“The Problem with Parametricism”- Guest Post by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is Colorado the last to jump on the parametric bandwagon?  Here is Bill and Tobias’s demystification of the parametric design process and its seemingly limitless iterative possibilities.. (and by the way, the answer is no, Colorado’s grassroots design community is already on board, with 1-2 people per firm that seem to be familiar with the tools, as well as a handful of fabricators and engineers locally.)  Is that going to be enough to push Colorado’s design forward in terms of form and fabrication?  The jury is still out, but as I see it, the more tools our design and construction community has in their repertoire, the fewer limitations they might have in creating designs that transcend the limitations of software and machines to create design that responds to the needs and potentials of the 21st century.  – Beth Mosenthal, AIA Colorado blog contributor

“The Problem with Parametricism”  by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is parametricism the new bee’s knees?  If you have attended or taught at any University in the last 5 years, you are well aware that the University is pushing this idea of parametric model building with their students.  They are using such tools as Grasshopper and Dynamo coupled with Rhino and Revit.  Students are coming out with this knowledge in technology, however you may ask yourself the question as an Architect in this industry, is any of this really applicable to what I do day to day?

Undulating BeamsThis idea of parametricism is in fact is not a new concept at all, but in recent years has definitely become more main stream.  My journey began about 6 years ago when I attended an ACADIA parametricism conference in 2011.  I saw much value in the process during the conference, and decided to build my first parametric model using grasshopper.

My most recent parametric building….(clear throat)…“table” was a Design After Dark project with our team at OZ Architecture.  We used grasshopper to parametrically model a unique profile for every carpet tile.  We also programmed the tool to tag every carpet tile with a unique identifier and layer for fabrication of the table.

Build Table

You may be looking at these images, and saying to yourself, “well it only makes crazy curvy non buildable forms.  It’s great for making a wavy table, but there is no way that this can be applied to buildings”.  Well, allow me to enlighten you on some projects that I have been fortunate enough to work on.




Parametric vehicular canopy using adaptive components and dynamo


Parking garage façade intended to simulate the mountains in Breckenridge,  Colorado

2014-05-09_8-46-322014-05-08_23-43-50Breckenridge Rendering

The Challenges:

These are the challenges I have come across personally when pushing and implementing these concepts in an architectural office.

  1. “It’s not buildable”

Inevitably when I show teams these types of projects, the criticism that comes up is that you can’t document it (or you will spend a long time documenting it) and you certainly can’t build it.  Tools like grasshopper actually offer us some amazing utilities to help us design functional and buildable forms.  Just one simple example of this is the planar test.  How planar is an object?


Also, digital fabrication has come a long way as well.  Rather than issuing “shop drawings” we can issue a “shop model”, and fabricate directly from a model.

  1. “I don’t want to be a programmer”

Below is a screen shot of the script I used to create the table with the carpet tiles I illustrated earlier.  No doubt at first glance an architectural designer could be turned off by the interface.  Give me Sketchup he or she says.

Grasshoper Script

The interface does take some time, but keep in mind that building an object parametrically gives you the ability to create an enormous amount of design iterations simply by moving graph mappers and slider bars.

2015-02-18_14-45-09 2015-02-18_14-43-57 2015-02-18_14-41-47 2015-02-18_14-40-35 2015-02-18_14-39-55 2015-02-18_14-39-11 2015-02-18_14-38-53

Additionally you can optimize your building design using Computational Design Iterations with Galapagos.

  1. “There’s no community”

With the advent of the internet and meetups exploding, this is no longer the case.  Grasshopper has its own community website at www.grasshopper3d.com.  Additionally in Colorado, we have created the Rocky Mountain Building Information Society (RoMBIS)  Boulder/Denver Meetup.  We recently hosted a discussion around the topic of “Construction and the Utilization of Parametric Technologies”.

RoMBIS Boulder RoMBIS Boulder (NYL)

In conclusion, I believe that there is a vast amount of resources and processes that we in the greater Colorado area have not even begun to scratch the surface on in the context of parametric modeling and Building Information Management.  I would like to invite you personally to come geek out with us at one of the RoMBIS meetups either in Boulder or in Denver.  Our meetups provide food, beverages, and knowledge.  Through your participation, we as a community will have a greater influence on the direction of our society and our industry.



