I recently wrote an article (to be published in October) about latest algorithms and digital design and construction methods in architecture. While my personal focus has mostly been on the former, I also wanted to discuss the use of algorithms in passing information from designers to manufacturers. I was lucky enough to have recently spoken to an old university course mate Abdulmajid Karanouh, who told me about his intriguing method of communicating design and construction intent. He had used this method to stay on top of the design and construction of Al Bahar twin towers in Abi Dhabi. What Abdulmajid came up with during the design and construction of the towers is something I would call a digital constructive diagram. The following is based on our interview and on a few earlier discussions.
Abdulmajid Karanouh was the leader of the competition winning team for the twin towers at Aedas Architects, London. During about a 3-4 year period he managed to develop and deliver a novel concept for a dynamic facade and see it through construction. The skin of the buildings features purpose designed and built shading devices that guard the interior from the burning sun. Once the direct sunlight does not hit a particular part of the building any more, the shades covering this part automatically open up and reveal the stunning views to the surroundings.
But it is not exactly the design that I wanted to talk about. There is an even more intriguing concept in this story that reveals the great potential of algorithms for communicating the design intent to the design team, contractors and manufacturers. It is the new high-tech version of traditional construction drawings; Abdulmajid calls it a performance and construction manual. The manual was initially needed for adjusting the tower geometry to dynamic shading devices, but it soon become a method for capturing and communicating the design concept for the entire building.
The design information in the manual is based on associative wireframe geometry and semantic rules attached to the geometry. While the wireframe model sets out the building form and defines relationships between different elements (e.g. façade panels and the shading device), the attached semantic meta-data specifies the required performance parameters and acceptable construction tolerances.
Curiously but unintentionally, Abdulmajid’s concept meets the Christopher Alexander’s definition of the constructive diagram. Alexander’s constructive diagram has indeed two sides – the form and the requirement diagram, where the former conveys information about the physical form, the latter is “principally a notation for the problem” (C. Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964). In a way, Abdulmajid has invented a digital version of the diagram. It seems appropriate to call his method digital constructive diagramming.
Fragments from the constructive diagram for Al Bahar towers. Image courtesy: A. Karanouh
The digital constructive diagram has many advantages over other types of design and construction representations. It is flexible and accepts changes to the design and construction intent. It helps architects maintaining the control over the design, but also shares the responsibilities with other design team members (e.g. structural engineers) and contractors by giving them ownership of particular parts of the building. The constructive diagramming, as opposed to the mainstream building models, is a light-weight solution that by-passes the compatibility and file format issues typical to the contemporary BIM practice. Each party in the design and construction team can easily follow the diagram, build and update the tower geometry in their favourite software whenever needed. The architect just needs to make sure that everyone gets an update if something in the diagram changes.
One of the many benefits of using digital construction diagrams lies in the reduced amount of information exchanged between parties involved in design and construction. Abdulmajid also reported an astonishing drop in the requests for information from contractors to architects.
It all sounds like digital constructive diagramming could become a new effective method of creating and sharing building information between members of the design and the construction team.