The Making of Holographic Sky

Holographic sky was created by the Design Labs Houston group at the architecture and design firm Gensler. Design labs Houston is a grassroots organization that experiments and works with future technologies and practices in the design industry. The installation was created for Transwestern as part of their artist series. For more information

The Holographic Sky art installation celebrates the grandiose natural light of the architecturally iconic Pennzoil atrium by utilizing reflective, dichroic materials which introduce the vibrant colors of Houston street art into the lobby. The hanging clouds take advantage of the volume of the space while also seeking to bring the scale of the lobby down to the pedestrian level.

Digital Design – Grasshopper with Rhinoceros 3D

The installation was initiated as a way for the group to practice using computational software on a real project. The scope had to be small enough for experimentation but Design Labs Houston was insistent on using parametric software in the design and construction. Grasshopper with Rhinoceros 3D were chosen for the digital design.

We began searching for the right project and came across the artist series hosted by Transwestern in the building Gensler Houston occupies, Pennzoil Place. On being accepted as their next artist, we became inspired by the architecture and wanted to celebrate its primary asset, all of the natural light that washes the atrium.

The initial focus was to create a canopy of some sort over visitors that would give them the impression of being under a prismatic or holographic sky. We wanted to bring color into the lobby in a way that would interact with people and change throughout the day as the sun came in and out. As we further developed the design and became more comfortable with grasshopper, the group decided to move to a more organic shape that would really challenge us in construction and assembly. The new shapes were also a better representation of abstracted cloud formations hanging in the sky.

With the idea in mind, we could move on to grasshopper and begin modeling. By the time we were at the cloud design we had already modeled the first two options above in grasshopper so we were able to recycle the scripting for the fin creation and reuse it in our cloud script.

Grasshopper was an essential tool in the delivery of the project. Throughout the design, we were able to estimate the total cost of the install. Once we purchased the dichroic film material we were able to adjust the scale and density of the clouds to accommodate how much material we had to work with. The program not only helped in the design phase but also during construction.


We created a template in grasshopper for each cloud that included the frame cut, the string pattern, and the length and location for each fin. Each grid string was hand strung and every fin was hand cut… all 952 of them. We then placed all the fins along the string in their proper place and hung the clouds in the atrium. Although the next day was rainy,  the sun made an appearance and we were able to see the installation in full effect.

Also see Holographic Sky

Autodesk University 2018 | Is generative design GOOD for space planning?

watch the video here
Autodesk holds a conference every year in Las Vegas that brings together 10,000 professionals in the construction, manufacturing, architecture, engineering and media industries to learn about innovations in the industry and to share experiences.

This was my first year at the Autodesk University conference. One of my favorite sessions was the Tuesday morning talk ” Is generative design GOOD for space planning?… emphasis on the GOOD. I was excited for this talk because I do a good amount of space planning and am eager to take advantage of the benefits that generative design provides.

The session was an Oxford-style debate that posed the question of generative design in space planning. Two teams were put head to head in a For or Against competition.

Those fighting against the motion:

  • Lead Digital Designer at Proving Ground, Kirsten Schulte
  • Architect and Founding Director of the Smart Cities Institute, Mark Burry

Those fighting for the motion:

  • Computational Designer, Alyssa Haas
  • Computer chip engineer and parametric modeling specialist, Deepal Aatresh

Although I am definitely for the motion, there were a few powerful arguments from the against team.

The Against Arguments

  1. Use the current technology to solve the problems you have right now. The technology isn’t GOOD enough to create designed space plans that we can sell to clients out of the box; so, we should focus our energy on using generative design for what its good at today such as business intelligence, area calculations, data visualization, etc…
  2. Generative design may be useful to design but it is not GOOD for it; rather, it is dangerous for design because it could end up replacing architects. As an architect, we think beyond the plan and are required to bring so much more to the picture. Architects greatest sensibilities are around placemaking and the computer cannot, and should not, be doing this task. “Places don’t have boundaries but everything we do computationally has to have boundaries.”
  3. The curse of standardization is threatening to architects in some ways. If generative design tools are created for developers and clients then the architect may lose business. Suburbian housing is a good example of this.

