The AEC industry has a responsibility and mandate when it comes to addressing significant global challenges in the sector and improving operational practice. Professionals such as Lorenzo Villaggi, Senior Research Scientist at The Living, believe that new design technologies hold the key to better-performing built environments.
“Although I’m trained as an architect, I’ve always had an interest in how technology can interact with and have an impact on design processes,” says Lorenzo. “I’ve developed a familiarity with advanced computational tools and eventually developed my own.”
These computational tools are primarily designed to assist with the generation of design options and improve performance analysis. They range from small systems that help users design faster, all the way to elaborate software that can perform complex, mission-critical tasks.
Lorenzo’s employer, The Living, is the perfect place to pursue computational design for the built environment. The studio combines research and practice with the exploration of new ideas and technologies through practical prototyping.
An Innovative Research Studio
The current principal, David Benjamin, co-founded The Living back in 2006. The company soon became known for its innovative use of organic structures to create architectural forms. A quick look through their project portfolio reveals a diverse range of amazing projects; integrating advanced technologies with new types of living materials.
This includes The Living’s award-winning pavilion of bricks made from cornstalks and mushrooms, their use of generative design to optimize an Autodesk office in Toronto, and 3D-printing a bionic partition for airplanes.
In 2014, Autodesk acquired the company, and The Living became integrated as a core part of Autodesk Research. Since then, the company has provided help in testing, analyzing, and showcasing possible futures for the AEC industry.
Research with a Practical Purpose
Instead of producing speculative work, The Living primarily applies new technologies to real world projects for businesses. This, according to Lorenzo, distinguishes them from other research groups in the field.
“It’s a pretty unique position, where we lie both in the world of research and in the world of practice,” Lorenzo says. “These two sides are highly interwoven. All projects are guided by research endeavors, but, at the same time, the projects guide the research.”
Most of their eight person team are architects with a specialty in computation. This allows the computer scientist in the group to push forward with the most advanced computation-related tasks and allow other team members to pitch in as required. As a part of Autodesk Research, The Living leverages expertise from other teams in domains such as AI, robotics, sensors, and monitoring of build operations.
This means that The Living have directly and tangibly contributed to Autodesk’s project development, something that can be a rarity for research groups. For example, the generative design and optimization engine for Dynamo and Revit called Refinery is based on processes built at The Living.
When it comes to current-day practice, Lorenzo mentions two recent examples of their work. One is with a Dutch construction corporation, Van Wijnen. Working in close collaboration with the company, The Living created a framework that applies generative design at a city-wide scale.
The project was deployed in the development of a net-zero energy affordable housing neighborhood. This involved the integration of local building codes, developer requirements, and adhering to stakeholder criteria for the project. Among these specifications was a need for financial performance, solar energy gain, and heterogeneity of layout variations.
“Often, the criteria are very complex. Generative design and automation help users navigate the complex tradeoffs and identify solutions that are very novel, but also high-performing,” Lorenzo explains.
Another ongoing project involves collaboration with one of Japan’s largest development and construction firms, Daiwa House. The company designs and develops rental housing units and The Living provides their business with a dedicated digital sales tool. Using this software, salespeople with little design experience can quickly create rental housing solutions that are fully code compliant and provide a high ROI.
Reversing the Design Process
Lorenzo is not particularly interested in traditional approaches to design automation, which do little more than ‘speed up’ certain tasks. Instead, he and his team-mates see greater potential in radically changing process approaches. This allows them to unlock new opportunities with a process known as ‘generative design’.
“Instead of starting from a formal approach to the project by drawing, sketching, or 3D-modeling something, we reverse the design process. We start first by the constraints and the main goals of the project and then task the computer in identifying solutions that are high-performing and compliant with the constraints.”
Lorenzo defines generative design as a framework that integrates human and artificial intelligence to create novel solutions to complex problems. It is made up from three distinct components:
- The creation of a vast array of possible solutions: the ‘design space’.
- Agreeing on a set of analysis algorithms and/or key goals.
- The pursuit and application of optimization.
In each case, ‘optimization’ is enacted by any type of search algorithm able to navigate the space of possible solutions, identify scores for each, and use these to evolve and prove the performance capacity of potential solutions – iterating generation after generation.
Tackling AEC Challenges with Technology
When it comes to issues facing AEC, population growth is an undeniable concern – with 11.2 billion individuals expected to exist by 2100. Carbon emissions from the building industry – clocking in at almost 40% – are also among the key factors shaping the future of construction. It is therefore imperative that the AEC industry takes quantitative and qualitative actions to address these challenges.
An increasing population will demand more housing and related resources and, with new technologies and tools, designers are empowered to create a wider range of improved solutions. These start by including elements such as carbon modeling, sustainability metrics and goals, and financial and material reduction goals throughout the design process. However, juggling these variables simultaneously can be extremely difficult, as Lorenzo adds.
“The process starts to become so complex that a human alone may not be able to manage it. That’s why we need these technologies and frameworks, like generative design, to help navigate the tradeoffs,” Lorenzo maintains. “They allow us to bring to the table solutions that are better for the end users, builders, and the environment.”
Currently, Lorenzo and his colleagues are driven by the question: what makes good buildings, today? While the inclusion of environmental metrics in automated design processes helps answer this question, he argues that the next step is setting standards for measuring embodied energy in construction.
“I’m looking forward to having a set of tools that are reliable, that can connect with building certification programs, for example, and provide feedback both to automated processes and humans to better understand what is happening in the process,” Lorenzo envisions.
You can connect with Lorenzo on LinkedIn.
Title image: Design space analysis (Van Wijnen project)
The images and videos are courtesy of The Living