My name is James Ramsden, and since May 2013 I have been studying for an Engineering Doctorate in holistic building design and optimisation.

We ask many things of our buildings. We want them to be warm and comfortable, functional and enjoyable, strong and durable, all while being efficient and low-cost. These ideals can be broken down almost endlessly into a series of often conflicting aims and objectives. If we want an open plan space, but for the building to stand up in an earthquake, how many columns should we put in? If we want lots of daylight but we don’t want to overheat in summer, how big should the windows be? We might think it wise to pack our building with insulation, but what’s the point if we are spending more on it than we would ever save on the heating bills?

These are all issues which are much easier to solve the earlier in the design process before too many decisions have been set in stone. It’s no good if we realise that earthquakes are going to be a problem only when we get to the detailed design stage – we may have to go back right to the conceptual design stage and re-think a whole new building with more columns in it. Even at this early stage, we should have some way of knowing if we have an overlap between the architectural/functional requirement for space, and the structural requirement for the roof to not crash to the ground.

The reality is that a lot of this communication indeed does go on. Key specialisms are brought onto a project as early as possible so that their input to this conceptual stage can be provided. However, that isn’t to say that this system of involvement has been perfected. The first aim of my EngD is thus to understand the higher level communication systems that bring different teams together and provides a suitable platform for them to offer their say.

The second aim is a technical one, but requires a strong understanding of these communication systems if it is to ever be a success. In even fairly modest projects, computers play a huge role in all aspects of building design. A vast array of tools exists to help design, calculate and verify all possible parameters. However, many of these are geared towards detailed design and verification and do not facilitate fast, conceptual, multidisciplinary design while providing the level of analysis necessary for an engineer to make informed choices. Early decisions are thus based upon experience and rules-of-thumb plus a large number of isolated, time-consuming studies.

There are a number of projects that are already trying to address this issue. Bentley’s Generative Components is well-established, and offers relatively quick parametric design. Grasshopper is a plug-in for the surface-modelling program¬†Rhino, and is quickly gaining popularity by adding parametric design to Rhino through a highly intuitive graphical programming interface. DesignScript¬†is being developed as a hybrid graphical/text programming tool which is designed to interact with existing tools and to bring their abilities together, while at Buro Happold, the SMART team have developed programs such as SMART Form for fast, free-form modelling.

In practice, tools such as these do not seem to be used as much as expected. By understanding the communication systems above, I hope to learn more about the practical limitations of such tools. Using this knowledge and my experience in optimisation algorithms from my undergraduate dissertation, I would then look at the feasibility of creating a multi-objective, cross-disciplinary conceptual design tool. This of course will be highly dependent upon the requirements of the various specialisms and the greater systems that link them together, and I am expecting the aims and the scope of my research to vary greatly over the next four years.

My background

I graduated from the University of Bath in 2011 with a Masters in Civil Engineering. My dissertation looked at generating unique and optimised tensegrity structures, designed with the Genetic Algorithm. This work spawned an interest in how computers can be used intelligently in the conceptual design stage. I look upon this EngD as a way to take this interest directly to within an engineering consultancy, where I hope to both further my own knowledge as well as providing real, tangible benefits for a leading industrial partner.

Where am I?

I spend most of my time at the Bath office of Buro Happold. Here, I am based between the SMART Team, who work on providing innovative computational solutions to engineering problems, and the Sustainability team. My supervisors from each team are respectively Shrikant Sharma and Simon Wright.

My EngD centre is the Systems Centre, a partnership between the universities of Bath and Bristol. The aim of this centre is to promote systems thinking, that problems should be solved by considering it in its wider context, and that such problems don’t exist in isolation but exist through interacting with a wider system. I am also supervised on the academic side by Paul Shepherd and Andy Shea at the University of Bath.

About this blog

This blog is as much an open notebook where I scrappily store notes as much as it is a place I hope to showcase my research. It’s still early days and I might still get into a rhythm of keeping it polished and up-to-date…