The For Arguments

  1. Do what we can with the tangible tools that we have now. As long as architects are in control of the final output then it is ok to let the computer take on some of the work and help. There are a lot of rigid rules that can be computationally considered while space planning ex. code compliance, the program, adjacencies, light quality, building typology, and site. If we allow the computer to do some of the work then we can spend more time focusing on design.
  2. As architects, we can’t ignore these technologies and need to figure out where we belong in it so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. We need to make sure designers with good intentions are the ones who have the control. Maybe architects could take suburbia back by efficiently using computational design. Additionally, a lot of building types cannot afford an architect so generative design could be a way of democratizing good design.
  3. “This is not a new problem, it has been solved in other industries…Why is this even a question?” Construction is at the bottom of the productivity chart and it isn’t getting any better. Considering this, we have no choice but to create new and use existing tools for generative design in space planning.

Other good points along the way

  1. The important keys when discussing technology adoption is people and processes. If your team doesn’t adopt and use the tools properly then you get no benefit.
  2. “There are a lot of bad repeatable buildings that are built right now that computers had absolutely nothing to do with, that people spent quite a lot of time designing.”
  3. Hospital architects used to be considered more as systems architects because the hospital is very rigid. Typologies like this can be good for generative space plans.
  4. The tool maker should be the tool user. We need a new generation of architects who work with code in order to make the generative design tools.
  5. “Algorithms can supercharge any craft”
  6. “The tools don’t make all the decisions, the humans still do. The tools get you from point A to point B really fast.”
  7. For success with machine learning, you need good data to feed it.
  8. Products are not bad. There are good products and bad products. Customizable good products are what’s missing in architecture
  9. The business answer to adopting automative processes haven’t been figured out in this industry.

Conclusion: Yes, generative design is GOOD for space planning but soon it will be GREAT…

The generative design tools we already have can do a lot to supplement a good designer but there is still a way to go before they can design space plans on their own.

One of the limitations of having a computer generate designed space plans is that we are not providing it with the right type of parameters and information. For now, we can give the computer numbers and maths and it can calculate sqft and provide basic area maps, along with some other cool things; but, it isn’t designing a sellable space plan…yet. This is where machine learning, big data and AI step in.

With developments in AI, neural networks and big data we are closer than ever to being able to teach the computer how to generate options more similar to how we humans do. Today the computer generates random iterations of a variable set but we need to teach the computer how design. To do this we need to find the core values we hold in design and practice those values with an AI.

For example, in space planning adjacencies are very important. We are given some of these adjacencies by the program or the client but that only takes us so far. We can feed these adjacencies to the computer which will limit some of the options but there are still a ton more that the computer will generate and that we have to sift through. Many rules of space planning are learned with experience and human intellect. As designers, we know that the restrooms shouldn’t be placed along the glass curtain wall but the computer doesn’t. As humans, we know that the restroom is a private place so placing it in such a visible and prime location is not acceptable. We know this, not necessarily, because we were told; rather, we feel this way because it is what we have seen over and over again. By this same principle, we can teach the computer that restrooms shouldn’t be placed on the curtain wall by feeding it a lot of good space plans. And when I say a lot, I mean a big data amount i.e. 10,000, not 100. It will recognize and repeat the patterns in a similar way to how we do. The more we do it, the better it will get. It will then start to recognize patterns that we couldn’t see and eventually become a very powerful tool that knows the sensitivities of creating a good space plan.

The beauty of this in a creative industry is that each AI will be different the same way that humans are different. The AI will be a reflection of the person or dataset that is influencing it. Creativity is relative and we will still see this in an artificially augmented world.

The technologies on the rise will broaden our horizons by an order of magnitude. Although I agree that they are still a while away on a grand scale, in all four of the speakers we are seeing the grassroots projects that will pioneer the industry forward.

watch the video here


Create a block wall in grasshopper with random depths

Project Overview

A popular design for walls and ceilings these days is to create a random assortment of blocks or other shapes that create depth to a previously flat surface. We will learn how to create a system like this in grasshopper.

Create and divide the boundary surface into panels

First, we need to define the extents of the wall or ceiling element by creating a surface. From here we will divide the surface into panels.

To do this with native grasshopper components we use the isotrim (SubSrf) component to create a grid of panels from our surface. Isotrim takes a base surface and a domain to calculate the new surface. Rather than constructing a new domain, which will just build another surface at the u and v dimensions within our existing surface, we want to use the divide domain^2 so that we divide the two-dimensional existing surface into equal components. After plugging in the domain to the isotrim component we can see the grid but do not have access to the individual cells so we cannot manipulate them yet. For this, we need to use the Deconstruct Brep (DeBrep) component which will output the faces, edges, and vertices of our new divided surface parts. Before moving on to the extrusion of these faces, we want to make sure we flatten the faces output so we can manipulate the faces individually. Right click on the F output variable and select Flatten. We will dive deeper into this in the extrusion section.

