Against a backdrop of mountainous buildings and towering mountains, the 112 designers, programmers, artists, mathematicians, and academics had gathered in a large, open-plan studio at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to reimagine how urban environments can be designed. Many were hunched over laptops. In one corner, a group stacked 3D prints to the ceiling. Another huddled inside a custom-made inflatable dome they had built. A few people soldered circuits while others danced slowly under motion sensors tracking their movements.
It was 11 p.m., and people were tired and tense. They had been working nonstop for nearly four days. In a few hours, they would present their work in an exhibition of new technologies for the design of urban environments. This was the frantic pace of SmartGeometry.
Now in its 11th year, the annual workshop is perhaps the only event where professors, senior BIM managers, students, and software developers all work together. Unlike a typical workshop, no one plays the role of instructor or student; everyone pitches in on projects that address their shared interests in design technology. This year, 10 research groups, or “clusters” in SmartGeometry’s lexicon, investigated technology related to the theme of Urban Compaction.
Held in mid-July, SmartGeometry brokered new territory this year. It is the first time that the workshop has been held in Asia, and the first time that it has focused on urban design rather than architecture. Shane Burger, one of the event's directors, says this year represents “where we think the industry will go in the next five to 10 years.” It’s a new direction for the event and for the industry; a vision of the future in which architects adopt a vast range of technology, most of which is still experimental.
The culminating July 18 exhibition displayed the outcomes from the four-day workshop. Several clusters had used new photogrammetry tools to create 3D models of spaces recorded with phones and drones. A number of immersive viewing systems were on display, ranging from the commercially available Oculus Rift to a custom-made inflatable planetarium. The Flows, Bits, Relationships cluster used data-mining to reveal spatial associations between social media posts, sparking a much larger discussion of how big data will affect architecture. And a number of clusters used spatial tracking to monitor the location of workshop participants as well as their body temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs, in order to investigate whether architects might benefit from the quantified-self movement.
As part of Smartgeometry’s press tour, I tracked the progress of three clusters in particular throughout the event that had caught my attention.
On day three of the workshop, HK SmarTowers group member Ramon van der Heijden mused, “What if the Mayans had a drone?” For two days, he had been flying a drone around an academic building near the workshop. The drone beamed back images from a camera and thermal sensor, which the group then turned into a thermal model of the building using a script they threw together.
It might not be what the Mayans would do with a drone, but for van der Heijden, a 3D design specialist for the local façade consultancy Front Inc., his customized drone offers an inexpensive way to survey a building and understand the façade’s performance. With the price of drones falling in recent years, Ramon says such drones will soon become commonplace in building and site surveying. Unfortunately for U.S. architects, the Federal Aviation Administration recently banned the use of drones for commercial purposes, pending a review in 2015. In the meantime, they will have about as much access to this technology as the Mayans.
During Hurricane Katrina, the loss of power to a hospital contributed to the loss of many lives. The hurricane had taken the main power network offline, and water that had broken the levees flooded basements where backup generators were stored. Daniel Hambleton, a mathematics lecturer at the University of Toronto, says that two things could have prevented these deaths. Either the levees could have been built strong enough that they weren’t overcome, or we could have located the hospital generators on the roof. He terms the first idea as a “hard network,” a system designed to never fail. The second idea is a “resilient network,” a system designed to ensure the consequences of a failure (the levees breaking) don’t cascade through the system (offline generators).
Resilient design is growing in importance as the industry tries to create cities that mitigate the effects of natural and manmade disasters. Understanding the interactions among different building systems is a difficult mathematical problem that has been largely unsolvable to designers. At SmartGeometry, the Resilient Networks cluster developed a plugin for Rhino that enables designers to visualize how failures cascade through a network—a first step for building more resilient cities.
Block is a computer game similar to SimCity and Minecraft. Players collaboratively design a city by stacking cubes representing houses, shops, factories, and circulation space. Points are awarded for adhering to certain urban design principles and deducted for creating undesirable environments. Jose Sanchez, a game designer and an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, says that his cluster set out to create a game that appealed not just to urban planners, but to the general public.
With casual gaming becoming increasingly popular, Sanchez sees gaming as way to teach people about urban planning. He believes that virtual worlds will become key to engaging people with their physical worlds. Therein lies the crux of SmartGeometry: taking a technology and applying it to the physical environment.
Daniel Davis is a senior building information specialist at Case Inc. His technology column will appear on this website each month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.