Parametric Design - All You Need to Know

If you’ve kept up with the realm of architecture, you would’ve definitely noticed a phrase that has effectively become a buzzword in the community: Parametric design.

 
In this article, we delve headfirst into the key concepts, approaches and built projects – everything you need to know about parametric design condensed here!

Parametric Design

From Wikipedia, parametric design is ‘a process based on algorithmic thinking that enables the expression of parameters and rules that together define, encode and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response.’

 
Wha –? Slow down!
To better elaborate on the idea of using ‘parameters’ to design, taking a look at a few pictures will illustrate the point clearly:

Photo Credit: Sharan Sharma / CC BY-SA 4.0

Let’s take a look at this façade designed by Sharan Architecture+Design. Would it be possible to 3D-model a replica of this design? Sure.

But would it take you lots of laborious effort to model it, given that you aren’t sure of the exact dimensions?

 
Parametric design comes in as a tool that helps generate iterations of complex geometries, using some user-set parameters such as length, width, curvature. At any point in time, these individual parameters can be changed and the whole design ‘updates’ or refreshes itself to accommodate the new change, thereby reducing the manual need to alter the entire design. In the case of the beautiful design of the wooden façade as seen above, a simple manipulation of a curve may enable you to create multitudes of differently-curved wood designs.
What a game-changer! 

Parametric Design with Grasshopper

Photo Credit: designcoding

The time- and cost-savings of utilising such tools for the digital workflow are invaluable – in many cases, allowing architects and designers to free up time spent on mundane and repetitive CAD-ing into exploring and testing creative ways of design.

 
Not just that, but the products delivered are arguably of an entirely new and exciting kind – sinewy, curvy, impossible-looking buildings were suddenly buildable.

Parametric Design interior

Photo Credit: Jonathan Friedman

While digital techniques have evolved greatly in the last two decades with the introduction of advanced visual scripting and parametric design software such as Grasshopper3D, some architectural instances of ‘analogue’ parametric design approaches can be traced all the way back to the famous architect Antoni Gaudi back in the 19th century.

 
Let’s look at the original pioneers of parametric design in architecture.

An Analogue Parametric Design Approach

Parametric Design History

Photo Credit: Canaan / CC BY-SA 4.0

Gaudi pioneered a type of parametric design approach through the use of physical models, back when computer-aided design (CAD) was unavailable. As you can see in the picture above, he created a model made out of weighted strings as an upside-down version of the building he envisioned. Through this, he brilliantly achieved two main goals:

 

Firstly, the ability to easily manipulate each point of the building and yet have the rest of the design adapt accordingly (by gravitational force).

 
Secondly, he was able to automatically generate the most optimal placement of catenary arches that would translate to structurally efficient building components in real life. Gaudi certainly thought of the box as an architect, reducing repetitive tasks of manual calculation of load-bearing forces that would otherwise be necessary to achieve such a design.

Parametric Design Gaudi

Photo Credit: C Messier / CC BY-SA 4.0

As computer-aided parametric design became the norm just over less than two to three decades ago with the emergence of design software such as Grasshopper3D, Autodesk 3DS Max, Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Dynamo, the parametric design scene in architecture exploded with unprecedented shapes, forms and approaches. Just like Gaudi, these parametric design software enabled architects to automatically create updated versions of their designs every time, rather than having to manually tweak each individual component.

 
Parametric design was used in all forms: to generate 3-dimensional forms and 2-dimensional plans, building analysis, automate manufacturing and fabrication processes, streamline supply chains, automate the generation schedules of materials, enable a quicker design process and re-iterative cycle … the list goes on and the realm of parametric design is still being pushed today.

 
These changes don’t just benefit architects, but trickle down to the entire building industry – with implications on engineers, builders and project managers alike.

Photo Credit: Dezeen

As we already mentioned, architects use computer-aided technology.

So if you’re not into such things, then you’re not quite going to like it.
Besides, architecture supplies are somewhat costly, so you can expect some extra expenses.

On the bright side, a lot of universities provide scholarships.
I truly believe that if you are reading this, it means you are interested, and trust me, it’s totally worth it.

A while back, I read a book called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. 

In one of the chapters, he said: “We must look at the lens through which we see the world as well as the world we see” because “the lens shapes how we look at the world and interpret it”.

So, positive people live longer. And graduate from architecture school.

Photo Credit: Finch3D / via Baubible

An in-depth look into one of the most popular tools, Grasshopper3D

So, what exactly constitutes visual scripting or the process of parametric design? If you are unfamiliar with the user interface of Grasshopper3D, your first thought would be “Wow, am I looking at spaghetti?”

Parametric Design with Grasshopper Defintiion

Grasshopper can appear daunting to first-time users because of the sheer amount of readily available ‘plug-and-play’ parametric design components that can have an input, action and output.