Using the Lunchbox components for easy paneling different panel shapes

Another and much simpler way to create panels from a surface is to use the lunchbox component which can be downloaded from the links below. Not only is it much simpler, but you can also create many different panel shapes such as diamonds, hexagons, and variable rectangles.

LunchBox For Grasshopper – Proving GroundLunchbox for Grasshopper – food4Rhino

Randomly extrude the blocks from a list of specific depths

To create our blocks we will simply extrude the faces by a certain dimension in the direction perpendicular to the plane we are working in. The XZ plane was defined earlier when we created our initial surface so we will want to extrude in the Y direction with a Unit Y vector.

For the factor (value) input into the vector, Grasshopper has a random component which will give us a list of unique random numbers within a domain but this list will include a lot of different decimal numbers which are not easy to build. For example, if we set a domain between 1 to 6 we will get a list of numbers including 2.006, 4.739, 5.713, etc… These numbers are not easy to build to so we will want to round the output in order to get clean integer numbers.

Create a labeled diagram to show which blocks are at what depth

Now that we have our finished block wall we want to provide information to the builder on which blocks are at which depths so it can be constructed. To do this we use the Text Tag component which takes a location and text to display. For the text, we will plug in our list of depths created at the end of the last section. We will place the text at the center of each box so we will use a Polygon Center component to gather the center points of each box. Once we have a pattern that we are satisfied with we can bake the text tag component to see our numbers populate over the geometry and now we have a diagram that can aid in the construction process.

Pieces of this script can be applied to many different projects so I’d recommend saving this in a folder to access later. Also, if you’d like to try to take this project one step further and use a curve attractor to manipulate the depths of the boxes in a more strategic way, check out my tutorial on curve attractors and see if you can apply that information here!

Thanks for reading.

Becoming A Digital Designer in the AEC Industry

The advent of the computer has changed how we design and build. It has created an infinite amount of potential for complexity and purpose in building design. Over the past few years, I have come to realize that architects and designers have no choice but to increase their digital understanding and skill sets if they want to stay relevant in tomorrow’s design age.

The software and tools that we are being introduced to will upgrade the expectations of our output exponentially in the coming years. We will be expected to deliver projects smarter, faster, and more uniquely than we ever have before and the only way to do this will be with a digital design influence. With this in mind, I’ve started the Becoming a Digital Designer series to catalog my growth as a digital designer in hopes that it might help fellow architects and designers navigate the complex and diverse world of digital design.

The core benefits that digital design brings to the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry include

  • increased efficiency in design and construction
  • informed and responsive design
  • creative freedom to express complex form, pattern, and texture

Although there are many firms and professional independents that are boldly experimenting and developing with these emerging ideas, the full potential of this has not yet been realized in the larger industry. In the coming years, we will see a phasing out of traditional methods and an influx of digital methods from the next generation of designers who have a much deeper understanding of digital processes.

What do I mean by digital design?

In the AEC industry, there are many different ways to organize this idea. Below is a good start to understanding some of the different aspects that digital methods bring to the process.

  • Visualization: how we tell our story and sell our designs
    • 2D Media, Rendering, Virtual/Augmented/Mixed realities, Video/Animation, Web/Application Development, Augmented sketching
  • BIM (building information systems)/ 3Dmodeling:: how we document and analyze our buildings
  • Software/add-ins: How we understand our buildings
    • Tools that have been developed to optimize, inform and enhance the existing software to provide unique and specific solutions for project needs.
  • Data capture and analysis: how we inform our designs
  • Computational design: how we add complexity and precision to our designs
  • Fabrication: how we build our designs
  • Electrical/ Hardware engineering (sensor/connected buildings) : how we connect our designs

Simply put, digital design is using the computer to aid and inform the design and construction process. This translates to a variety of methods during the building process from project capture to design development to construction. Below, the diagram illustrates where certain processes may come into play throughout the project.

project timeline

Most of these digital services utilize new and different skill sets that step beyond traditional architectural knowledge. This will require most professionals to seek training and/or continuing education to attain these new skillsets in order to provide adequate processes and designs. In order to take full advantage of these services, we need to embed experts with these skillsets onto our project teams and get them to knowingly train people on the job. Without this, all the knowledge lives with a few key people and the projects suffer.

I’m not saying everyone has to learn everything; just that the more we learn the better everything gets.

The path to becoming a comprehensive digital designer is quite overwhelming for a beginner due to the many seemingly unrelated subjects; however, if taken one step at a time, the knowledge will develop to a level where the designer feels comfortable using diverse digital design methods at all stages of building design and construction. The hardest part is starting.