network partners:

Interview with Paul Nicholas following Workshop 1

Interview with Paul Nicholas following Workshop 1 by Terri Peters

TP:    Could you describe how you use parametric design in your own work with mesne?

PN: Within mesne we use parametric design to represent and engage complex systems and organisations through simple sets of local rules, and to simultaneously think about concrete architectural qualities and abstract organisational structures.

This begins with using the tools to capture a design idea and to develop the systems, structures and procedures that will bring the design into being.  Parametric design allows us to rigorously explore the possibilities of these structures, the designs that are possible within the given constraints, which typically involves linking the parametric model to performance analysis via feedback loops.

TP: How do these ideas relate to the workshop goals and outcomes?

PN: One of the workshop’s underlying ideas was that there is an existing recognition that material behaviour impacts upon designs and the design process, it’s just that this is viewed as something to be overcome – designers generally try to ‘design out’ that relationship by minimising behavioural change.  In the workshop we aimed to develop an alternative approach in which material properties became engaged as active and constructive influences on geometry.  One of the most interesting discussions to come out of the workshop was that parametric design (+ excel!) was able to reach so deeply into the processes of production at such different scales, as was demonstrated in the lectures.  Here we were able to explore the relationship between geometric and material properties in design.

TP:  and this led to the starting point for the practical exercise where we asked “How do you draw the bend of a stick?”

PN: I think in the practical exercise with the sticks, we were all able to see that parametrics is actually quite capable of capturing this kind of behaviour for use in design.  At its core, a parametric model is a geometric system defined through associations and relationships, and that operates within given constraints and limitations.   The intention of the stick exercise was to understand how material behaviour might also be thought of in these terms – in this case as a relationship between deformation and a particular condition of loading and restraint – and to then connect our physical exploration of behavioural change with the digital definition of a design space.

TP:  As a group we had many discussions about the changing role of the designer in both design and fabrication.  In your work it seems you are aiming to create a different relationship in design and fabrication so that key fabrication issues which impact quality, speed and cost can be addressed early on.   In the case of the Melbourne “Travellers” sculptures, how did you consider assembly and issues of fabrication?

PN: Within the Travellers project, one digital model sat between design, analysis, costing and fabrication. Because of the tight timeframe and complex geometries, the digital model, in fact the entire digital design process, was structured around issues of fabrication. This approach centralised the fabricator, who is normally a peripheral figure, and involved him in the development of the digital processes, which included rapid prototyping, scripting and automated production of machine code.  The most important result of this involvement was that he could understand and have confidence in the results.

TP: How did you use the shared digital model and what were the opportunities and challenges?

PN: Had the same project moved through a traditional representation and procurement cycle then both that confidence and collaboration would not have occurred and arguably the project would not have met the constraints of time or budget. We pre-ordered all the steel based on digital information, and then bent and welded around 5000 uniquely bent sections from machine code without producing shop drawings. The project demonstrated the opportunities that shared digital models can provide to reconfigure a design and production process around non-traditional information flows, and to add real value.

TP: There seems to be a key concept that communication is extremely important in parametrics – How can designers and others in the design and fabrication process share digital information?

PN: One thing that is interesting about parametric tools is that they are capable of embedding at least two levels of useful information, at the heuristic or ‘rule of thumb’ level and also at a more detailed level. The heuristic level is not as accurate, but can be a very powerful way to communicate an idea or design intent, which is the most important but difficult to capture kind of information within the early design phase.

TP: What would be an example with mesne, where you share information in this way?

PN: In the Bendigo Canopy project, a structural sensibility was back-propagated into the geometry creation process through the encoding of structural rules of thumb, which captured and synthesised engineering and architectural intents in a form (a rhinoscript, and later a structural optimisation routine) that allowed the architects to iteratively explore design alternatives, and to keep pushing the design intent, but also to understand the engineering drivers and their impact upon the geometry.

Images courtesy Paul Nicholas, top images of Travellers and above images of Bendigo Canopy project.  More information at

Workshop 1: Parametric Design: Encoded Behaviour

February 8-9 2010

Parametric design introduces a new depth into architectural design. Where architectural design traditionally takes place within the absolute extensions of a projective geometry, parametric design tools enables the construction of variable geometries. Here, design is fundamentally understood as relational, and geometry defined through relative measures that have the potential to change asdesign information is altered. This shift allows the thinking of performative models, where the design can be continually tested, evaluated and changed within a structure of constraints, variables and parameters.
Within the workshop we will measure and then encode material behaviour within a parametric model as a means to explore the interrelationship between different kinds of performance in the design of a component system. Here properties of material and the complex behaviour of composite elements can be taken into account and engaged in the design.

