The Materiality of Virtual Design Modeling

I’ve been doing virtual design modeling for building mechanical systems since 2009. That was about the time when Revit MEP, the main software tool I use, had advanced to the point where people generally considered them to be, finally, useful. There was and is a lot of talk about what virtual design software can do – what they can do for firms, for projects, for engineers/architects/contractors, and for the industry at large.

After being engaged in the software for over three years, I think that those promises of what the software can do for us are only part of a misunderstood reality. There are deeper truths to how these tools shape and interact with the people who use them.

It turns out that one of the most powerful effects of these tools lie not in the pure, objective capabilities of the particular program. Instead, we’re finding that the engagement with the software – the activity of a human designer grappling and engaging with the modeling tools in order to produce a virtual yet constructable model – does something to the mind of the designer.

The cognitive and spatial design skills of the modeler are impacted by the process of designing in a virtual model. Not just what people think, but how people think about design is heavily influenced by the particulars of their interaction with the modeling tools. Working in these programs is training in advanced spatial/analytical design thinking skills.

Notice that I used the words impacted and influenced, not enhanced or improved. The effect of the software can be a double-edged sword (I’ll get into that more below). That is one reason why this is so crucial a concept to understand.

Going even deeper into this engagement between designer and design tool, we start to dig into implications about What Design Is. We start to comprehend that a design is not something that pops fully formed into the mind of the designer, and is then transferred to the virtual space of the model (and then to the 2D space of the drawing sets and then to the physical space of the completed building). We start to see that daily engagement with the design tools is where a fundamental unit of design takes place, and that to be insulated from that engagement is to be distanced from the core activity of design itself.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back a moment and

Consider the Sculpture Artist.

A sculptor does not have an idea pop into her mind ex nihilo and then come to the rock with chisel in hand and precisely reproduce that idea. She is in fact inextricably embedded in a social, political, physical, geographic, and emotional environment that enormously impacts what is going to pop into her head. Her entire life’s experience of seeing sculpture art, reading art criticism, playing with Playdough as a kid, the film she saw last Tuesday, the fact that she lives in Seattle and it rains a lot, and the graffiti she saw earlier in the day by the metro, will shape the initial mental model of her design – the fuzzy whirling notion of what she wants to accomplish and communicate with her work.

And then, and this is the interesting part to me, with all that going on in her head, as she comes to the chunk of virgin rock with chisel in hand, the rock itself affects the idea in her head. It has a fissure in a place she wasn’t expecting and has to adjust her design for. The texture of the cut stone is smoother than she thought it’d be and she decides to roll with it in a direction she hadn’t initially planned on. The way her specific tools shape the material (slowly, giving her mind plenty of time to meander as she works) shapes her idea of what she’s doing and find expression back in the outcome of the model.

The stone, itself taking shape under influences from the sculptor’s environment, evolves, changes, and “speaks” back. The act of creating the sculpture is a relationship between the sculptor and the sculpted, a mutual connection. This process flies in the face of the popular notion of the Creative Genius, alone in a studio, who has a flash of brilliance and then sets about to transferring the pure idea to physical form in a linear fashion. It is this reaction against the idea that almighty (human) subjects act upon passive objects that is the foundation of materiality studies.

In the same way that we can talk about how the sharpness of a particular chisel or the heft of a rock hammer impacts the final shape of a stone sculpture, we can also talk about how the graphical user interface for drawing curtain walls with Revit or the series of keystrokes required to lay out a section of pipe in CAD-Mech impacts the (virtual) reality of a design model.

Let’s Talk About Ducts Now

I spend a lot of time modeling duct systems in buildings. These ducts are just big sheet metal tubes that fresh cooled (or heated) air moves through to get to (or away from) a specific space within a building. In the physical world, you can do a lot of different things with ducts. As I understand it, it should be relatively simple to come up with a shape, model it in special fabrication computer software (software that I don’t have access to or experience with), stick it into a big machine, and a few minutes later the machine will spit out the bit of duct you drew.

In Revit, which is the software I use to model a building’s mechanical systems, the default duct fittings are pretty basic and it’s actually difficult to get creative. If I try to model anything sophisticated I soon wind up with a ‘spaghetti model’. That’s a term I use to describe a model where all the pieces are sort of hacked together and if I need to nudge a piece over by a couple of inches, all the connections break and everything jams up and becomes a bear to work with.

The result of this situation is that I rarely get sophisticated with my duct modeling. I just use the basic parts, create simple connections that I know won’t break when I need to adjust them later, and call it a day.

It’s not that I can’t make a sophisticated duct system, it’s just that it’s a pain in the ass to model one in Revit and it will haunt every move I make in the model until I delete the whole mess out of frustration and do it over. After being in Revit long enough, I just don’t even think about doing duct modeling in a particularly sophisticated or geometrically innovative way.

The software has literally taught me not just what to model (duct systems) but how to model (basic, unsophisticated duct systems).

Design is a Relationship

Any thing we engage with (a chisel, a computer mouse, Autodesk Revit MEP, a bit of playdough) both enables us to do certain things and constrains us from certain other things.

This relationship between the designer and the software means that not just what we envision but how we envision our designs is emergent not in the designer alone, nor solely in the capabilities of the software, but in the engagement between the two. We start to see, as materiality studies suggest, that the irreducible unit of design is engagement, activity. The “solitary genius” idea that design happens in the mind of the lone engineer before being transferred without change to paper or a computer screen is deeply flawed.

Going back to the duct system example above, I know that Revit doesn’t do a great job of enabling sophisticated ductwork modeling. If I need to come up with a novel duct solution, I know not to bother with Revit and I’ll turn to Sketchup or Blender to effectively work with the tricky geometry since those programs really allow me to be infinitely creative with that type of thing. Once I’ve figured it out there I’ll hop back into Revit and adapt the design.

If I wasn’t conscientious of Revit’s “novel ductwork” constraint, I wouldn’t think to switch platforms for specific design tasks and my final model would reflect the unnecessary constraints of the design tool I was using.

The Takeaway

I have learned a lot of things in my almost four years doing both traditional project engineering work and virtual design model production on some of the most innovative deep green and energy efficient buildings in the world, but the following two points are the biggies to me.

  1. If you are not “in the model”, you are not really participating in the space where an enormously critical and un-entangleable part of design takes place. What you are missing out on is not the transference of “the design” to “the model”, you are missing out on the core design activity itself.
  2. If you are in the model but not critically aware of the particular enablments and constraints of the tools you are using, you are going to be unaware of how the tools you are using are impacting the design itself, both positively and negatively.

These to me are the core fundamental concepts of the practice of virtual design modeling, ideas that are important for the people on the ground doing the work of shaping the future of our built environment.

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