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How parametric design helps in the creation of custom interior elements

July 31, 2020

By Ray Kettner

Stantec’s new headquarters allowed designers to explore using algorithms in design and custom manufacturing to create unique “pebbles”

This article first appeared as “Translating design to custom elements” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 09.

We’re exploring a new world of possibilities for creating architectural solutions through the power of parametric design and manufacturing custom interior elements. I’ve been involved in leading a team in investigating the opportunities for employing this design process and had the privilege of taking our digital design all the way to a finished project via a collaboration with custom manufacturers. I believe these tools and processes can unlock design potential that we’ve only begun to dream of.

Recently, we had a chance to apply these innovative design practices and manufacturing techniques on Stantec’s home office in Edmonton. Our team designed the interiors for the third and fourth floors of Stantec Tower, the common floors that feature the collaboration spaces, shared meeting rooms, large all-hands areas, and café space. With a huge floor plate to work with, we were encouraged to spread our creative wings, let our imagination guide us, and devise design strategies that would make the space interesting at a human scale.

We came away with several big takeaways from the experience.

The finished "pebbles," or pods, create interest at the human scale within the huge floor plates of Stantec Tower in Edmonton, Alberta.

Take inspiration from nature

We took inspiration from the slot canyons of the American Southwest, such as Antelope Canyon in Arizona, as well as large pebble shapes we observed in an architecture project in Rotterdam, Netherlands. We took these organic pebble forms and decided they would become inhabited, while the spaces between would create visual interest like the slot canyon. We chose to scale up the pebbles and then live in them. That was the genesis of the idea.

These freestanding forms, blurring the line between interior and exterior architecture, are the homes for the new office meeting rooms and breakout spaces. We affectionately called them “pebbles” during design, while users now know them as pods.

Play with organic forms

We wanted to be playful in creating organic forms, but we knew that eventually describing those shapes for contractors would become necessary and might prove difficult.

Ultimately, this led us to a process where we shared our digital model directly with the fabricator. We exchanged that 3D model back and forth so we could evaluate their details against our design intent.

Pebble detail at Stantec Tower.

Use an algorithm to define forms

You can define forms mathematically or you can define them by hand. Defining them by hand more than once can waste a lot of effort. So, knowing that we were going to iterate through forms during design, we wanted to use the power of a computer algorithm to work through constraints and details for the shape. The algorithm allows designers to play gesturally with the larger form.

I trained as a sculptor, so for me it’s creating a mathematical paintbrush where I know I can just draw freely. If I create a shape, the algorithm I write does the repetitive calculations for me, so that I don’t have to compute it every time.

Consider buildability

Our algorithm was driven by aesthetic and practical considerations. We didn’t want to design with a lot of triangles but rather planar quads—panels with four points, which added some complexity to the project but made the expression more interesting. And the other constraint was that our shapes would be built from a 4-by-8 plywood sheet. We opted for waffle construction to support the outer skin. The waffle is constructed with a laser cutter and formed into three dimensions with two-dimensional ribs.

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To make the project visible and understandable to contractors, the design team showed them the pebbles as a kit of parts that come together. Each of the six pods had its own exploded unrolled view, sections, and exploded axonometric views.

Create a multitude of options

Parametric design is about creating a range of possibilities. You devise an algorithm to give you a field of outputs. My goal is usually to create something that gives me a field of possibilities that I can pick through—sometimes the algorithm finds a solution you never would have considered.

Having a range of solutions allows the design team flexibility to respond and adapt to change that inevitably presents itself.

Document it

As I said, for this workplace project, we found that creating a variety of these pebbles with the usual tools was challenging. So, we started by creating an algorithm in Grasshopper, playing with the form and the idea. When we got what we wanted, we translated it all into Dynamo.

We embedded that in Revit, the industry standard, to hand off to the contractor. Putting everything in Revit also enabled us to coordinate with our consultants on walls, glazing, audio visual components, as well as the furniture that had to fit within the pebbles.

We chose to scale up the pebbles and then live in them. That was the genesis of the idea.

Show proof of concept and get pricing

To ease our contractor’s concerns, we provided extra documentation to show proof of concept for this complex project so they could not only price it but believe in the concept. But typical elevations of non-square objects aren’t too useful.

So, we wrote a script that unwraps the outside of our pebbles. That way, the contractor could count every panel and get the exact square footage. The goal was to make the project visible and understandable, showing them a kit of parts that come together. Each of the six pods we designed had its own exploded unrolled view, sections, and exploded axonometric views.

Find the right fabricator

The 3D model must become reality at some point. We found a fabricator that could not only build our pods but do the millwork, casework, and felt backing on half a dozen custom pieces.

A factory prototype of one of the pebbles.

Take VR walkthroughs, get mock-ups

During a factory visit, our fabricator asked us, “Why don’t you look at your pebbles in virtual reality?”

The interior design principal and I did a virtual reality (VR) walkthrough reviewing details, making decisions on modifications, and fine-tuning the pods. For a project like this, which occupies a huge space, our ability to do a walk-through prior to fabrication, to see the designs in three dimensions, and move around them was extremely important.

A couple of months later we came back to visit, and they had built a full-scale mock-up that had all the elements we were interested in evaluating. This helped us validate our design decisions before manufacturing and shipping.

Build on what you’ve learned

We’ve adopted elements from this parametric-to-manufacturer process into our studio’s daily workflow. We’re using VR headsets for walkthroughs. We use software algorithmically on more typical architecture projects to take on repetitive tasks and complete them quickly. The more we are leveraging the power of the algorithm to iterate design, the greater our confidence in designing and executing more complex ideas. We learned that incorporating parametric tools and this kind of process isn’t overwhelming to the schedule—the time spent designing a robust algorithmic toolset made the delivery of complex geometric spaces quite manageable.

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  • Ray Kettner

    As a senior associate and architect, Ray often serves as a project manager leading large, complex architectural projects, or as a technical architect designing, creating and documenting complex ideas into models and drawings.

    Contact Ray
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