Monday, October 26, 2009

ACADIA 09: reForm()

Posted by Will it stand? at 6:04 PM
This past week, I attended the annual conference for the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA). It was held in Chicago at the Art Institute. This setting provided the perfect backdrop for the conference, which annually provides a forum for the examination of emerging research and application of technologies in the building and design professions.

New Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago
I attended sessions covering a very broad range of topics from self actuating pneumatic structures to kinetic tensegrity grids. However, the most immediately applicable ideas were, imho, related to parametric strategies for design optimization.

Needle tower
Needle Tower at the Kröller-Müller Museum, a tensegrity structure

One paper, by designers at Aedas & Arup, focused on optimizing energy and life cycle costs in tall buildings. They considered an optimized structural shape with adaptation for reducing HVAC loads induced by the environment. The most visually rich presentation about parametric tools was given by an architect from NBBJ. He specifically discussed the parametric generation of the Hangzhou Stadium using Grasshopper algorithms in association with Rhino. On the final day of the conference, SOM shared some of the results of their structural optimization research. They discussed the application of Michell Frames (optimized cantilever shapes) in high rises, principal stress trajectories in diagrids, and shape optimization.

The general lesson I’ve come away with is that many architects are applying very complex digital and mechanical tools to innovate solutions to common building problems. They are prepared to engage engineers on a highly technical level. This leads me to ponder the question, are structural engineers content to watch from a distance as forward thinking architects take on the seminal building design challenges?

Certainly, engineering colleges believe that they are on the cutting edge of innovation. Engineering journals are filled with complex dissertations, but are these papers pushing forward design innovation? Or are we just continually reinventing the buildings codes and shaving off nominal quantities of steel reinforcement. If structural engineers are little more than efficiency experts, they offer little value to their clients, and the profession becomes an outsourceable commodity.

We ought not to ask will it stand today? Rather, how will we make it stand tomorrow?

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