In this interview, we hear from Dan Cole, a Structural Engineer at Webb Yates Engineers, a company specializing in innovative and sustainable design. Dan is also the leader of the company's internal computational design group, where he develops computational tools and explores research topics.
In the interview, Dan discusses his background, what sparked his interest in the AEC industry, and the benefits of using parametric design tools like Grasshopper. He also provides some specific examples of how computational design is particularly useful in his everyday job as a Structural Engineer.
Furthermore, Dan talks about the use of ShapeDiver and how it helped him to create a new in-house tool called 'Cactus,' which he explains in more detail. Overall, the interview provides insight into the importance of computational design in the AEC industry and how it can lead to more efficient and sustainable design.
1. Can you tell us about your background and the company you work for?
My name is Dan Cole, and I’m a Structural Engineer with a keen interest in computational design and sustainability. I have worked at Webb Yates Engineers since graduating from the University of Bath in 2017 with a degree in Civil Engineering. As a company, we pride ourselves on promoting innovative, creative, and low-carbon design and have won many awards in recognition of this.
2. When did you first become interested in the field of AEC, and what sparked your interest?
I’ve been interested in making things for as long as I can remember, not necessarily buildings but lego, furniture, art, etc. At 16, I decided to do some work experience at a local Architecture practice, and although I enjoyed it, I thought that Civil Engineering would be a better balance on the art and design/math spectrum. Based on that, I chose my undergraduate course and have been in the same field ever since.
3. What are your main responsibilities at Webb Yates Engineers?
My day-to-day job involves leading, or working on, the delivery of Structural Designs for projects across various scales and typologies, from architecturally focused residential buildings to large-scale infrastructure developments.
All projects typically start with a set of sketches and an appraisal of different design options comparing parameters such as structural efficiency, aesthetics, cost, buildability, and embodied carbon. These sketches then get worked up to detailed drawings, eventually leading to a fully constructed building.
Two years ago, we started an internal computational design group that I lead. Within this group, we have a wide range of interests and experience, and we use this to develop anything from bespoke pieces of software to computational design tools. We’ve also experimented with research topics like structural topology optimization.
4. In your opinion, what are the biggest benefits of using parametric design tools like Grasshopper in the AEC industry?
You might say I’ve got quite a ‘traditional’ work pattern for someone who spends so much time developing computational tools, but for me, I nearly always start any piece of work with a pen (or pencil) and paper. This helps me get a better feel for the problem I’m tackling as I find my brain doesn’t really grasp things well if I’ve dived straight into it with a keyboard and mouse.
However, there are some things you can’t do with a pen and paper, or they’d be oversimplified or time-consuming if you did. This is where parametric tools can really shine. Whether it’s dealing with complicated geometry, undertaking something repetitive, or working on a project that is liable to rapid change, parametric tools can do things you can’t and at a much quicker rate.
It’s this sweet spot where I think parametric tools are at their optimum. It can be all too easy to get overly excited and dive straight into a massive tangle of grasshopper spaghetti when you could have ended up at the same result in half the time with a more archaic approach.
5. Can you give me a couple of specific examples in your everyday job where the use of computational design is particularly useful?
As I’m sure is the case with all jobs, in Structural Engineering, there are the exciting tasks (like coming up with a concept design for a new stadium) and the mundane tasks (like churning out 500 pages of design calculations). Any computational tool that cuts down the time I have to spend on boring tasks so that I can focus on the interesting stuff is a big hit with me!
Tasks like producing calculation packs are an essential part of the job, but there’s a lot of time and repetition involved in producing them, and it’s not something that adds value to a project.
The best structures are generally a result of good engineering minds focusing on the early stages of a project, where key factors such as layout, form, and material choice are made. So, the more time we have to focus on this, the better.
6. How does using parametric design tools like Grasshopper compare to traditional design methods?
As I mentioned before, there’s a time and a place for parametric tools, but used well, they have a nearly limitless potential to elevate designs. The main advantage, as the name suggests, is that you have a range of ‘parameters’ to play with and can iterate through different options much quicker than you would with traditional methods. This effectively increases a scheme's ‘search space’ and allows you to explore a range of creative options.
