Z15 tower in Beijing. Credit: Kohn Pederson Fox Associates

+ Parametric design is particularly useful for complex high-rise buildings in highly seismic regions like China.

Parametric design lets you specify the key parameters of your project and make changes interactively, with the model updating automatically. It can be used for architectural showmanship but I believe good engineers will use it to make more efficient designs, explore more options, and optimise buildings.

In fact, I think it’s our job as engineers to help architects take full advantage of parametric design. By finding the right input parameters and geometrical logic we can achieve simultaneously a challenging aesthetic shape and an efficient design. This is nothing new in terms of engineering best practice, but it is now possible to do it at a much higher level thanks to these tools. 

Will this make designers rely too heavily on computers or produce shapes that are unnecessarily complex and full of waste? I don’t think so, if they are used as an aid to, rather than a replacement for, good engineering. As engineers, we must still use our judgement, experience and professional standards to define reasonable design parameters and understand their relative importance to the safety and quality of the building. This approach not only applies to geometrical parameters, but to all the design assumptions engineers make to plan for the uncertainties and possible variations of the design environment during the building life cycle. 

Yet parametric design tools are incredibly useful – particularly for high-rise buildings in China, where the high level of seismicity makes the analysis process even more complex – even in early project phases. On the Z15 tower in Beijing, using these tools has reduced the time between architectural proposition and analysis from weeks to just days. It’s led us to a better design, with more in-depth understanding of the critical parameters of the structure. And it’s enabled us to study the most efficient scheme amongst the numerous design options. 

The different tools have now developed user-friendly interfaces which makes it easier to engage the client and architect on higher level discussions on the topic of design parameters and on the geometric logic of the shape (for example for fabrication issues). The information exchanged between engineer and architect is also of higher value, since you don’t exchange only the final design geometry but also the logic of your design.

Parametric design also offers a good way to have a stronger influence on key design decisions, by analysing more options and giving quantitative feedback, whereas before we could only give global trends based on intuition or very simplified studies. This is particularly useful in a context like China, where the culture and the clients demand that projects must be planned, designed and built super-fast, while breaking world records at the same time (the 528m high Z15 tower is to be the world highest tower in a region of high seismicity). 

And finally, parametric design can help us use resources more efficiently through optimisation studies. 

That’s why I think parametric design is not so far away from our engineering best practice and used efficiently can really lead to a better world. Do you agree?