Parametric design’s greatest value to architecture is to attain eco-sustainability
In the parsing review in these pages of Patrik Schumacher’s Autopoiesis of Architecture (AR March 2011), critic Peter Buchanan noted: ‘Perhaps the most intelligent use of parametric modelling is to explore new formal disciplines to bring a wide range of increased efficiencies, in terms of structure, energy, constructional assembly, shaping of flows of people, air and so on’. Parametric design is indeed a powerful tool; unfortunately, some in the field of architecture promote it merely for form finding, and now as a stylistic genus.
In its simplest terms, parametric software offers a technique of input parameter informing output, which itself may comprise a new input. True, this may impart an autopoietic character to form generation, but so too can hand-drawing. Designers often manipulate the algorithmic process to finesse artistic expression. This hardly constitutes an architectural style. If there is to be ‘Parametricism’, it should be about relationships, which can manifest in a multitude of styles.
Parametric design’s greatest value to architecture is to attain eco-sustainability by connecting architects, engineers and constructors in a design process that is relevant to the client, the user and our planet. It can do this by generating an integrated building form from the numerous input parameters of site, energy resource, adjacent environment and the intended programme. At its most sophisticated, it can emerge in harmony with the integration of diurnal and seasonal changes.
A building’s skin is surrounded by environmental resource vectors, such as obtainable energy transmitted by radiation, conduction and convection; air to breathe; water to consume or use; solar for direct electrical conversion or solar thermal; air flow for circulation and ventilation; thermal mass for heat and cooling; and even ambient light. These vectors must influence shape and orientation, to integrate sustainable technology as one with design and to maximise the harvest of surrounding energy while minimising its loss.
However, a problem with thinking in this area of architecture is exemplified by the latest ‘BI’ acronym BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaics), which refers merely to replacing a building component with a solar panel, rather than its orientation for substantive energy gain. Yes, this reduces carbon footprint - panel as skin versus panel plus skin - but if its location causes minimal energy generation, its carbon footprint may exceed the benefit. Integration of sustainable architecture succeeds when the design process is parametric from inception.
True greening of architectural design lies in extracting form from site vectors, not by merely affixing technology and materials to a form already created. The genesis of the Phare Tower by Thom Mayne of Morphosis for La Défense in Paris illustrates this perfectly. The configuration of both the building form and the skin panel parametrically respond to environment and programme alike.
As a style, ‘Parametricism’ can also be sustainable design, but this is only the case when its input parameters include the energy conditions impacting the site, the programme needs of the occupants and the impact thereon of surrounding structures. The inclusion of this range of concerns in the parametric design process provides the greatest future opportunity for the unification of eco-sustainable practice and architectural form.
Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol 1. A New Framework for Architecture
Author: Patrik Schumacher
Publisher: John Wiley and Sons, 2010