A Dong, A Vande Moere & JS Gero (eds), CAADFutures’07, 237-250.
© 2007 Springer. Printed in the Netherlands.
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE
A parametric design studio
MARC AUREL SCHNABEL
University of Sydney, Australia
Abstract. Parametric design techniques offer obvious advantages for
engineering and manufacturing processes, now architects emerge to
apply these methods in their creation of design suggesting solutions at
an earlier stage of the process. Through the coupling of architectural
design with parametric modelling methods, the paper presents novel
techniques that enhance architects' contribution to building processes
based on parametric design creation. This allows a deeper
comprehension of the design objectives and aids designers in their
decisions to find solutions.
1. Parameters in Design Studios
Architectural design studios are an essential learning experience for
architectural students. Their traditions and proceedings are well established.
These studios are, additionally, informed and supplemented by courses and
seminars, which can feed into their learning outcomes. Studios go beyond
pure skill training and require reflection upon, and the creation of,
knowledge. There can be, however, a gap between skills training and the
application of knowledge within the studio context. At the final presentation
of the work, students my not be able to identify how they arrived to their
solution and what were the individual contributors that inform about the
This tension is also apparent in digital media courses. These present the
underlying concepts of architectural design using digital communication
tools, but also have to provide training in software skills and other technical
subjects (Kvan 2004a). The integration of digital media courses into design
studio curricula often fails, because the compound acquisition of skills
prevents a deep exploration of design and the theoretical aspects involved.
Participants can employ digital media tools within a studio context only long
after they have learned subject matters and acquired proficiency in their
238 M. A. SCHNABEL
skills. By then, however, the studio may consider these skills no longer
A dilemma of semester-based teaching is that students reach their highest
level of skills and experience at the end of a term, after which they leave for
their break and are therefore unable to apply their knowledge immediately.
At the beginning of the next following term, however, the knowledge and
skills they had gained earlier are likely to be either inactive or not employed,
and learning foci may have shifted to other aims.
The architectural design studio presented here addressed these issues by
integrating the learning experience from the beginning by focusing on
parameters that create or inform about the design. The objective of this
‘parametric designing’ was to allow participants to understand the impact
each step and variable has on the design and follow the impact it has onto
the project. Participants developed and communicated their understanding of
architectural design parameters by utilising their skills training within the
design-studio environment. Because of this, students began to think about
design problems in different ways.
The studio explored design by basing it on parameters. In order to build
up a philosophy around parametric dependencies and relationships, the
participants used digital tools that allowed them to create and express their
designs. With these tools, users can develop expertise to engage creatively in
design. Typically, architects employ such tools only for visualisations, or
after the designs are completed, in order to feed them into the construction
and manufacturing processes.
Parametric applications have inherited two crucial elements. These are
that all entities start with a point in space and allow the study of architectural
conditions in a three-dimensional environment, rather than the commonly
used two-dimensional or layering techniques. And that the underlying
concept of parametric modelling is based on data, variables, and their
relationship to other entities, which can then respond to variations of input
Participants were able to employ digital media skills early in the studio
experience and expand on their understanding and communication of design
issues from there. The studio built upon design studios where participants
explored design methods and tools beyond their original definitions and
perceived limits (Schnabel et al. 2004).
2. Parameters in Architecture
The exploration of the relationship between human beings and the natural
world, and the subsequent implications of interactions between them, has
deep roots in our social and cultural understanding of society. Cities,
therefore, are direct reflections of their inhabitants, as their architectural
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 239
expressions directly influence the living conditions of their people. In recent
practice, architects have designed and described buildings through the means
of master plans, or descriptions of picture-perfect, complete cities in which
change was not part of the picture. A few, however, have tried different
approaches to communicate architecture.
In their design for Beijing’s Soho Shang-Du buildings, LAB Architecture
Studio translated planning codes into series of parametric design rules
(Figure 1). As a result, the outcome both complies with and confounds the
rigid regulations (Davidson, 2006). In other words the architects did not
prescribe a fixed gestalt, but on a set of rules and instructions that inform
about and can generate the desired outcome. This allows a reaction on a
variety of site-specific variables that can be modified according to the need.
