Interactive design tools offer architects and engineers accurate, fast control of the materials they work with and allow their clients to see the building responding before their eyes

chris wise

Recently, in the interests of sustainability I built a low garden wall out of recycled bricks and mortar. “Made from cutting-edge high-quality materials, exquisitely designed. You can tell just by looking. From the very first encounter, you’ll realise there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Its true beauty may just be how astonishingly capable it is.”

These words are actually from Apple’s latest iPad ad, adapted to give the reader an impression not of an iGadget, but my wall: the construction, technology and all, just as desirable as an iPad. As any self-respecting construction surely should be. 

You suggest a change to the shape of the roof, the natural breezes inside speed up, at the same time as the glare from the afternoon sun bounces nicely onto the desk of the annoying bloke in hot-desk 51

Now imagine we could have not just an “astonishingly capable” wall, but whole buildings. As a client, the day will soon be here when you become the designer … the building responds before your eyes … you suggest a change to the shape of the roof, the natural breezes inside speed up and the material goes down and so does your carbon footprint, at the same time as the glare from the afternoon sun bounces nicely onto the desk of the annoying bloke in hot-desk 51.

It’s coming soon, your heart’s desire. In fact, it’s already here, because working away quietly at the heart of a web in London there are a couple of people building interactive “fag-packet” apps for the core systems at the heart of building design. Between love and madness lies their obsession, and it’s changing the ground beneath us. Embedded in their tools are real-time physics engines, which use proper engineering numbers and show the user their effect in a flash. The first app turns structures of all materials into a sort of designer’s putty. Pull it around and its behaviour changes - on the screen, before your very eyes, ladies and gentlemen. The next “app”, already in beta format, shows air movement and air temperature inside buildings. So they’ve already made real-time computational fluid dynamics and structures, ready for a mobile phone, and soon all the building physics world will follow. The work signals a sea-change in interactive engineering design. We will never go back.

An eminent architect was shown the air movement tool in our practice meeting last week and watched spellbound as, there on the screen, a room was drawn, a window was opened in a wall, a radiator was placed in the room and moved around to test the optimum location, and the air movement patterns and swirls followed. It was like watching the BBC weather maps, but smoother, faster and completely interactive. It took just a moment or two for that architectural eminence grise to understand its implications for architects, engineers and, more importantly, architectural clients everywhere.

These interactive design tools open up the possibility of accurate, complex design in real time. They bring cause and effect together, and can only help our understanding of physical phenomena and their aesthetic consequences for buildings (“aesthetics” accurately being all senses, not just outward appearance). The next step will be to develop what I have long sought, the building design “graphic equaliser” - an instrument that in the right hands plays different physical, financial, social materials and human phenomena together, using real time engines to come up with a beautiful and balanced overall composition.    

In Richard Dawkins’ epic exposition of genomic evolution by natural selection, The Ancestor’s Tale, he compares genes to computer subroutines. He goes on to explain how our cells “call” these toolbox subroutines: “For the purpose of building … humans, what matters is differences in the calling of toolbox subroutines, more than differences in the toolbox routines themselves.” I think the interactive tools being developed now offer us the chance to work with the whole building “genome” for the first time, calling apps like these as subroutines when they are needed, showing us how our designs can best respond to and fit their own environment.  

Somewhere in London a man builds an app, while I build a wall out of recycled bricks with my bare hands. You have the mighty span of contemporary building right there.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering