Thursday, December 18, 2014


While preparing the previous post, I was motivated to dash off the basic modelling for a Starc 2 urinal.  Simplicity itself, which is the charm of this particular model.  I haven't tackled the symbolic views yet.  In fact this is almost able to stand up without symbolic work, but for the tendency of rounded edges to dissapear in orthographic views

So that's where I stand with my urinal collection.  A nice row of peas in a pod.  The image below shows the original cad versions alongside the natively modeled "improvements".  Still 2 or 3 to be tackled here, and strategies to be chosen: vanilla, point world, exploded CAD or CAD import.  Plus some cleaning up to be done in other cases.

A couple of posts ago I dodged the question of file sizes.  Time to address this now.  For some freeform shapes I have been modelling in Point World, exporting to SAT, rounding off edges, importing to Vanilla and exploding.  Looking at some of the SAT files, it is clear that rounding of sharp edges is an expensive operation, purely in terms of kilobytes.

Of course this doesn't necessarily translate into performance issues, or even larger project files.  Interestingly enough, 5mb worth of SAT files when collected into a single RFA end up at less than half that size.  Don't ask me how.

Received wisdom suggests that nesting, constraints and formulae impact performance more than megabytes.  This is good news for sanitaryware because although the geometry is often demanding, the shapes are fixed.  We might nest the taps and add a couple of visibility parameters but that shouldn't be a worry.

When I did the Puravida series, the nested taps on the bidet turned out to be very heavy when made in point world.  It was an interesting modelling exercise, but I managed something close enough in Vanilla at one twentieth of the size.  For a small item like this I think the nurbs version isn't really justified.  Cut your losses (or perhaps it's "cut the suit according to the cloth")

So I ended up with 4 Puravida families weighing in at around 1 to 2mb each.  That's complete with symbolic plans and elevations, material parameters and chrome fittings, but no connectors as yet.  Not being an MEP engineer I rarely get around to adding connectors to families. (my bad)

One more example of the unpredictability of file sizes.  I discovered that the downloaded SAT files for Happy D washbasins explode nicely inside Vanilla Revit.  Now the shapes may be fairly simple, but they do include a number of rounded edges.  My family has nested taps, visibility controls and 3 items of exploded geometry (1 basin plus 2 pedestals)  The whole thing weights in at less than 750 kb.

This family also includes symbolics in all 3 directions and for both types.  I don't know what software they used for the modelling, or even if that has any impact on the file size issue.  Would be interested to know if anyone has workflows for generating explodable 3d CAD more simply that my Point World methods.  You can see from the next image that exploding the geometry and adding symbolics results in a much better family. (but read Aaron's comment below)

Here is a view of my current Duravit collection.  I'm about ready to share this, and to invite people to contribute to the process of completing the collection.  Who knows, maybe we can even persuade Duravit to come to the party.

After all, other European manufacturers have started to make the effort.  Here are some families downloaded from the BIM object website.  Don't ask me why the thumbnails have a black background.  Maybe they were made my MEP engineers :-)

I decided to open these families up and take a good look.  This is all modeled directly in vanilla. Quite a tour-de-force in some ways.  But for my money, there is a certain amount of wasted effort.  I wouldn't have bothered with all that hidden detail around the back of the basins for example. 
There may come a time when BIM is used by the plumbers who install the fittings on site to help them visualise the whole process, but we are not there yet by a long way and if we do ever get there, I am not sure that they will be using the same objects that are used by the architects to position all the fittings in a 300 bedroom hotel (for example) Perhaps there will be a hyperlink in the family that takes you to a place in the cloud where all those finer installation details are modeled

Put more simply I am saying "let's model the parts that show in an interior rendering to an acceptable level, but don't get too carried away with unnecessary detail" which abbreviates to KISS.
So I simplified the basin considerably, cleaned the geometry up a bit so as to eliminate most of the seams, left out some of the finer detail on the bottle trap and generally felt like I had created a somewhat better family at the end of the day. 

I also added symbolics to the elevations and a masking region in plan view.  My approach to symbolics is to use them selectively.  With rectangular objects / sharp-edged objects I would tend to let the 3d geometry do the work, but if the shapes are "blobby" or there are too many edges/seams showing up in plan or elevation, symbolics are worth considering.  Sanitary ware is a classic case because the shapes are "blobby" and the sizes are fixed. (no struggling to get the 2d and 3d to flex in harmony)

Just out of interest, this family started at around 560kb, dropped to around 350 after I simplified (not immediately after, but 2 or 3 saves later)  Then it went back up to around 470 with the additional symbolics.  Lean and mean.

By the way, none of the above is intended as a criticism of BIM object or the manufacturer Jika, or whoever modeled the original family.  I think they have all made significant contributions to the global BIM effort and I enjoyed building on the platform they provided.  I hope they can also accept my suggestions in the positive spirit intended.

Almost ready to share my Duravit collection now.  Hope it's been worth the wait :-)


Sunday, December 14, 2014


About 9 months ago while working on my Urban Design presentation for RTC chicago I did a study of the Dessau Bauhaus in context.  Just a simple massing model of the famous building itself, and lots of schematic mapping out of the surrounding landscape.

For some reason my BIM pencil seems to like drawing maps.  Who am I to argue ?  But what an intense piece of history lurks beneath this landscape.  All these avant-garde artists and social dreamers cooking up their recipes while Adolf and his cronies sneak their way into power, perfecting propaganda as an art form along the way.

I'm not going to go any further into that right now, but while doing the research I stumbled across a Bauhaus Chess Set which struck me as a wonderfull little exercise in Vanilla parametrics.

I love the way this chess set is abstracted down to the simplest of geometric forms.  Classic Bauhaus design: break things apart, analyse them, rebuild from first principles.

My initial analysis suggested that I needed 3 families to cover all the pieces.  The Knight and the Bishop are basically one-offs.  They don't have to be, but I wanted to keep things fairly simple.  The other 4 pieces are covered by a family with 4 types and some visibility controls.

The plan is to make everything fully scalable.  Mostly this is done by equalisation constraints and simple formulae linking everything back to a module (usually the width parameter) For example in the Bishop family the thickness of the cross (T) is expressed as Width/3.

The knight is a big solid cube with two half-sized void cubes biting away diagonally opposite corners.  I guess this is an abstraction of the dog-leg manner in which knights move across the chess board.

The multi-purpose chess piece is very simple.  Notice the use of root 2 for the diagonally placed crown, and of course the visibility controls that I mentioned before.  And that completes the chess pieces.

Let's go ahead and place them on a board.  Lots of equality constraints here to make our 8x8 grid.  We need 4 material parameters: 2 for the board and 2 for the pieces.  Also 2 parameters will suffice to control all the pieces: one for the pawns, the other for all the rest.  Everything is now expressed as a fraction of the board width.

So of course the whole thing scales endlessly.  Well not quite.  We still have Revit's built in aversion for the extremely small and the ridiculously large.  It's optimised for buildings, stop complaining.  But I do feel able to complain about the lack of intelligent symbols for North Points and Scale Bars.  I once came up with a workaround for scale bars that uses ordinate dimensions referencing a detail component.  Maybe the logic is that drawing sheets will become obsolete so why waste the energy ?  I like drawings (you probably know that)  Whether we print them or not is another issue, but orthographic views arranged on sheets are very powerful means of communication.  You can't figure out how a building works just by doing a walkabout.

We have to get past this illusion that BIM is about making everything realistic.  The tension between realism and abstraction is as old as the hills and will be with us until we drive ourselves extinct.  The paradox of visualising reality on 2 dimensional surfaces has informed art for 30 thousand years.  Let's not fool ourselves with this nonsense about the end of history.  The end of history is armageddon.  Trust me, you don't want to go there.

So I'm happy to shift in and out of 1d/2d/3d space, exploring ideas, shuffling data, imagining impossible worlds.  Piet Mondrian took a journey around the time that the Bauhaus was built that has always blown my mind.  He started out with still lifes and landscapes that were partially abstracted, a bit like Cezanne.  Then he just went on flattening out and abstracting, form-finding in a way ... endless variations until all that remained was shape and colour.

Bauhaus students were also encouraged to simplify and abstract, but the logic now was to create forms that reflected the realities of industrial production.  These seem like trivial ideas now, but 90 years ago they were much more revolutionary than all the little consumer toys we label as "disruptive technology" today.  For that matter, the minimalism that Mr Jobs tried to copyright was really plagiarised from people like Mondriaan, Picasso, Gropius, Mies.  (It's OK I'm just being provocatively naughty)

But be careful what you wish for.  The 1920s and 1930s were stirring times.  Everything seemed to be changing.  Technology was something to love or hate, worship or despise.  Bauhaus masters like Johannes Itten reacted by immersing themselves in meditation and the mystical pull of ancient religions.  Dear old Adolf had a different plan in mind.   Technical solutions and aesthetic movements are wonderful in their way but hard economic realities and political turbulence have a knack for sweeping all that away overnight.  The Bauhaus was closed down.  Many creative minds fled Germany.  I have experienced hyper-inflation first hand.  It changes everything.  It drove me into the desert in search of gold.

Just a few reflections on History, Art, Politics ... and of course the game of chess.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Church no 5.  Now we dive right into the heart of the city.  St Mary Woolnoth is close by the Royal Exchange an open cloister where business deals had been made since tudor times.  Like most of the city, it had been rebuilt 40 years previously following the great fire of London.  The previous church had also been patched up (by Wren) but  by 1711 was deemed unsafe and demolished.  Apparently the name does not derive from the wood trade, which by now was dominated by the London merchants.  All the same there was an open market close by, called The Wool Church Market, which would soon make way for the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of London.  The closely packed streets and alleys behind the church were packed with coffee houses, all the rage now as places to meet and make deals.