The workshop asks:
-How can the variable and the modifiable be incorporated into architectural design?
-What are means to include complex behaviour of composite elements and structures in an early design phase?
-What are the consequences for the way we develop spatial, structural and material solutions?

Workshopguest: Paul Nicholas

Paul Nicholas holds a PhD in Architecture from the RMITUniversity, MelbourneAustralia. Paul’s research interest is in the potential for computational tools to intersect architectural and engineering design thinking, facilitating new and otherwise unavailable modes of interaction and collaboration. His academic and practice-based work explores this topic in the areas of generative performance-based design, fabrication-based design and the development of low-resolution tools for trans-disciplinary design collaboration. Paul co-founded mesne in 2005 with Tim Schork, and has exhibited in recent Beijing and Venice Biennales. He currently lives and works in London

more information: DA_Workshop01Seminar03_Program

Workshop/Seminar 1 “Parametric Design - Encoded Behaviour” - A report by Terri Peters

Digital Crafting Feb 8-10 2010

The first digital crafting workshop event “Parametric Design – Encoded Behaviour” was held at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in Copenhagen February 8-10 2010.  Organized by Martin Tamke of CITA and London-based Paul Nicholas of Mesne, the three-day workshop brought together seventeen designers from the fields of textile design, engineering, architecture and computation to explore ways of understanding material performance and behaviour.

The aim of the workshop was to create a research environment to observe, measure and then input and relate material behaviour to a digital parametric model.  This was seen as a way to begin to understand and control material performance in a component system.   The workshop included short group design exercises, material experiments using timber and textiles, grasshopper tutorials, guest lectures by Paul Nicholas, Mette Ramsgard Thomsen and Hauke Jungjohann, group discussions and reflections on the design and production process, and group component assembly of a working 1:1 prototype or “demonstrator”.

How can we understand the relationship between geometry and material property?

In the workshop we focused on a simple parameter, the bending of a linear material, because this allowed us to simulate the behaviour of the wood and encode this information into the digital model.  We used Grasshopper as a digital tool, as a visual form of coding, as a platform to begin to understand coding.   The relationship between the material and the digital was approached at full scale, a 1:1 material study, through encoding the information gathered through experimentation in the digital model.  During the process, we discussed issues of accuracy, because by measuring by hand there is a degree of abstraction and error, and together we questioned if digital design should be focused on accuracy or relationships between elements. In our group discussion we questioned “is there something that we learned from actually observing and bending the material that we could not have learned otherwise?”

Are we bending sticks or are we discussing parametrics?

Using this technique of directly, empirically testing materials, we developed new ways of thinking about something complex (the bending of the sticks is a sine curve, and there are mathematical equations relating to the constant length of the material and how it compresses) without needing to understand the mathematical formula behind it.  In this way for designers, material behaviour can become a design parameter. Parametric thinking offers the opportunity to link between material behaviour and computation – we began to ask ourselves, “how can we design the relationship between physical properties not just information in parametric models?”   How could this new parametric way of thinking change the way architecture is designed and made?

How can we consider assembly and issues of fabrication?

In conventional design practice, often due to cost and time constraints, thinking about materiality usually comes at the middle to end of a design process.  In contrast, during the workshop, material quality and performance were seen as design driver, at the initial stages of the design.  We discussed what happens after design: fabrication and assembly.  Even with digital design and mass customization, the assembly of components can be time consuming and a design task in its own right.  We discussed architectural examples of Sydney Opera House, and the Seattle Library where the contractor was tasked with treating the assembly of the building components as a design exercise.   In our group discussions, we talked about how designers can reduce and simplify a design problem to the minimum number of parameters rather than slavishly trying to describe reality.  Too many parameters can lead to unpredictable complexity, potentially making the digital model unusable.

Lectures framing further discussions

Three lectures on the final afternoon illustrated design and textile works using a digital approach with material sensibilities but at vastly different scales. These lectures were used to frame discussions about the implications and applications of “encoded behaviour”.

Hauke Jungjohann from Knippers Helbig Engineers showed the Shenzhen Airport project that he worked on at  Massimiliano Fuksas´s office, which has a 1.3km long concourse and a double skin façade that used parametric panelization tools to control light, drainage and appearance. Jungjohann illustrated how in this project it was key to develop tools to design basic element variation to create something that can adapt to double curved surfaces.  Drawing on ideas from the lecture, we discussed ideas about how a parametric model can simulate material behaviour during the design process and how computational tools could allow more customized and useful designs.

Mette Ramsgard Thomsen from the Centre for IT and Architecture (CITA) showed a new project called “Listener” which showed how these ideas relate at a personal, human scale and can incorporate ideas of responsiveness and adaptation.  The project illustrates ideas about computational tools, and what happens when designers are able to design materials.    We discussed the way that these ideas could lead to lighter and more intelligent building practices.  We also discussed the limits of digital tools, and what happens when the hardware or software being used becomes outdated?  How robust and secure are digital models or information?

Paul Nicholas´s lecture illustrated the importance of communication in design projects using several examples of geometric layering including a project which was a series of 10m tall steel sculptures in Melbourne.  The design was described and communicated to all collaborators using a single digital model.  Building on these ideas and projects, we discussed how moving information from upstream in the design process down to the beginning stages.   How can design information be communicated during the design process? When should a digital model be introduced in the design process?

Evaluation: Workshop/Seminar 1 “Parametric Design - Encoded Behaviour”

During the last day of the Seminar Workshop we had a joint evaluation session. The aim for the evaluation was to learn the lessons of the first workshop so as to improve the next 4 workshops. The evaluation focussed on a series of key question:

–           How was the running of the workshop?

–           How was the preparation of the workshop? (asked to Paul Nicolas and Martin Tamke)

We divided the 16 workshop participants up into groups that reflected on each of these questions. After a 40 min session the group reflections were presented and discussed in forum. Each group was asked to separate positive and negative feedback so as to give a clear indication of how we can improve the sessions.

The evaluation was very fruitful. It gave a good picture of what had been successful and what was needed to be amended for the upcoming research workshop/seminars.

These are the results of the evaluation.

Running the workshop


Subject and tool

The subject was seen as well chosen and relevant for the entirety of the network. Understood as a way of creating a basis for discussion for the rest of the workshops the subject: Parametric Design and the focus on material fabrication allowed the group to create a shared framework for discussion.

The subject was also seen as tying in well with the first seminar run in December 2009.

Schedule and material

The tight schedule and extensively prepared material was seen as a key part establishing the success of the workshop. Martin and Paul’s work was tightly packed and the programme was well described giving us all a good overview of the two day workshop. Their material allowed concepts and technologies to be discussed and learnt but also included “prepared leaps” by which the group could fast forward through the process of parametric design.

Lectures and presentations during the workshop

The workshop was intersected by a series of presentations by workshop leaders guest Paul Nicolas and network participant Martin Tamke. These were seen as strong presentations allowing the group to understand the wider framework of the research question addressed by the workshop.

The exercises

The first exercise was seen as particularly positive. This exercise “nailed the theme” allowing every one a direct understanding of what was at stake within the given research question.

The practical experiments were seen as positive. Working directly with material as well as software allowed a hand-on engagement with the technologies at stake. The practical experiments were seen as ways of creating “a common platform”, “an anchor point” and “setting the scope” for the workshop.

Group structure

The workshop was structured so that all work sessions happened in groups. The groups remained the same during the whole workshop allowing a shared language to emerge as well as letting members evolve their conversations and research sharing. The groups were seen as a good foundation for the workshop. It was seen as positive that the groups mixed the different institutions letting people from engineering; architecture and design work together and exchange concepts and material practices.

Amount of participants

In all we were 16 participants in the workshop. This is seen as a good number allowing for real collaboration and exchange while still maintaining diversity and “groups within groups”.

Workshop holders

The workshop holders were given very positive feedback in the way the workshop was run and their presence. It was seen as positive to have a workshop guest coming from outside the network to introduce new concepts and technologies.

The network participants

The network is a very dynamic structure. Participation has been dynamic meaning that different people have entered the network since its first up start. This is seen as positive dynamism. The network also supports the research students from the involved institutions. As many of the environments have emergent research environments we have also supported some involvement of masters students from DTU and Kolding Design School. Again this has been seen as positive supporting diversity in the expertise of the network participants. The network also has a strong international participation with both foreign researcher and research students working in Denmark as well as international participants. This is probably occurring because of the English language that the international collaborations ensure and is again seen as positive supporting diversity of experience and broadening discussion.

The seminar presentations and discussion

The workshop is succeeded by a seminar session. In the Parametric Design workshop/seminar presentations were done by Paul Nicolas, Hauke Jungjohan from Knippers Helbig Engineering Office in Stuttgart and Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, CITA. The presentations were highly varied showing work from practice and research and of extreme different scales and design traditions. Bringing together the mega scales of airport design in Shenzhen and the micro scaled of parametrically steered textile designs the seminar allowed a discussion across disciplines, scales and materials.