These components can be strung together and if not organised well, can appear to be a row of ‘spaghetti code’.

At a basic level, the use of simple numeric parameters can generate algorithmic patterns or art in 2D or 3D. At another level, algorithms can digest different kinds of input such as from audio-visual, textual, haptic sensors.
The use of parametric design within architecture can include modelling for purposes of structural engineering, finite element analysis (which is the process of simulating the behaviour of fabrication and assembly of different structural parts), perform sunlight and shadow analysis, and more!

The best part of using open-source and interoperable digital tools such as Grasshopper is the accessibility to different plug-ins created by people all over the world to suit different needs and purposes – from urban mobility analysis to biomimicry, the ability to tap into the resources of a wonderful community is what has catapulted Grasshopper to become a powerful parametric design tool for all designers.

Built Examples – envisioned with Grasshopper!

Photo Credit: McNeel Wiki

A finished building in 2018, the Morpheus Hotel stands as one of the many projects under Zaha Hadid Architects, an architectural firm well-known for its niche in computational design technology, as well its popularisation of the term ‘parametric design’ and ‘parametric architecture’. As a massive project in Macau, its design consists of over 1,212,637 unique components, with a total cladding area of 193,680 m2.

Parametric Design and Parametric Architecture

Photo Credit: Ivan Dupont

This project is the first building in Asia without using a singular internal column, with its structure heavily reliant on its amorphous curved exoskeleton, allowing for a more open and unobstructed floor plan. 

The use of visual scripting ‘parametric tools’ has enabled the easy manipulation, analysis and rationalising of forms without time-consuming model creation and data-handling operations usually associated with ‘finite element analysis’, which ultimately enabled the building of the projects in a mere 12 months.

 
Being a massive skyscraper structure with many complex steelwork connections, the use of parameter-based software has enabled the easy documentation of the components needed, allowing the fabricators in Guangdong to easily and accurately understand the requirements of the project. 

Photo Credits: Stefan Fussan / CC BY-SA 4.0

Another example of a built project done with Grasshopper3D is the 632-metre tall skyscraper Shanghai Tower, completed in 2015.
This unique skyscraper has a 120-degree twist as it rises, which is calculated to reduce wind loads on the building by 24%.

This in turn reduced the amount of construction materials that is needed for a conventional design, saving over USD58 million in construction costs. By adopting a form that was conventionally not possible without the use of computer-aided parametric design, the Shanghai Tower has become an icon through its unique shape and efficient form. 

Another mega-sized project rationalised through parametric functionalities in Grasshopper is the Aviva Stadium opened in 2010 in Dublin, Ireland.

 
As you would have noticed by now, a commonality between parametrically-designed projects is the enthusiastic embracing of fluid forms – free-flowing, sinuous, amorphous – a structural typology that became limitless with the adoption of parametric tools. This makes parametric tools highly popular amongst mega-structure, art, cultural and commercial projects as they are unparalleled in their architectural ability to astonish and captivate the masses.

Photo Credit: Tim Hursley

Caveats to Parametricism

As with most trends, parametric design has its naysayers as well, even within the architectural and design community. The rapid digitalisation of the previous modes of designing like drawing and drafting has led to a perception of the computational or parametric method of design as being a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ soulless and thoughtless process executed by robots.

Whilst these digital tools have enabled designers to wield the powerful ability to manipulate any forms of data into 3-dimensional forms, the onus still lies with designers of today to adroitly handle the data that we find most meaningful to be translated into design.

 
The advent of Parametricism has definitely paved a new and disruptive path in the architectural and construction industry – but the digital transformation is one that is aimed at bettering the community through delivering more innovative building designs.

Patrik Schumacher, the current principal architect of Zaha Hadid Architects, famously wrote manifestos on Parametricism as a new ‘style’ back in 2008. Indeed, the rise of digital tools have also popularised parametric designing – and its meaning in relation to architecture and human functions will evolve every day.

Photo Credit: Tim Hursley

Summary of Parametric Design:

  • Visual scripting tools usually require little knowledge of actual programming and is user-friendly
  • Time-saving and cost-saving through automating manual repetitive processes such as form generation, analysis, scheduling; enabling ‘finite element analysis’ and optimisation studies that are tested computationally
  • Re-iteration of possibilities are faster; hence much-needed time is freed up for more creative tasks 
  • Unprecedented creation of new typologies of design that are structurally efficient and ‘rational’, logic-based approach enables multitudes of geometries like never before and this pushes the boundaries of what design can look like
  • A digital transformation of the entire built industry, streamlining the workflow processes of designers, architects, engineers, developers, clients, project managers – and enabling the cross-collaboration between all these actors and stakeholders

Do you agree with the criticisms of parametric designs within architecture and how it has led to the rise of increasingly de-sensitised designs?

Or are you pro-parametric?


Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.