual walkthrough of the building for the client, as well as a vast array of visual aspects to the overall design of the building. The modeling aspect of BIM currently contributes the majority of the current use of the software. Of course, the information derived from models produced by BIM still plays an incredibly important role—and arguably the most important role, depending on which stakeholder you are in the process. The information is used to create estimates and schedules, decide on critical points in the construction of the building, and ultimately to sell the building to the owner and make a profit for the CM firm.

The current state of BIM is incredible: over the last two decades, construction has changed more than in the last two millennia, and largely due to the adoption of the software. BIM has always been about streamlining data and communications from a construction aspect, but the future of BIM takes streamlining one step further—to interoperability from the erectors, to owners, maintenance men, and end users of the building.

Life cycle management through BIM allows the model and information to be leveraged throughout the entire life of the building. From the software, owners could schedule maintenance and users could plan additions or analyze energy usage for sustainability. Of course, for the simple interoperability to occur, BIM must be simplified immensely to a substantially more user-friendly level–a feat not easily conquered. Although seemingly far-off, the conceptual days of holographic building manipulation via the streamlined usage from IPD to life cycle management through BIM are quickly approaching.

On the Horizon of BIM

All too often I find myself nearly completed with a project in Revit and I realize my lack of adding information into the model. I need summaries of costs associated with the materials in the building, cost per square foot, panel schedules, optimizations of the model, energy analysis and a whole host of information-driven items, which all too often I cannot create quickly due to my lack of using the tool to the full potential.

Of course, all the information discrepancy lies in the lack of identity data for the various components in my building design. From there, a breakdown of room costs, overall building costs, energy analysis, and all other comparative and analysis functions Revit can do, Revit then can do.

As a high school senior with limited experience and education with the data associated with the intricacies of flow rates for MEP systems, cost data, or Uniformat, I am highly unable to create information for the components which Revit requires to analyze. And although I am in no regards a professional architect, I suspect architects and common users of Revit know all of the needed information either.

The design of a building alone stands as nothing less than a masterpiece. All the information associated with the design can stand as much more: smart.

Currently, very limited standards exist for BIM software. Such a lack creates inequalities in depth of design for both the building and more prominently the components within the building.

In an attempt to create a community workspace for BIM operators in which to share families and components, Autodesk created Autodesk Seek.

Although the components from the online warehouse can serve the purpose of design or layout, more often than not, the models come very generically information wise if drawn by Autodesk or loaded with intricate, unexplainable parameters, poor constraints, and a lack of cost data if drawn by a manufacturer.

Needless to say, the two very different levels of information causes some issues down the road in the design to delivery cycle.

The future of design lies in an operation-to-drawing-board approach. The user comes first. Inasmuch, a standard upon which to design from BIM-wise sees all the more calling as the future draws near.

With the rivalries for market share never ending, I cannot imagine a full-tilt, industry-wide warehouse upon which components for the various BIM software may arise in the near future. But with Autodesk’s innovative nature and record, a calling for standards of acceptance to Seek does not appear out of line.

The cliché proves timeless: we are on the cusp of something great. Hopefully, with the trend of BIM acceptance and implementation, standards do not live so far in the distance. Design smart. Build smart. Live great.

Thank you Elijah Gregory for your dedication to BIM and collaboration, and for writing these great posts! You can read more of Elijah’s writing on all things BIM at Sean D Burke’s blog Paradigm Shift


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