Visualization Tools: A Quick Debrief on the State of Design Representation in Denver

3d topography model of speculative landscape project, generated in Rhino, rendered over with vray and Rhino. Copyright: Mosenthal, all rights reserved.

3d topography model of speculative landscape project, generated in Rhino, rendered over with vray and Rhino. Copyright: Mosenthal, all rights reserved.ideagram2 water copy

Yesterday I moderated a panel titled, “Visualization Tools” at the CREJ Architecture and Interiors Annual Design Conference.  This was a great opportunity to accomplish the following:(1)  The first benefit was meeting local architects/designers from other firms also fully engaged in the art and practice of visual representation.  Panelists included Drew Marlow, AIA from Acquilano Leslie,  Lynsey Grace, AIA from Burkett Design, and Sarah Barker, IIDA from RNL.  Each panelist had a rich and varied perspective on the importance of visualization as both a design tool and deliverable for clients.  While Marlow hand-renders (often post 3d-modeling) images to create an artful representation of a future space, Grace and Barker utilize tools such as SketchUp, Podium, and 3ds Max to create computer-generated renderings.

(2)  The second benefit of moderating a panel regarding visualization tools involved spurring my thinking about the current tools we are using in Denver’s A&D market at large.  My current perception (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that in our current market, few firms have adopted programs such as Rhinoceros, prototyping software, or parametric design plug-ins such as Grasshopper to continue to allow their design potentials to evolve in a more complex manner.

Drawing of string art graphic pattern David  Tracy and I generated using grasshopper and Rhinoceros, and translated into Illustrator drawings.  Drawings then delivered to local string artist for final fabrication.  Copyright, Gensler, All Rights reserved.

Drawing of string art graphic pattern David Tracy and I generated using grasshopper and Rhinoceros, and translated into Illustrator drawings. Drawings then delivered to local string artist for final fabrication. Copyright, Gensler, All Rights reserved.

I recently attended a great training hosted by Thornton Thomasetti on how Grasshopper might be used to both optimize material quantities and the environmental impacts of a building’s envelope.  This type of knowledge acquisition has made me curious and optimistic about the impact on quality of design and fabrication of buildings and spaces in Denver if young professionals made a commitment to becoming highly adept at emerging software.   This would benefit Denver greatly; as our city continues to serve as a beacon for start-ups and other great talent, our design abilities and outputs must reflect a high level of sophistication that sets the tone and bar for Denver’s evolving skyline and image.

(3)   The third benefit of participating in the Visualization Tools panel was that it was a great opportunity to reflect on some current issues in today’s market regarding visualization.  In a pre-panel discussion with Marlow, Grace, and Barker, we discussed the realities of creating high-quality renderings, and the time these images often take to produce.  In many firms, there is a knowledge gap between office leaders and clients expecting rendering-level imagery to take only a few short hours.  Like most arts, while our tools have continued to evolve to expedite this process, creating a high-quality rendering can often take a full day to a few weeks depending on the status of the design, the resolution of what the materials will be, and the time it takes to model and carefully set up a scene and lighting to output the “perfect image.”  Another idea that came to light was the notion of our changing, preferred tools for both design and visual communication.  While sketching and hand-modeling remain relevant, 3d modelling has become a necessary and important part of the coordination process with engineers.   We agreed that while our options for software to generate different forms and designs are almost limitless, it is still important to be able to produce a quick hand-sketch to communicate an initial idea.

In conclusion, this is a brief summary of what was discussed, and touches on a few ideas regarding visualization that are relevant in Denver’s current market.

I would like to request that people in Denver’s design community who are experimenting or continuing to work with sophisticated visualization and design techniques reach out to me or comment on this blog regarding what tools you’re using and how they’re impacting design.  Marlow, Grace, and Barker would likely agree with me that it was refreshing to have a forum to discuss how we are communicating with clients as well as pushing our designs forward, and I’d love to keep the conversation going while giving young architects in the Denver community a chance to interact and promote knowledge-sharing, regardless of firm affiliation.  My guess is that by challenging one another to continue to push design and visualization across our market sector, we might not only increase the quality of Denver’s design, but also continue to build a vibrant, emerging architecture community committed to producing architectural design and fabrication methods that pushes boundaries within the broader context of our national architecture community and urban profile.