Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Busy Busy Busy

Yes, well ... Serious shortage of posts this last few weeks.  Hectic preparations for RTC in Porto.  Hope to see some of you there.  Please come up and say hello if you recognise me.

I've been doing quite a lot of stuff relating to Project Soane.  I met up with a couple of people from the Soane Museum when I was in London a couple of months ago and have been inspired to do more background research.  Learnt a lot about Baker and Taylor's contributions, also the early days of the bank before it moved to Threadneedle Street.

Also been doing some hand sketching with my newly acquire Wacom Cintiq (as well as a small ipad pro)  Neither of them are quite up to pencil and paper yet in terms of feel and responsiveness.  The Wacom is slightly better on this score, as you would expect, but of course the iPad wins on portability.  Here is a sketch based on a photograph I took as a teenager, roughly 50 years ago.  It's a shopfront in Barnsley and speaks of culture change in the retail world, and for that matter in the world of building.  No architects involved in this building.  Possibly no drawings at all.  Lots of trade skills and traditional knowledge instead.  Progress or madness ?  Take your pick.  Maybe a bit of both.

The next sketch aims at fluidity and catches the spirit of one of Soane's early design sketches for Tivoli Corner.  He often went through lots of different ideas before finding one that he was satisfied with.  During that process he would use different media and different people (outsourced wooden models & perspective watercolours; pencil drafted plans and sections by his pupils)  In some ways this is analogous to what we do in BIM, except ours is all digitally connected.

Which is a good thing right?  Well, yes ... and maybe no also.  Perhaps we have lost some of the value of doing a thing two or three times, approaching it from different angles and using different ways of thinking.  We gain in efficiency by eliminating repetition, but there is always a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  For, example I have been redoing all the work I did on the screen walls around the bank.  Converting the links into generic families.  This makes for a much lighter, more responsive model that is easier to put into multiple phases.  Families know what level they are on and you can have types with different parameter values.  Can't do that with linked project files. 

The topic here is the evolution of the bank over a 200 year period, putting Soane's work into a broader context of development.  Of course I was able to reuse most of the family content, so it didn't take all that long, and it has been incredibly valuable.  Makes me think that we need much better ways of working in parallel while maintaining digital connections.  Something like study files that automatically update the main model when you tell them to.  Think in terms of a typical hotel bedroom, detailed out in glorious 3d with correctly modelled taps and robe hooks.  Move things around a bit and a lightweight version updates in the main model which has 347 instances nested inside it.  I don't know of a really good way to do that at present.  But here's some more from my study file.

This shows a family representation of Baker's work, the stuff that replaced Soane's lifetime achievement.  Time waits for no man.  Tivoli Corner is still a link at this stage,  will take a couple of hours to convert that into a family file. (and I've been really busy, read the title)  Also a couple of the modular family files I've been using to assemble the screen wall.  Doing it in this modular way really makes you think about the way he composed his elevations. Most of the time he was trapped into adapting to stuff that had been built before, without an understanding of what would happen next. Like the doubling up of the Lothbury façade, pictured below in two versions. 

His initial idea was to follow the site boundary and place a "Temple Front" motif as a grand gesture in the centre. Ultimately it made more sense to keep the wall straight, lose a small sliver of land and move the emphasis to Tivoli Corner.  Meanwhile along Princes Street he started off by building up to Taylor's previous work, then more than a decade later had the opportunity to replace this with something in his own style.  I get the feeling that he wasn't able to resolve this in a satisfactory way.  Perhaps his attention was more focused on the main Threadneedle Street façade, which presented problems of its own.   

That's enough for one post.  But I'll finish with another Wacom sketch.  This is an early concept for the Tivoli Corner attic.  Lots of typical Soane motifs here and I'm working on my technique.  Trying to find the right balance between speed and style, informality and accuracy.  See you in Porto (or not)

Friday, September 16, 2016


I am frantically preparing myself for RTC Europe, an event which is bearing down upon me with alarming rapidity.  The scarcity of posts in recent weeks can be attributed, in part, to the time I am devoting to working on my conference papers.

First of all comes BCS, a one day event.  I will be giving a short "rebuttal" which will pick up my usual theme that content is a side issue.  The real question is about collaboration.  How do we make collaboration with manufacturers a more digitally connected activity.  The answer does not lie in sticking cans of BIM content on a virtual supermarket shelf. 

I've been promoting this viewpoint at every opportunity for at least 3 years now.  For example:

It's the Information Stupid (BIM Breakfast)

BCS 2015 NA

Manufacturing BIM

Then comes RTC itself: my first time to attend the Europe version.  Looking forward to making some new contacts as well as catching up with a few of the regulars I already know from events in the New World and the Antipodes. 