7. What drove you to start using ShapeDiver?
I had been planning on producing a tool to help improve the speed at which we produce scheme designs in the office for a while but struggled to think of the best technology to use for this. Grasshopper felt like a natural choice due to the inherent parametric capabilities, and geometric modeling, but not every engineer knows how to use it, and it isn’t very accessible to a complete beginner. A bare grasshopper script is also liable to accidental changes that could potentially lead to errors.
On the other hand, fully coding a piece of software or web tool from scratch to carry out the calculations and render the geometry would have involved much work upfront and taken much longer to develop. Especially considering that developing computational tools isn’t our main job.
When I came across ShapeDiver, it was the perfect bridge between these two problems. All the advantages of the parametric capabilities in grasshopper but with an attractive, easy-to-use interface on a web app – A no-brainer!
8. Can you give an example of a specific project where ShapeDiver's tools were particularly useful? Who was it built for, and what problem did it solve?
The app mentioned in the previous question is our new in-house tool called ‘Cactus’, a web-facing app that uses Grasshopper behind the scenes via ShapeDiver’s viewer and backend APIs.
It renders a full 3D parametric model of a building, undertakes a preliminary structural design, and calculates the embodied carbon, all in approximately one second. Practically any construction typology can be modeled and designed, including some more unique framing systems such as timber stone composite construction, which Webb Yates Engineers have a specialism in.
The main advantage of the tool is that it can be used by any engineer in the office due to the accessible user interface. This means that it isn’t exclusive to a small specialist design group within the team and can be used on every project.
Not only can it be used to cut down the time sizing structural elements for different options, but it provides comprehensive and accurate reporting on embodied carbon. We can present this to clients to allow them to make informed decisions about their buildings.
9. Can you tell us about your experience using ShapeDiver's viewer and backend APIs?
In our web app, we actually use the viewer and backed API separately. We have two mirrored copies of the same Grasshopper script, one with geometry and one without. We use the backend API to connect to the script without geometry, enabling us to perform the structural calculations and sizing rapidly and independently of the other script. We then use the viewer API on the script with geometry to generate an optional rendered 3D model.
We’ve also recently started using the backend script alone to run over 120,000 different simulated building designs to gather data and determine trends of how design parameters affect embodied carbon of structures. We’re currently processing this data – keep an eye out for the results!
Both of the APIs work flawlessly, and being able to work with them both separately leads to massive improvements in performance and is one of the keys to the tool’s success.
10. How has this tool been received by your team, and have they led to any improvements in efficiency or productivity?
The app has been well received across the office and has started being used on real projects. It’s still in the early stages, and we have many ideas for improvements and future developments. We’re really excited to see where it ends up!
The main praise has been that it’s easy to use, and people are enjoying the power of parametric design without even knowing what Grasshopper is.
11. How do you see automation tools like those built with ShapeDiver impacting the AEC industry in the future?
In my opinion, apart from a few specialist groups within companies, the AEC industry is too slow or cautious to take on new technology. Especially compared to some other industries like software development, where day-to-day work is brutally efficient.
There are many exciting, impressive technological creations within the AEC industry, but they tend to be bigger-picture or specialist tools. The lack of accessibility, and probably some skepticism, means that 90% of engineers don’t end up using them in their day-to-day tasks and therefore don’t have the impact they could have.
Compared back to software development, even something simple like automatic line completion in code editors is a commonplace time saver. But, I can think of very few examples of something similar in our industry.
I think there’s a real gap for tools that are perhaps less flashy but transform the day-to-day tasks of engineers for the better and create a new ‘norm’ of workflows.
12. What kind of future developments or advancements in the AEC industry are you excited about?
The AEC is more than aware of the current challenges faced in the climate emergency. Many things need to be addressed to resolve it, but I think digital tools should be a part of the solution.
Any development that marries (sensibly) computational design with sustainability really excites me, and I think this is where the ‘next big thing’ will come from.
- Thank you for your time, Dan. This has been a great conversation!
Thank you as well for this opportunity.
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