Designing at boundaries of change

May 04, 2006, volume 36, no. 1
By Barry Shell

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Computers are changing the world of architecture. Not just the way architects design, but also the construction process itself.

“At SFU's school of interactive art and technology our focus is on design at the boundaries of change,” says Rob Woodbury, SFU Surrey's graduate program chair and scientific director of the Canadian Design Research Network, a new national network of centres of excellence headquartered at SFU Surrey.

Woodbury has a PhD in architecture. He was recently invited to a workshop at Cambridge University in England to tutor students in the use of a new design program called Generative Components.

Based on parametric modelling, the software requires the designer to define geometric parameters. The computer then works out the fine details of dimension, number of bays or columns, and the precise shape of component parts.

Such software is empowering architects to create some of the 21st century's most striking buildings. London's Swiss Re building is a good example. It looks like a giant gherkin. Closer to home, the new Seattle public library is another. Such structures would not be possible without the use of computers.

Woodbury says, “All of a building's parts can now be custom fabricated directly from computer to object with only a marginal cost increase.” Thanks to computers, every joint and every construction element can be different, so designers are no longer constrained by standardized building components. A new genre of software for architects is driving this trend.

“Today's designers think beyond classic architectural concepts like plan, section and elevation,” says Woodbury. “Modern architects must now think in terms of vectors, diagrids and Cartesian products.” This is what Woodbury teaches.

Architects now use 3D printers to produce three-dimensional plastic mock-ups in minutes. Hundreds of scale models may be needed to test novel components.

When a design is finalized, a computer file is sent to a foundry that employs fabrication machines to cut and form elements from stone, plastic, metal and glass.

Woodbury uses custom parametric design software in a course to teach students the basic math of computer graphics. Such skills are applicable for other industries such as computer gaming or medical imaging.

“It's a new approach to teaching graphics,” says Woodbury, “and the new research network is a unique opportunity for Canadian design academics to leverage joint work and enable better design in Canada.”

Originally from Brockville, Ontario, Woodbury went to graduate school and served as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, then took a position at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In 2001 he was recruited to lead Tech B.C.'s graduate program the year before it became SFU Surrey.

Returning to Canada after 20 years, Woodbury was a Canadian with an international reputation.

At the end of the design workshop in England, Woodbury joined hundreds of architects in the grand court of the British Museum under its magnificent new tessellated glass roof, a product of parametric design.

“I watched jaws dropping as we showed them 60 fantastic designs from the workshop that were only possible because of the software,” says Woodbury.

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