My first session is about doors.  One of those content items that we constantly revisit.  Lots of ways to make them.  Lots of different types to consider.  I'm going to share something I've been working on for almost a year now: a "new", modular approach to making doors.  It's a work in progress and although its a "Lab", I don't see it as teaching people how to do something so much as sharing an idea and getting some reactions, maybe sparking off further development.  It's one of the first sessions, so I'll get that one out of the way.

Then right at the end of the 3 days, comes my second session, which is about Project Soane.  This has been quite a journey.  More than a year now, with two big phases of modelling: the official competition stage, and a second stage, this year, carried out on my own initiative and culminating with a visit to the Soane Museum at the beginning of August.  That was really inspiring: a meeting with two very knowledgeable ladies, followed by my second and third tours of the house: one by daylight and the other by candlelight in the evening.

This has prompted a period of reflection and research.  I bought two amazing books while I was in England which between them have given me deeper insights into both the bank buildings and the historical context in which they arose.  Hopefully this will give way to a third wave of modelling once I return from Portugal, and I am hoping to involve more people in this process once again.

Here is an image of the current model.  Taken from a Revizto export.  Many of you will be familiar with this remarkable tool: The feature shown here combines perspective and orthographic views into a very informative composite that can be manipulated and navigated in real time.

The section passes from the main entrance on Threadneedle Street, through Sampsons original, double-courtyard block, to the North-East extension (Chief Cashier, Residence Court)

So the destination is Porto.  RTC is all about people and sharing our ideas and abilities, which is a pretty feeble excuse for my title.  But if you are going to be there, and want to have a chat, please get in touch so we can coordinate.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


This is a post that's been sitting around waiting to happen for 18 months now.  I just can't find the time to devote to this blog that I would like to, even though it consumes most of my weekends.  The folder is called "arabic doors" and dates back to January 2015, but the topic is rather broader than that.  Actually there is a post from that date and this is basically a carry-over: material that I wasn't able to include in that post.

Bridging the Gulf

Around that time I did a lot of family development work for a project that is now on site, one that attempts to conjure up the atmosphere of an "old quarter" in one of the Gulf towns.  Arabic doors are a well-known motif from that style of architecture: richly carved planks of hardwood nailed to cross-pieces to form two narrow leaves, opening inwards.

These doors typically lead into long narrow rooms, roofed over with palm trunks beams.  The walls are lined with a rhythm of niches and shuttered windows.  You can get an idea of the construction techniques from the images below, which I took about 10 years ago in an abandoned settlement in the north of the country.  If you look carefully you can see the remnants of round pegs sticking out of the walls that would have carried oil lamps.  You can also see cement plaster, smeared over the original material, with its tendency to peel off in sheets (new wine in old bottles?)

Gypsum and lime would have been the traditional binders of course and there is a strong tradition of decorative plaster work.  You can see it in the reconstructed fort below, rather too precisely geometric I think, a common temptation in renovation work.

There is of course a strand weaving through the architecture that originates in a much more delicate and temporary style of building.  People lived in tents, some permanently, others seasonally.  These are portable dwellings of course, that can be rolled up and packed onto your beasts of burden.

But there are other ways of building lightweight structures that encourage air movement, ways that are better adapted to a dense urban setting.  This is the Areesh or Barasti style of work based on palm fronds and reeds, ranging from matting to open mesh walls.

It can be used for small houses, or shopkeeper's kiosks in the bazaar, and it can also be adapted as a style for interior decoration, lining the niched walls that we saw earlier with a softer and more intimate kind of finishing layer. 

There are other well-known typical elements: the wind towers, wooden gargoyles, perforated screens and so on.  But the challenge for the modern architect, (and for the would-be BIM modeller) is how to capture the charming informality and irregularities of a traditional vernacular style like this one.

That was the topic for one of my presentations at RTC Washington, and you can take a look at that on my site if you wish.  I have taken the position that this blog is for roughing out ideas and recording my working processes, whereas the more polished end products can be collected together on  Also, the blog is targeted more at BIM addicts and Revit fanatics, whereas can be a bit more amenable to the general reader who really has no interest in picking up "tips and tricks" (how I hate that expression with its implications of shallowness and deception)

Highly Irregular (Powerpoint)

Going Organic with Revit (Handout)

So here are one or two images from Revit to justify this being a blog post.  The first is a lozenge that fits within a door panel.  It's a nested component so X and Y are going to be linked to parameters in the door family.  The extrusion sketch comprises four lines with ends locked to reference planes.  I'm assuming you all know how to "tab-lock" a line end to the intersection of two reference planes (separately locking to the two planes really, but the aim is to have the line end track the intersection as this moves in response to user input.