This breadth was seen as positive for the network allowing very different experiences to be discussed within a shared framework of technological understanding. It allowed ideas to “zoom out to the big scales of production” and understand how the discussed technologies have consequence on architecture design culture when implemented.


The exercises

Because the first exercise was seen as excellent many of the participants wanted to have been given the chance to continue working with this experiment. The first exercise gave the groups the opportunity to work directly with the material developing their own structures. Many wanted to have continued to do so.

The reason this was not planned was so as to make sure to take the groups through the entirety of the process. The balance between the individual experiment and the process was therefore discussed as a key consideration in the planning of further research workshops.

The demonstrator

Developing the demonstrator was seen as negative. The workshop was structure in a way that would allow the groups to build a shared final element at the end of the two days. The production was how ever badly organised and the final product was marred by over production of some elements, bad detailing and poor execution.

It was therefore discussed whether we need to focus on the production of a demonstrator and whether it is feasible to develop something of quality in such short time frames.

The lessons learnt were that the materials must be fully tested before hand. We had bought materials for the workshop and some had arrived a bit thicker than anticipated. This proved a big difficulty.


The network expressed the need to document the work along the workshop so as to allow for reflection and developing shared understanding.

The documentation could be in form of accumulating power point presentations shared in structured sessions through out the workshop. The workshop ended in a final review of the material given which led to the choosing of the demonstrator to be developed. However, this sense of conclusion could be more articulate and present in the process.

To do so it is important to make time for this.

The tools and technology

The group found that it would be good to send our the programme of the workshop a bit before hand as well as the introduction to the tools that will be addressed giving participants the possibility to prepare and learn the tools in advance.

Expectations and outcomes

Some participants were unsure what was expected of the participants. We need to develop a clearer image of what the participants’ role is during the workshop. Even if the key anticipation is sharing and exchange then we need to be explicit about this intension.

In the same vain as in the negative feedback about the demonstrator it is important that the anticipation for the outcome of the workshop is better declared. What do we think a result is for the workshop? How do we know it is a success?

Preparation of the workshop


Being prepared

The key positive feedback in the preparation of the workshop was that Martin and Paul had had the chance to do the workshop before with students at KARCH. This allowed them in depth understanding to eh process and the question as well as the means by which these tools and technologies can be introduced.

This was a unique situation happening because of the cancellation by the intended guest Marc Fornes. We therefore realise that we will not be able to run the workshop with as much insight into the process in the future. We therefore need other ways of preparing the workshop and leaning on the expertise of the workshop holders.

Time scheduling

The time scheduling was seen as key to the success of the workshop.

Materials and technologies

The workshop holders were very positive about the mix between digital and physical tools. They said that this duality creates particular means by which the questions can be understood.

Preparing hand outs and tutorials

The workshop holders had prepared extensive hand outs by which the tutorials for the exercises could be explained. This was seen as a slight waste of time as they were hardly referenced and teaching was done in person instead.

Group design periods

The group design periods were seen as particularly successful.


Material surprise

The sourcing of the material was harder than anticipated and led to the buying of material that was slightly too thick. This led to the failure of the demonstrator. It is therefore recommended that all materials as extensively tested and sourced in as good time as possible.


The workshop holders found that the software presentations were perhaps a bit too detailed and that the groups did not actually have a chance to learn all of the material prepared.


The workshop holder found that we need better instructions in the production of the final demonstrator.

Preparation time

The preparation time is about 5:1 meaning that even counting the fact that the workshop had been run before with students they needed 10 days to prepare a 2 day workshop. This is an important part to take into account.

Suggestions for future activities

The evaluation leads to a series of suggestions:

Developing a pamphlet

The group was interested in the idea of “what the guest brings home”. It was suggested that the network would make a pamphlet with the work of the members to give to the guests to bring back with them.

What is the output?

The output should be the development of new research questions emerging from the varied experiences and expertises of the research network

The exercise

Could the exercises be structured around multiple “products” rather than one overriding demonstrator? Could the focus be on tests rather than the demonstrator?

Modes of reflecting

The workshop-seminar constellation is a means of reflecting. Could there be other ways of extending the models of reflection in the network:

–           Could we have mixed modes of hands-on and analytic reflection?

–           Could we address different scales of technological implementation?

–           How can the blog become part of the reflection?