So this is a different kind of site, and Hawsksmoor designed a very compact church, a cubic volume with a rather unusual rectangular tower ending in two square turrents.  The church is twisted off axis, clockwise by about 30 degrees.  The circulation is very simple, as befits such a small church.  One entrance and two small spiral stairs buried in the splay of the front corners giving access to the galleries (sadly removed in the C19).

Finally we come to St George Bloomsbury.  The site is in the newly fashionable "West End" amongst streets of townhouses, developed on Land owned by aristocrats like the Duke of Devonshire.  At this stage they still maintained their own large mansions, but they would soon move further out and demolish their grand houses to make way for more streets and houses for the nouveau riche.  London was on its way up, rising on a tide of business deals made in the city, financial institutions such as the Bank of England, and joint stock companies like the East India Company (EIC) which had been importing ever increasing volumes of Calicos (printed cotton) from India over the previous century.

The wool merchants in the city, and silk weavers of Spitalfields were not amused.  Cheap, lightweight printed textiles threatened to undercut their markets.  They lobbied parliament and a series of Calico acts followed, around the time that Hawksmoor was building his churches.  The import of printed cloth was banned.  People imported plain cloth and printed it in England.  Then plain cloth was banned leading to the import of cotton thread in large quantities and stimulating the growth of a substantial cotton weaving industry. 

The lesson: trade restrictions have unintended consequences, in this case (ultimately) the Industrial Revolution.  First of all there was a very lucrative business spinning, weaving and printing raw cotton.  The weavers couldn't keep up.  Kay's flying shuttle fixed this around 1740.  Now the spinners were under pressure. 

Fortunately England had been fertile soil for artisans and entrepreneurs for several generations (witness the silk weavers).  Many minds set to work and ultimately Mr Arkwright, a former wig salesman from Lancashire, came up with his Water Frame in the 1760s and pioneered the idea of a Cotton Mill (His first mill was in Cromford, Derbyshire).  It caught on big and initiated the chain reaction we now call the Industrial Revolution.  All because people living and working in areas where churches 4 & 5 were going up, lobbied against the cotton trade.  Well, partly because.

Back to church 6.  Here we have a challenging site.  Twisted about 30 degrees counter-clockwise and hemmed in tightly to east and west.  Hawksmoor's solution is deceptively simple.  Tower to the west, apse to the East, grand portico converts the south transept into an imposing entrance with no less than 5 sets of double doors.

Vertical circulation is by open, geometric wooden stairs, spiralling up to the balconies.  These were removed, but have been restored.  In real estate, location is everything.  St George Bloomsbury has been lavishly restored, where St George in the East makes do with a small concrete framed, modern enclosure within its bombed-out shell.  

Hawksmoor's solution to an awkward site (whose purchase he had negotiated) was clever, but apparently did not impress the fashionable parishioners who took down the north gallery in 1781 and moved the altar to the north wall (north-west) this gave them a conventional layout, more like Spitalfields, with a tower to one side and an apsaidal transept to the other.

Now that the church is as much an architectural museum as church, the original scheme has been restored, along with the writhing mythical beasts clinging to the corners of the steeple. 

Six fascinating churches, giving us a glimpse into six different locations in London, with a shared history dating back to 1700 and beyond.  England was on the edge of a transformation that would shake the world, but looking back at the two images of the technology involved (hand weaving and the water frame) it struck me how similar they are in general construction.  It may have set off the industrial revolution, but the water frame is basically bits of hardwood joined together with mortice and tenon joints plus a few smaller metallic moving parts. 

It's not that it's a huge conceptual breakthrough.  Arkwright saw a challenge and used existing knowledge to turn it into an opportunity.  At that moment the cherries on the slot machine happened to line up.  The market for cotton cloth had already been primed, the Calico Acts had built up pressure in the system, London had financial systems, a thriving port and a growing middle class, James Watt and Matthew Boulton had semi-effective steam engines largely confined to mining but as it turned out capable of meeting the challenge when the rivers and streams of Derbyshire maxed out.

And so the explosion of fossil fuel usage began and the London that Hawksmoor knew was unrecongnisable within a hundred years.  Soane was busy expanding the Bank of England, deep water docks were being constructed on the Isle of Dogs, at Shadwell and Wapping.  The primary engine of this growth was Cottonopolis (otherwise known as Manchester)  In 1800 Liverpool was the busiest port in the world, handling more than a third of global trade, primarily raw cotton heading into Manchester, and finished cloth coming out.  The canal system couldn't handle it.  Neither rail tracks, nor steam engines were new technologies but the race to put them together in a cost-effective manner now had a motivation.