Figure 1. Soho Shang Du, Beijing, by LAB Architects 2002
A design studio project at the Technical University of Eindhoven
employed a similar methodology. Students responded to functionalism and
economic cost-effectiveness of production processes in Sao Paulo’s favela
neighbourhoods by creating parameters from building blocks as well as
architectural and urban contexts (Vanderfeesten and de Vries, 2005). This
resulted in design a set of design proposals that can react to changing
condition of the favela without loosing the influence of the architects design
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Archigram already presented a similar idea.
Reacting against the permanence of houses in what it called the “Plug-in
City” (Figure 2), it proposed ever-changing units adaptable to different
240 M. A. SCHNABEL
social and economic conditions (Karakiewicz 2004A). Despite that this
design proposal did not develop any further than its conceptual stage, it
contrasts the common design practice that Le Corbusier describes as non-
intelligent building machines. These machines cannot think, and are
therefore unable to adapt to change.
Figure 2. Archigram’s Plug-In City 1962-1964
Interestingly, Pieter Bruegel painted in the sixteenth century a
representation of the Tower of Babel as building that is constantly redefining
its needs, as it grows larger and more complex (Figure 3). The painting
depicts a tower piercing the clouds, showing all the problems then associated
with cities, buildings and life within and the constant change and reaction to
new situations during the process of building.
Figure 3. Pieter Bruegel (1525/30-1569) Tower of Babel at Kunsthistorisches
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 241
These samples illustrate the constant need for architecture to adapt and
react to a variety of parameters that are driven by its use and context.
The gap between the architectural design conceptions and the translation
of these designs into the real built environment can be addressed differently
by an intersection of process and outcome. Parametric design techniques
suggest controllable and adaptable solutions at an earlier stage of the process
that react to the given situations and the outcomes.
3. Parametric Architectural Design Studio
A building or architecture in general can be expressed and specified in a
variety of ways. Commonly, drawings describe geometric properties that can
explain, depict, and guide the construction of buildings or streets.
Alternatively, performance specifications can describe observed behaviours.
It is also possible to describe properties as relationships between entities.
Spreadsheets, for instance, specify the value of each cell as the result of
calculations involving other cell entries.
These calculations or descriptions do not have to be explicit. Responsive
materials change their properties in reaction to the conditions around them.
A thermostat senses air temperature and controls the flow of electric current,
and hence the temperature of the air supplied. Using such techniques, artists
have created reactive sculptures and architects have made sentient spaces
that react to their occupants or other relevant factors. Streetlights turn on if
light levels fall below a threshold; traffic flow can be regulated according to
need; walls can move as users change location.
Links to a variety of data can be established and subsequently serve as
the bases to generate geometric forms using parametric design tools. When
designing spaces, it is usual to collect some data of the type of architectural
qualities desired. These are then, for example, translated into master plans,
which are themselves specific spatial descriptions. Performance
requirements for spaces can then be written, linking the description of the
architecture to experiential, financial, environmental, or other factors (Picon
Design studios mimic the typical working processes of the architectural
profession and are the essential learning experience for architects. However,
little or no research exists that examines or validates the claim that the
framing of design creation using parametric methods enhances the process
(Schnabel et al. 2004). This studio, therefore, couples parametric
methodologies within the creation of architectural design, ultimately re-
framing the question and proposing new answers and methods of design
Participants in this study solved a typical architectural design problem
using applications that focused on the parametric dependencies of spatial
242 M. A. SCHNABEL
perception, fabrication, and form finding. Their creation and exchange of
ideas followed the rules of a design studio within a cyclical design-
exploration paradigm (Schnabel and Kvan 2002). This design-cycle had the
framing of the design question at its centre (Gao and Kvan 2004), while
taking full advantage of available building information modelling
technologies to explore it. This approach tested the limitations set by
conventional, design-only methods. The cognitive aspects of the design
creation and its relationship to parametric design methods operated as an
influential factor for understanding the perception, framing, and creation of
spatial knowledge within architectural design.
The studio then explored the design processes by using sets of variables
and series of relations to question, create, and define the form and function
of the resulting designs. Thus, it examined interaction techniques between
the design intent, its framing of the design problem, and its subsequent
creation, while at the same time establishing a connection to building
information models. Participants engaged in a collaborative architectural
design studio involving the creation and fabrication of architectural spaces.
This formed the basis for a transfer of knowledge to the larger context of the
profession and building industries (Riese and Simmons 2004).
The studio took a distinctive neighbourhood within the urban context of
Sydney as its base of exploration. Within this suburb, a mix of residential,
public and commercial buildings can be found: a medium dense area
offering a variety of architectural languages.
Driven by a fast growing population, an architectural strategy that steers
further development was sought. Sydney's scale, its growth through
immigration and the need for new housing have an impact on its inhabitants’
sense of place and sense of community. Earlier urban planning did not
anticipate the changes that arose over years of population growth. A new
strategy for development could address these issues, creating a new identity
for the place and the city itself (Forrest et al. 2002).
The design studio examined a site with typical characteristics and
architectural requirements. Located at the upper riverbanks of the Parramatta
River, next to parkland, cultural, office and residential buildings, the site
offered a great challenge for an architectural proposal. River, city, work and
living had to be addressed and responded to.
4. Parameters of the Design Studio
To allow the students both to acquire skills and training within their studio
and to apply this knowledge to their design, the studio had an integrated
digital media component that addressed parametric modelling in
architectural design. The studio was one of the required design studios of the
postgraduate architectural programme at the University of Sydney.
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 243
Two groups of each fifteen students elected to join this studio, which was
supervised by two design teachers and one architectural consultant in digital
media. The studio was structured into four phases that related to and built
upon each other. The aim was to acquire and integrate parametric design
knowledge and to use it as the base of the design creation of their
architectural proposal. This resulted that the final design could be modified
and manipulated based on the parameters and their dependencies. This
allowed a deeper understanding of the design process and outcome as well as
the reaction of the proposal with the various influences of the environment.
4.1. CREATION OF PARAMETERS
The project’s first component included the collection and understanding of
data that arrived from the site. In order not to overcomplicate the issues, the
tutors asked the students during this first stage to limit themselves to
investigating of two parameters. This allowed focusing on the selection of
the hierarchical parameters that the students believed would influence their
building proposal or their site’s perception the most.
The parameters they chose informed them about the variables of their
guiding design rules and provided them a description based on dependencies
and interconnected relationships of relevant information. The chosen
parameters helped the students to understand their design what impact
certain variables may have on a design strategy. This component concluded
after two weeks with presentations of data, parameters, and individual
interpretations of the site.
4.2. LEARNING OF PARAMETERS
The programme’s second component focused on the understanding and
creation of parametric concepts and the acquisition of design-application
skills that allow rule-based three-dimensional design. Participants were
trained intensively during studio time in the use of Digital Project TM (2004).
This software allows users not only to create three-dimensional models, but
also to establish rules, create parameters and their dependencies on a variety
Parametric functions require a different understanding of the conceptual
approaches to design. Creating rules and dependencies, which then create the
design, involved the students in a higher level of problem framing and
definition of the concept of design. It allowed the visualisation and
modelling of highly complex forms that may result from non-traditional
design data, such as noise data or spatial requirements.
The students used their own parametric and rule-based design analyses
from the first component and subsequently studied the use and operation of
the software, the creation of rules, and parametric and generative design.
244 M. A. SCHNABEL
During this phase, they used the time allocated to the design studio to
establish a basic understanding of the software in its relationship to the
design intent developed during the first phase. After three weeks of
interactive digital media training, the students reached an advanced level of
skills that enabled them to use the parametric software as a tool for the
creation of their own designs.
4.3. DESIGNING OF PARAMETERS
The programme’s third component, scheduled for seven weeks, concentrated
on design creation, reflection, and the communication of architectural design
proposals. Using the data of the first component and the skills of the second,
the students then started to establish and visualise their designs in three-
dimensional forms that created spatial expressions of their findings and
Due to the emphasis onto parameters, the studio was in particular
interested in describing a building form by creating dependencies of
parameters that defined the relationship of data to architectural expressions.
With the use of a parametric modeller, it was easy to create geometric
entities, relate these solids and voids. This method made it obvious to learn
about the design and explore alternatives by manipulating the parameters,
variables and rules.
4.4. MERGING OF PARAMETERS
The programme’s concluding component brought together the various
aspects and results of the earlier three modules. Within two weeks, the
students merged their individual designs into larger cluster files. This
synthesis created compound descriptions and dependencies that were highly
complex and interrelated, yet both the content as well as the tool allowed
seamless communication to a larger audience by using describing the rules
and parameters. This phase created a design with shared authorship of all
participants and allowed the students to study and understand the complexity
and the interrelationships of architectural designing that they normally
would have been unable to perceive immediately. The change of a single
variable modified the whole design. Participants understood therefore the
complex dependencies that one variable has in a large building and the
impact in can have on the design.
5. Parametric Design Solutions
The students had already acquired the highest level of skills in using a
specific tool within the first half of the semester. This enabled them to
employ the tool as an amplifier to generate their design. Subsequently, they
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 245
were not limited by their knowledge or level of skills in order to be able to
create their designs.
The students produced a variety of individual design proposals as well as
one large design-cluster. They created rules and parameters that allowed
complex and interrelating designs to emerge. These representations,
however, could not be communicated using traditional architectural design
methods or tools.
For example, one proposal related street lighting, neon-signs and display-
windows with human activity around the building site (Figure 4). These
parameters provided the engaging surface for the building mass.
Subsequently they controlled the use, orientation and appearance of the
building. The author took references to Japanese inner cities, where
innovative ways of spaces are created by the means of lights, advertising and
projections. Void, volume and density is controlled and created by the
rhythm and intensity of lights. The student transferred this concept into
parameters, which redefined the spatial understanding of the site and used
these variables to create an architectural proposal.
Figure 4. Prudence Ho: Landscapes
Another solution explored biological growth models based on
Lindenmayer’s system fields (Figure 5). It explores the possibilities that a
topological approach to designing with a parametric tool will yield an
emergent architecture that is governed by a bottom-up hierarchy.
Topological forms created a variety of physical and programmatic
246 M. A. SCHNABEL
instantiations. The author had however, difficulties to translate the
theoretical aspects of his parametric design studies into a buildable and
inhabitable form. He acknowledged that he would require more time to
become fluent with this novel approach to design. Therefore, he presented
his work in two stages, the theoretical and the practical. Figure 5 illustrates
the process of analysis and theory on the left side and the translation into a
workable build form on the right.
Figure 5. Daniel Wong: Western Sydney Virtual Offices
Other results used parameters that related to the relationships between
people and attraction to spaces with responsive structures. Students created
self-opening canopies that reacted to people activities, ferry schedules,
weather conditions and the possibilities to collect rainwater to provide a
comfortable environment in all conditions.
In the studio’s fourth component, the students presented in-depth clusters
of multifaceted architectural design proposals for the site. They
demonstrated a high level of thinking processes resulting in the generation of
compound rules and dependencies that finally create the architectural design
schemes. Each student contributed simultaneously to create a variety of
design proposals. The participants gained a high level of expertise with
digital parametric tools as part of their development at the studio, and used
this knowledge to design parametrically. The outcome clearly showed that
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 247
thinking, learning and creating within parametric designing requires a novel
and deeper understanding of the overall design goal and its anticipated
outcome. This differs from design that deals with one problem at a time,
regardless of its dependencies. The studio allowed participants to learn about
designing and problem framing. They were able to theorise and reflect on
design creation for this and other design tasks.
With the development of various digital tools, designing in layers became
popular, allowing architects to deal with problems that are more complex,
with each different layer playing an equally important role. It allowed
dealing with problems one at a time. Problems that are more complex were
divided into separate issues and dealt with one by one. Parametric design
opens up a novel set of opportunities. It enables architects to study causes of
problems and their relationships to, and dependencies on, other elements
This shift of design thinking and creation allows for spaces that
accommodate change, diversity, and varied human activities without
specifying particular functions. Additionally, such designs can provide for
unpredictable events in connection with an overall architectural framework.
Architecture can respond to unplanned changes and their resulting
consequences. The outcomes of this design studio show that parametric
dependencies allow still for a level of ambiguity that is required in creative
One objective of the studio was to frame an intellectual research question
that created links to data to generate form. The more interesting outcomes
result from the ability to redefine and reframe the problems themselves by
stepping out of preconceptions based on experience and exploring sets of
Preconceptions based on experience influenced previous methods of
architectural design. Diagramming is an attempt by architects to allow for
the reinterpretation of defined problems. In a certain way, parametric design
tools do similar things, yet they act at a higher level of the problem framing.
The establishment of meta-rules has instituted a form of problem framing
that demands the reference of one problem or parameter with other ones.
The examples of the parametric design studio illustrate how non-linear
design processes and the re-representation of ideas can lead to architectural
expressions that differ from conventional approaches to design due to their
different nature of design creation. The exploration of the gestalt can
enhance the understanding of spatial issues and lead to meaningful and
responsive architectural descriptions. Despite three-dimensional
representations of an architectural space being only a medium through which
248 M. A. SCHNABEL
to aid in the understanding and communication of spatial arrangements, the
designers’ comprehension of complex spatial qualities was enhanced by the
re-representation by a parametric medium. The novel aspect of this studio
work was the engagement of the process of translation itself as a creative act.
The parametric design studio presented in this paper addressed
computational concepts of architectural designing that influence the recent
development of architectural production. This studio exercise explored
innovative methods of architectural expression, form finding, and
communication, developing unconventional solutions. It coupled the studio-
learning environment with an in-depth digital media assignment in order to
close the gap between acquisition of skills and the reflection of knowledge,
as well as to explore new avenues of framing and integrating compound
The use of digital parametric tools allowed the participants to design
within an environment based on rules and generative descriptions. This
amplified their design understanding and learning outcomes. The students
connected their knowledge with their ambition to create their own design
The synthesis of all individual projects removed the students from
individual ownership of their designs, but allowed them to reflect on both
their own and their colleagues’ designs as a complete cluster of contributions
(Kvan 2004b). This related to earlier research into design studios based on
the same principle, in which media were applied outside their normal pre-
described purposes, and innovative design methods were deployed by
interplaying digital media and design explorations (Schnabel et al. 2004).
With the employment of parametric software that allowed students to
experience the dependencies and rules of the various individual
contributions spatially, as well as the overall common proposals, the design
could be communicated using physical and digital models and
representations. The generated design data could then be linked in a variety
of ways to extract or generate new geometric forms and understandings.
These descriptions could then be used directly in the manufacture of objects
by means of, for example, digitally controlled devices (Seichter and
Each of the components was an essential part of the design creation. They
addressed and expressed certain aspects of the process. A holistic discussion
about design, form, function, and development was established, which is
significant not only within architectural education, but also in all other
dialogues involving spatial representations. Following the tradition of artists
PARAMETRIC DESIGNING IN ARCHITECTURE 249
and designers, participants have pushed creativity to new definitions of both
their designs themselves and of their cultural contexts.
The author expresses gratitude to all the participants of the Open Design Studio at
the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney, for
their contributions and enthusiasm during 2006/07, and to Justyna Karakiewicz for
her support and advice. Financial aid came from Research and Development
Scheme of the University of Sydney.
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