by Dušan Cvetković
Dušan Cvetković
Published September 16, 2023

Whether you’re an architect or a designer of some sort, when you hear the word parametric modeling, you’re automatically thinking of Grasshopper 3D - that intriguing software that allows us to create geometric magic, but it seems so difficult to understand and control.

In this article, we’ll do our best to finally demystify Grasshopper 3D, showing you the very basics, giving you a few tips and tricks on how to best learn it, and demonstrating the power of this tool when it comes to parametric modeling and parametric architecture.

Four examples of Grasshopper 3D projects

What is Grasshopper 3D - The origins

Grasshopper 3D was originally developed as a plugin for Rhino, but since Rhino 6 version, it became an integral part of Rhino’s tools. It was developed by David Rutten (click for his blog) way back in 2007 and over the years, Grasshopper’s development never stopped.

If you’re asking yourself: “What is Grasshopper 3D and what does it do?” Let’s make this super clear!  

In essence, Grasshopper 3D is a visual programming language that runs within a CAD environment (in our case within Rhinoceros3d). Grasshopper allows us to create various simple and complex algorithms in a graphical way.

For example, this is what a typical programing language interface looks like with some code written. 

Programming Interface

You would obviously need to know how to code in order to create any meaningful application. On the other hand, this is what Grasshopper’s interface looks like.

Grasshopper 3D interface

We can see that there is a big canvas with components or “batteries” (some people like to call them this) and each one of these components has a particular code inside of it (or a function). For example, this is a component of a simple sphere with two input parameters (base and radius).

Grasshopper 3D simple script

These input parameters can be easily modified and controlled so that we get the desired result in just a few seconds. For example, if we just add a Number Slider component to our radius input and slide a few numbers, you will notice an instant change in our Sphere geometry.

And just like that, we created our first simple “Grasshopper code” or “Grasshopper definition”. We can now have a limitless amount of “design iterations” of our sphere in just a few clicks. This is of course the simplest example we can create.

All of these Grasshopper components can talk with each other, they can be interconnected and create more and more complex algorithms, so the good news is that you don’t need to know how to code, you only need to understand what components are for and how to use them properly to get your desired outcome. 

Grasshopper 3D complex script

Now imagine, what you can do when you have a very complex idea for a facade or some other type of design and you want to iterate on that design and produce multiple solutions for a client or for a jury. Well, let’s take a look at some magic:

This is Grasshopper 3D in action. Having the ability to modify all aspects of the facade envelope and control it fully is what made Grasshopper so popular, and why it has become a standard tool for parametric modeling and parametric architecture.

By controlling the input parameters, we can control the final look of the geometry. That’s why we call this approach parametric modeling and by now, you probably see why Grasshopper has become a standard tool when it comes to the creation of parametric architecture. 

As I mentioned before Grasshopper is continuously being developed and upgraded and there are so many additional Grasshopper plugins that can help us with geometry creation, fabrication, and 3D printing, but also for environmental analysis, form finding, and much much more.

In addition to all of that, in April 2022, we received a big surprise from David on McNeel’s forum about the release of Grasshopper 2.0. Everybody thought it was an April Fool's joke, but it turns out that it was real.

Grasshopper 3D 2

Grasshopper 2 has a completely new code base, it has a new interface and new components and it is faster than Grasshopper 1. Here are some of the important information that David released on the forum:

  • Grasshopper 2 is not finished
  • Grasshopper 2 cannot open gh and ghx files
  • Grasshopper 2 cannot load gha plug-ins
  • Grasshopper 2 is not cushioned
  • Grasshopper 2 is in flux
  • Grasshopper 1 is not dead
Grasshopper 3D 2 interface

Maybe the most important message here is that Grasshopper 3D version 1 is not dead and that it would continue to be used and developed.

There are a lot of questions about this new release of Grasshopper 2 and what would that mean for the future of other Grasshopper plugins and tools. You can also check out this forum page where David answered some of the most important questions from the users.  

I personally don’t think that Grasshopper 2 will replace version 1 soon because all Grasshopper plugins that we use regularly won’t be able to work right away and would probably need to be rewritten as well, so that will take time.

Grasshopper 3D 2 Script

All right, now you know what Grasshopper 3D is, how it works, and why we use it. Let’s take a look at why it’s so popular in the architectural industry…

Why is Grasshopper 3D so popular in architecture?

If you’re an architect or you’re studying architecture, you already know how hectic our days can get. There are always deadlines you need to meet.

There are always tiny things you can do to improve your base plans, sections, your 3D renders or your architectural diagrams. Long working hours (after 5 pm) are unfortunately normal in a lot of architectural studios.

We’ve all had at least a couple of all-nighters and looked like a zombie the day after. The point that I’m trying to make is that being efficient and getting things done quickly can make a huge difference on our final project. It can save us a lot of wasted time and money!

Architect in front of his desk

That’s exactly the reason why Grasshopper 3D is so commonly used in architectural offices. It helps with producing many designs quickly and we can automate a lot of manual labor when it comes to 3D modeling in Rhino.

For example, you can create a basic definition that would allow you to automate the 3D modeling process of a typical staircase design. 

Additionally, we can use Grasshopper 3D to automate the fabrication process. Whether we’re using a 3D printer or a laser cutter to create a physical model of our project, we can optimize the nesting algorithm to save material and mark specific individual pieces, so we know exactly how to assemble the final model.

Grasshopper 3D nesting

Above you can see how our nesting algorithm and below is the final model with each individual piece.

