Monday, May 6, 2013

Spring Workshop Recap: Parametric Workflows

Workflow Rigging workshop, TEX-FAB February 2013
Spring 2013 was packed full of workshops!  Central to the workshop topics was a theme of interoperability and workflows.  Indeed, this subject is reaching a critical mass within the Architecture and Design community.  As a consultant at CASE, I have observed that the need for interoperability has manifested itself most in some variation of the phrase "we just want to be able to connect Program X to Program Y."  (most of the time it seems to be Grasshopper and Revit)

Putting the specifics of digital platforms aside, this is indicative of a larger need for reliable workflows which connect open-ended problem solving with downstream production.

Many tools have cropped up in the last year which are useful in terms of bridging the gaps we see in the design process.  For an overview of some solutions, check out the Collective BIM blog by my CASE colleague Michael McCune. While there are many tools out there, each one approaches the problem from a different vantage point.  In particular, these solutions often carry their own assumptions about anticipated workflow protocols and scalability.  However, in most cases I have found that interoperability is a complex concern  driven by the unique nature of a project, the team, and the deliverables.

A Note on 'Translation'
On a technical level, I sometimes like to discuss interoperability as being akin to the concept of translation.    For quick translations between languages, we might use some form of automation, such as Google Translate.  The translation algorithms used by Google are sometimes great for more straightforward translations where the meaning is not as ambiguous.  For more sophisticated translations, the results tend to get interesting... would we trust Google Translate to automate the translation of a literary masterpiece?  Take for example, this seemingly simple quote from Hamlet:

Hamlet quote translated from English to Chinese

Hamlet quote translated back to English from Chinese

When it comes to interoperability, the technical challenge is overcoming the fact that the two programs might have fundamentally different means of representing and structuring their data.  The structure and representation of the data is the "language".   We will often look for commonalities between programs in order to build bridges which can easily transition the data from one structure to another.  These bridges might come in the form of a file format, database, or other customized API connection.  What is most essential, however, is ensuring that the data is 'saying the same thing' when the process of translation is complete.

CASE Tools
At CASE, we have developed our own set of solutions to the issue of interoperability.  These have most recently manifested themselves as a collection of Grasshopper and Revit utilities that we customize and deploy on projects for maximum benefit to our clients.  In addition to the technical considerations of moving data, there are four main ideas we consider when introducing these tools into a workflow:
  • Support:  At CASE, we understand that project needs vary across the board.  We work with our clients to ensure that their project data is 'up-to-spec' for maximum compatibility   Our team brings extensive project experience and we actively work with clients to ensure the best possible process and support structure is put in place: 
  • Scale:  Different projects, phases, and teams have different workflow requirements so it is important that we have solutions which can scale for different circumstances.  Factors might include the division of labor on a team or the specifics of how information needs to be transmitted downstream.
  • Change:  At a technical level, moving data from one spot to another is easy... but managing changes to data that sits in different locations is far more challenging.  A team goes through numerous design iterations, our interoperability solutions utilize strategies for keeping models up to date.
  • Ease of Use:  When we work with clients to deploy the workflow, we want them to be able to understand and take a role in actively maintaining the process for their project.  The development of the workflows goes hand in hand with thinking through how the user will interact with the tools and anticipating possible bottlenecks.
This past Spring, CASE led a series of workshops on the subject of interoperability.  Each workshop was used to demonstrate the capabilities of our tools in the context of real-world architecture and design scenarios.  TEX-FAB took place in February and focused on the design and documentation of a concept stadium.  Facades+ Performance took place in April and focused on workflows for developing a high rise tower.

Workflow Rigging workshop let by Nate Miller and Dave Fano, TEX-FAB February 2013
Calibrated Facades workshop led by Nate Miller and Michael McCune, Facades+ April 2013
Workshops began with a loosely defined design problem.  We used Rhino and Grasshopper to define the design parameters of the project and develop conceptual systems for features such as floors, seating bowls, and facades.  These building systems were designed to be iterative and change over time.  
Parametric Seating Bowl for a stadium in Grasshopper. (TEX-FAB)
Parametric Facade system in Grasshopper.  (Facades+)
We then implemented workflows which tested CASE's interoperability technology by transferring key features and parameters into Revit.  To capture complex information, participants first learned advanced Revit modeling features for Adaptive Components families and parameters.  The CASE tools then were used to automate  family placement and parameters.  As the workshops progressed, interoperability connections for other important building features such as level datums, structure grids, and floors were also explored.
Adaptive Component Families modeled in Revit.
A system of Adaptive components for a stadium seating bowl. (TEX-FAB)
Facade and Floors describing a high rise tower.  (Facades+)
After several design and workflow iterations, the workshops transitioned to exploring how Revit could be used as a tool to manage and document the design information.  The outcome of the workshop was a conceptual building information model with required linkages to a flexible parametric system used for design exploration.

The broader theme between the workshops was about leveraging the best tool for the job... Grasshopper is an ideal solution for creating a light-weight system for efficient design exploration while Revit is fantastic for organizing project elements and capturing information inside its database.  The right workflow lets users optimize their process to fully take advantage of the capabilities at their disposal.
Revit schedule of Adaptive Components placed from Grasshopper, (TEX-FAB)
Revit schedule of a facade with analysis data.  (Facades+)
Revit sheets with placed views of the concept stadium. (TEX-FAB)