New digital modelling tools, including AI-assisted design, are offering architects and developers faster and cheaper methods of achieving innovative buildings.
But the craft of traditional scale model-making is still an essential component of the architect’s skillset, proponents say.
Anycie Barakat, head of generative design at Archistar, told The Urban Developer that automating parts of the modelling process “is a game-changer”.
Archistar’s platform combines mapping technology with datasets covering every planning regime in Australia, as well as built-in generative design capabilities. Planners and developers can use it to find suitable sites quickly, and spit out a variety of automated designs to fit a set of parameters.
“Instead of just creating one building that complies with a certain set of rules, we create multiple buildings. And depending on how big the site is, that could be hundreds or thousands,” Barakat said.
“You can start analysing what’s currently around in this area, what kind of building designs that have been approved, and build those strategies into the system. So you can extend and really speed up that initial design process.”
The generative designs are concept stage, rather than final plans. Barakat says that developers and real estate agents are particularly excited about these tools, which allow them to get a rough estimate of what architects could possibly do.
Meanwhile, more polished digital 3D models can be used to communicate with clients what finished interiors will look like.
Dr Tuan Nguyen of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences agrees that digital modelling technologies can be used for the same design and communication purposes as traditional scale models, of which the Powerhouse has an extensive collection.
“We have several models of the Sydney Opera House, including a copy of the architect Jørn Utzon’s first model, a cross-sectional model that shows Utzon’s unbuilt interior design, a wooden model used for wind-tunnel testing, a model illustrating the roof geometry based on a sphere, and a finely detailed presentation model that was displayed for many years at the Opera House itself,” Nguyen says.
“They show that designs shown in models are not always realised, that their purpose runs the gamut from utilitarian to polished display models, and that models document the first to final stages in the design process.
“3D printing and CAD are the drafting table of today, allowing designers to iterate their designs rapidly. At the same time, models continue to have the promotional, persuasive and pedagogical power that they have always had.”
David Jaggers, of architects Durbach Block Jaggers, says that world-leading studios such as Rem Koolhaas, SANAA, or BIG, have “acres of models in their offices”.
“Models play a huge part in how all of those practices work … I think it’s because you can’t really push the envelope of what architecture is without a [physical] model.
“It’s such an important tool to experiment with space.”
While DBJ embraces digital tools for design and modelling, Jaggers says that the firm has a strong tradition of hand-cut balsa models as a core element of its design practice.
“I think the big difference is: we don’t jettison the tool. Maybe some practice has moved into [digital modelling] and thinks that you don’t need the traditional model-making in the back end.
“But we see that, from a design point of view, it’s still crucial…In the making of a model, the design develops.
“When you’re modelling on the computer, there’s a sort of neutralisation that occurs with the light levels and the materiality of things.
“And things can look quite seductive in a digital model, everything kind of looks okay, whereas with a physical model, you’re actually having to resolve how the elements of a building go together.
“That’s one of the big tasks of an architect, particularly if you’re trying to experiment with space.”
Physical models from hand-cut to 3D-printed will continue to play a role in architectural practice, particularly as many councils require them as a component of a DA.
“I don’t think this skillset has been lost,” Nguyen tells The Urban Developer.
“In terms of the number of practitioners, you might see its role as diminished but the capabilities have not been lost. It is typical for architectural and design students to still produce models.”
Barakat says cutting-edge apps such as ChatGPT are making AI available to everyone, but more advanced tools require a user who knows the field.
Generative designers have to understand what’s being fed into the program, and must interpret and validate the outputs.
“You have to know what to ask it, and you need to roughly expect what you’ll get out of it, to use [AI tools] well,” Barakat said.
Rather than replacing architects, Barakat says, Archistar is speeding up and expanding some elements of their work. In a tight labour market, digital modelling can save time and costs.
Jaggers argues that iterative design moves between modes, and that the process of translating physical to digital models, or vice versa, can help progress the plan.
“You’re the most in touch with the development, the design, when you’re the one making the model, because you’re the one interpreting strategy, or the sketch, or the 3D computer model into the design,” Jaggers said.
“It’s a sort of privilege to be the one who gets to make the models, in some ways.”
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