Grasshopper 3D Nesting Model Assembled

This is an excellent example of how Grasshopper 3D saved us so much time, but wait, there’s more.

Did you know that we can use Grasshopper with a certain plugin to evaluate the environmental conditions of our project site based on real-world data?

Well, that’s another reason why architects are using Grasshopper to make better design decisions because it helps us with design optimization and sustainability

Grasshopper 3D sustainability

And now let’s take a look at a couple of real-world examples where Grasshopper 3D was used in the design process.

Case study projects created with the help of Rhino and Grasshopper3D

Chinese Pavilion for Milan Expo 2015

This project is an excellent example of what perfect geometry optimization looks like. Developed by Tsinghua University and Studio Link-Arc, this project shows us how we don’t need to be limited to rectangular forms and how even the most complex geometries like the roof of the Chinese Pavilion can be solved thanks to Grasshopper 3D.

Chinese Pavilion for Milan Expo

The Hangzhou Sports Park - Stadium

Once again, we have a project coming from Hangzhou, China, developed by NBBJ Architects in collaboration with CDDI Architects. This is a prime example of how architects managed to create complex geometrical designs and efficiently modify them through initial input parameters. We can even see a part of the Grasshopper definition here.

NBBS Architects Script

© NBBJ Architects

We never doubted that the real building would look exactly like in the digital model… Great work!

The Hangzhou Sports Park - Stadium

© NBBJ Architects

If you happen to look for a job in architecture, you will notice that almost all architectural offices that have open positions for a “design architect” would require candidates to Rhino and Grasshopper, so it’s safe to say that these tools are here to stay and that they became essential just like pen and paper back in the days.

But the question is, how can you learn Grasshopper 3D if you have never even opened it before? And where do you start?
Let’s find out…

How to get started with Grasshopper 3D

First off, I must emphasize that learning Grasshopper 3D is not an easy task. It does take time on your part because you really need to be committed and persistent.

But of course, if you dedicate enough time for practice and exploration, with the right Grasshopper classes, and the right tutor, you can expect to understand it and use it fairly quickly.

Difficult Grasshopper Script

Every person is different and everyone has different goals why they want to learn and how they want to learn. Some of us are more tech-savvy and learning new software is just second nature.

Some of us just want to stay up to date with the latest trends in architecture and some of us never had a chance to work with parametric modeling, so all of these factors would determine how fast you can learn Grasshopper and start using it for your own projects.

But again, where to start…

Well, you could simply type “Grasshopper Tutorials” on YouTube and start from there. YouTube education is free and easy to access for everyone.

There are some excellent creators on there that can give you an idea of what Grasshopper is all about, but the problem with YouTube is that anybody can post a tutorial.

Grasshopper Tutorials on YouTube

And it becomes very difficult to find the right person to listen to. Grasshopper 3D is used in many other design industries, not just in architecture, so listening to a Grasshopper tutorial on jewelry design wouldn’t be really helpful when it comes to architectural projects.

If you have unlimited time to spend learning and if you’re not in a hurry to learn Grasshopper professionally, YouTube is a great resource and eventually, you will get good.

If that’s your situation, make sure to check How to Rhino YouTube channel. At the time of this writing, we have more than 170+ free tutorials you can watch, all created for architecture.

How to Rhino YouTube Channel

If you’re more of a book-type learner, make sure to check out AAD Algorithms Aided Design book by Arturo Tedeschi. In our opinion, this is the best book material when it comes to understanding Grasshopper and its applications in the design fields.

AAD Book

Another great resource is Essential Mathematics for Computational Design by Rajaa Issa from McNeel. This is a great resource that will introduce you to beginner mathematical concepts that you need to know in order to use Grasshopper successfully. You can download the book here. In addition to that, you can also check out short video lessons from the book.

However, for some of you, time will be an issue and you won’t have too many hours to waste trying to understand tutorials that are not structured well and that are not clear enough. Maybe you won’t have time to read books and learn slowly. If that’s you, my advice would be the following:

  • If you prefer to learn by reading and if you like visual graphic explanations and diagrams, check this Grasshopper tutorial on our website. This is a great way to start getting familiar with Grasshopper’s interface, its core components, and at the end, you’ll be able to create a small algorithm yourself.
Grasshopper Compoonents Book
  • If you like to learn by watching video tutorials and practicing as you watch (that’s my preferred way of learning), make sure to check our Rhino for Architects Masterclass (click to access). This is a free video training that’s very detailed and around 40 minutes long that can really help you get going with both Rhino and Grasshopper and it will give you a bigger picture of what these tools are capable of in architecture.
Rhino and Grasshopper Masterclass
  • Now, if you’re interested in saving a lot of time and learning Grasshopper 3D for architecture professionally, you have the option to work with us personally. We have a dedicated Grasshopper course that will take you from a complete beginner in Grasshopper to an advanced level where you’ll be able to create highly complex algorithms from scratch.
Complex Grasshopper 3D Algorithm

This is a completely structured learning approach to Grasshopper with detailed explanations of more than 500 Grasshopper components with practical examples including homework assignments and our personal 1 on 1 support.

Grasshopper Components

Conclusion - So long Grasshopper 3D

I hope that this guide helped you understand what Grasshopper 3D is all about and how it’s being used in the architecture industry. Hopefully, you’ve got a pretty solid idea of why it’s important to learn it and how it can benefit us in our design workflow.

If you know somebody who you think can benefit from hearing all of this information about Grasshopper, feel free to share it and if you decide to learn it yourself, I wish you good luck and happy learning!

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.