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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 www.mesne.net

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