Returning to the challenge that I glossed over earlier, in practice this decorative element would be slightly irregular and probably embellished with a decorative flourish or two.  But in BIM we have to consider Mr LOD.  What does he have to say about the appropriate level of complexity for this situation?  In this case I was interested in capturing the idea of a particular style of door as simply and economically as possible.  There is going to be a typical detail of that door type to guide the tradesman responsible for making it in the workshop.  And there will be a whole process of shop drawings and approval of samples or mock-ups. 

The main model ("the BIM" as some would have it) is there to help us to coordinate our work.  We want to see how all the elements fit together and interact.  Do we have the proportions right?  Are there any technical issues?  So we want to recognise the 8 different styles of door that have been chosen for the project, but we don't want to be distracted by too much detail.  And we definitely don't want the MEP consultant's CPU to explode just because we decided to show the door carvings in exquisite detail, and she is obliged to load our model in the background in order to place her ducts.  Perhaps we will have been considerate enough to place all the doors on a separate workset, but then she might want to see the door swings in plan when placing her electric sockets and light switches.  So we should definitely consult Mr LOD at regular intervals and take strategic decisions about levels of complexity.

Irregularity is harder to convey.  It's fairly easy to skew walls by two or three degrees in plan for example, but virtually impossible to model the subtle curves and undulations that you would expect to see in the plaster work of an old building.  I have never tackled this on a real project, but in studies I have shown that you can fake it to some extent by skewing the reveals of doors and windows, which is where the irregularities show up most obviously when you stand in an old room.

It's all a question of "trompe l'oeil": fool the eye.  Our brains leap to conclusions.  They have to in order to interpret the complexity of life in real time.  So quite simple cues can get the message across, and most of the time that is enough.  We have a team of people who are sharing ideas, working together to develop a design proposal for a building.  We are all making hundreds of small decisions each day, and from time to time rather large and important strategic moves.  The idea of BIM is to provide a single, live context where we can see the consequences of all those choices evolving over time.  We want to make informed decisions in a rich context.

Our brains need enough information to assess and review.  Sensory overload is not going to help.  Look at a typical infographics dashboard.  See how simplified and abstract they have become.  Perhaps we need to set aside our obsession with reproducing "reality" and think in terms of diagrams that support decision making.

Section views are diagrams.  They help us to decide how a building will be assembled, as a sequence of trade operations.  For this project I developed a series of detail items that could be embedded in recess families that are used either stand-alone or above doors and windows.

The thick walls are created using cavity construction and the outer leaf steps back wherever a recess is needed.  That's how it works in real life, but in Revit a recess is simply a void, cutting into the outer leaf.  Sometimes it will emulate "wrapping" for the plaster layer, in plan views, but in section it will just cut away, leaving blockwork apparently exposed.  My detail items show up in section views to represent the recessed blockwork, plaster and a smal lintel above to make the transition.  None of this material will calculate and schedule of course.

This approach is fine for square headed recesses, but less so for an arched niche.  The detail item knows nothing about the sections that cut through the family so it can't adjust itself to their position.  Probably you have set it to show a section through the dead centre of the opening.  Unfortunately that will not always be where you section lies, and the result is a bit of wall poking out below the lintel.  You can solve this by doing the detailing manually for each and every view, but that kind of defeats the idea of BIM, and falls down completely when someone else decides to adjust the section position at the last minute without realising that those details are now out of whack.

Many of the wooden shopfronts on this project have external folding shutters.  This was an interesting challenge.  I didn't try to make the angle variable, but I did need a family that would adapt to different sizes.  This involved hosting a nested component on reference lines and locking the ends to reference planes.  Looking back at this now, I'm rather astounded that it all worked, but it did. Once again it provided enough contextual information for us to visualise what was going on and anticipate various kinds of problems on site.  And in the end we had a set of drawings that could be used to tender the project.

Finally here are some images of archways.  There were lots of different styles based on nested "corbels" that could be swapped out.  Once you have this set up, it's easy to add in another style of decorative corbel, and you can use the same corbels in families with different jamb details.  These arches were a very effective way of introducing "organic variety".  You can have three in a row of the same design, then turn the corner and find on that is slightly different.  You can have some buildings that are relatively plain and others that are more ornate. 

Irregularity, vernacular, challenges for BIM tools, Mr LOD, random thoughts, all for now.