SmartGeometry: Madness with a Method

Category: Web Exclusives
By: Kenneth Wong
Computational design workshops push the boundaries of prototyping

Digital models, robots, computers, cutting machines, conversations, testing, testing, testing…

That’s how Jonathan Rabagliati of Foster + Partners summed up the frenzied workshops that preceded SmartGeometry Symposium (www.smartgeometry.org), an annual event sponsored by Bentley Systems. For four full days, working in “clusters” of 10 to 15, students, academics, researchers, and digital designers pushed pixels and pumped iron inside the industrial complex that houses The Institute of Advance Architecture (www.iaac.net) in Barcelona, Spain.

Using a mix of software at their disposal (Bentley’s Generative Component, Rhinoceros, and Grasshopper, to name but a few), they searched for shapes, forms, curves, and lines that defy imagination. Then, with rapid prototyping and manufacturing equipment available on site (some of which were provided by sponsors like Z Corp), they turned their digital concepts into tangible installations. Some sought inspiration from termites, others from stretched fabrics. Their explorations included, among others, literally printing a home in a 3D printer, constructing autonomous robots for crowd monitoring, and reproducing the forms of folded or inflated fabrics in metal. As wildly different as their projects might seem, they were unified by a common goal: to take computational design to new height.

Destruction, Inflation, Interaction
Rabagliati, who was a presenter and a workshop participant last year, served as a moderator to a cluster investigating design for destruction this year. “Our challenge is for all participants to make a CNC-milled 1.2m timber cantilever, which will undergo a calibrated structural test; the ‘winner’ being the design with the lowest self-weight but highest loaded capacity,” explains project leaders.

Using Generative Component software, they sketched out 3D profiles, each characterized by geometric variations. Then they created physical replicas out of profile cutouts. These were then attached to a frame and subjected to gradually increasing loads until they broke. In the presenters’ words, they were “fantastic failures,” both to observe and to learn from, because the iteration that withstood the most load (dubbed “the fish”) was not one that everyone would pick intuitively as the winner.

Another group, led by Axel Killian, who holds a post-doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examined inflatable fabric envelopes (for example, the dual membrane principle used in inflatable kites). “Participants are encouraged to experiment with new uses for those techniques in the architectural and engineering context, such as possibly inflatable molds or lightweight structures, and build prototypes to test them,” according to the workshop outline.

Other workshops focused on parametric and physical interactions, the relationship between virtual worlds and physical devices; high-tech design with low-tech construction, the creation of parametric blocks that could easily be assembled manually; biology and design, the nexus between architecture and systems biology; and more.

The resulting works—physical prototypes and installation pieces—now stand in IAAC’s floor, like whimsical clues taunting you with architectural and industrial possibilities.

Print a Home, Print a 3D Printer
“Printing a home” or “printing a 3D printer” may strike some as science fiction, but two presenters at SmartGeometry may convince you that you now have the means to do it if you choose to.

Enrico Dini, owner and founder of D_Shape (www.d-shape.com), has the romantic notion that, one day, his firm might help create cityscapes that look like musical variations (variations on a theme). He promotes a building-printing process, which uses print nozzles and customizable rigs to deposit materials layer by layer on site to create sturdy housing structures. The printing process—if it can be called that—is to be driven by CAD and CAM software.

“Despite its large size, the [printing] structure is a very light, and it can be easily transported, assembled, and dismantled in a few hours by two workmen,” according to the company. The machine is capable of producing structures built in artificial sandstone.

According to D_Shape, “The system is estimated to be four times faster than traditional building methods. The annual production capacity of the first (smaller) model of D_Shape will be of 2500 m sq., which is equivalent to 12 two-floor buildings. [The] realization costs of D_Shape structures are 30 to 50 percent lower than manual methods.”

In case you’re not yet ready to print your first home, you may start on a smaller scale, by printing a 3D printer. Adrian Bowyer (http://people.bath.ac.uk/ensab), a senior lecturer from the University of Bath, believes in democratizing the often-expensive and costly 3D printing technology. Accordingly, he has taken steps to proliferate it by inventing what might be the first self-replicating 3D printer, the RepRap. Simply put, it’s a 3D printer that can print a version of itself. (You’ll need to do this by printing one piece at a time and assembling it afterward, with some complex wiring; nevertheless, it is doable.)

Most, if not all, of the intellectual properties associated with RepRap is open source, available for anybody to take advantage of. The machine uses starch-based material, which Bowyer hopes to enable users to produce on their own in the future by inventing a shredder that can turn common household items (like milk containers, for example) into RepRap print substance. Currently, you may get print materials from a list of suppliers. The RepRap can either be purchased or built from a kit. More information can be found on the RepRap project WiKi page (http://reprap.org/wiki/Main_Page).

GC Now Free
SmartGeometry remains a non-profit aimed at encouraging collaboration between AEC professionals in practice, academia, and research. From its inception, the group has enjoyed the support of Bentley. The company’s Generative Component (GC) is a software package participants rely on heavily to digitally visualize their ideas. The product was developed specifically for “the quick exploration of a broad range of what-if alternatives,” as Bentley puts it.

At the end of the symposium, Bentley announced it would make GC available “as a no-charge, standalone technology preview,” immediately downloadable from www.Bentley.com/GetGC. Though GC is tightly integrated with MicroStation, you won’t need MicroStation to use the preview version Bentley offers.

Design ideas produced in SmartGeometry workshops may appear farfetched or unorthodox to some, but GC has also been put to use by leading architecture firms, such as Arup, Buro Happold SMART, Foster + Partners, HOK, and PLP Architecture, among others. In fact, many workshop participants hold influential positions at these firms.

Kenneth Wong is a freelance writer who focuses on the computer game and CAD industries. He explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. He can be reached at Kennethwong@earthlink.net.


This year, SmartGeometry workshop and symposium, an annual event sponsored by Bentley, was held in the Palau de la Musica Catalana (The Catalan Concert Hall) in Barcelona, Spain.


Scale model of a room crated with geometry that optimizes sound performance, the work of a SmartGeometry workshop cluster.



Design for destruction, an exercise in which workshop participants generate various profiles to find out which would withstand the most load. They tested out their theories later by attempting to—and succeeding at—breaking each of the profiles.


Adrian Bowyer showed how to operate the RepRap, a self-replicating rapid prototyping machine.


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