chris wise engineer

Designer Putty

ConjurerRecently, in the interests of sustainability I built a low garden wall out of recycled bricks and mortar. “Beautifully made. Performs beautifully. 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.”

Of course, these words are far too skilfully written to be my own. They are actually Apple’s latest Ipad ad, adapted to give the reader an impression not of an I-gadget, but my wall. I’ve used them to describe construction, technology and all, to be just as desirable as an Ipad. As any self-respecting construction surely should be.

Now imagine we could have not just an “astonishingly capable” wall, but whole buildings….. your building (dear customer) has that cool aesthetic which comes from perfectly balanced building physics, and gorgeous materials working in wondrous harmony because of the radical new way your building’s been designed. 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. These tool designers can announce themselves when they are ready, or when they are ready to be “discovered”. The work signals a sea-change in interactive engineering design. We will never go back.

A very 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. More screen saver than engineering, it was like watching the BBC tv 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. His first question to the young app developer: “What’s your day rate?”. At £1000/day the answer was potentially the bargain of all time.

I remember well the day in the 90’s when every engineer got their own PC….not so long ago. Now 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 balance overall composition.

Composition, synthesis, building. No longer fragmentation and analysis. 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.

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