Lauren Poon CallisonRTKL Trend Talk Dublin
Lauren Poon, head of digital, CallisonRTKL

CallisonRTKL: To innovate, accept the unacceptable

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Nicola Byrne

In 1966, architect Cedric Price exclaimed: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”, a quote very much relevant in 2019 as the built environment begins to embrace tech, according to Lauren Poon, head of digital at CallisonRTKL.

“This is the mindset that we need to be comfortable in. We need to be comfortable in asking questions and shift our mindset from being people that just give answers to people that are better at asking the question in the first place,” said Poon, speaking at the PlaceTech Trend Talk Dublin event.

The architecture firm has started to take steps towards real change through the use of tech and Poon shared the three experiments enabling Callison to do so.

Predicting future needs

Callison wanted to better understand movement through space. The firm’s first foray into this was movement through virtual space, as a vehicle to better comprehend movements through physical space.

Poon showed a masterplanning project out of Callison’s Dubai office, which tracked and measured people when they were in a VR experience, to see where they were going and what they were looking at. Coloured lines on the screen displayed where people moved through the project and dots on the buildings were their target eye movements.

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The dots on the buildings show where people have looked whilst exploring a space in VR

“For the first time, this gives us as designers raw feedback about the design. It’s not filtered by someone’s opinion. It’s actually knowing where people have gone in the virtual environment, and if there’s an area of the plot that nobody walked to, we can start to interrogate why that is.”

Looking forward to the future, Poon unveiled the potential of this: “Once these projects get built, with new technologies around sensors and monitoring, we can then measure where people do in fact go and if we can make a correlation between the virtual and the physical space, then that means we’re able to test things in virtual with a much greater degree of certainty and then be able to predict the performance of our designs. We can then also probably start to predict future needs, future uses and help create better places.”

What if?

There are a lot of people involved in the building process, and what that means for Poon is everybody has different opinions, different concerns, and coming to the table with different ideas and “as architects, our job is to bring this into a singular vision.” Callison’s second experiment was to see how the firm could use digital to weave ideas together more seamlessly, efficiently and to get more complexity.

The way Callison has done this is through scripts, a visual computer code which is a set of instructions for a computer to follow, also called an algorithm. Poon showed a screen of numerical sliders which automatically generated and modified geometry, and an example of a project the firm did for a multi storey residential building.

Callison was able to generate geometry based on standard metrics seen in a built project, such as gross internal area, net internal area, efficiency, unit mix. By changing the sliders, Callison changed what geometry was created.

CallisonRTKL

Computational design has provided CallisonRTKL with hundreds of solutions

Poon said the benefits of this are the firm is able to respond to change faster and allowed Callison to unlock the powers of computational design and create hundreds of solutions.

“Usually when I talk about this, someone always calls out ‘we would never do that, that doesn’t make any sense, so what’s the point of having all these options?’ And that is exactly the point why we’re doing this because we feel to really innovate, you have to accept something that was previously unacceptable.

“We’re never drawing that weird thing, which might eventually lead us to a breakthrough. What’s important in this process is that computers have no intuition and then we could use that to our benefit.”

She added: “What we’re trying to do is increase the number of what ifs per question, the number of options per problem.”

Mimicking nature

Generative design is an algorithm built to mimick nature’s approach to evolutionary design. Poon presented a third experiment of studying the design of a shelf bracket, and being able to design straight to manufacture.

Poon said: “I believe that we should be using digital to build a more sustainable future. We know modern methods of construction are more efficient and they save on a more materials. If we as designers can get better at designing straight to make, then we’re helping in this conversation.”

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Working with computers means having to be better at asking questions, according to Poon. The image shows a shelf designed by an algorithm, of which CallisonRTKL provided the brief

Callison set the constraints of the design with a wall, shelf and screws and left it up to the algorithm. Poon said: “I think this example most clearly speaks to the changing role of the architect and how we need to be able to operate in the future. We come from a paradigm right now where we’re used to giving answers and we’re given a question by someone else. In primary school you’re given a question and the work is getting to the answer.

“Working with computers and machines, this whole process is completely flipped around. The machine gives us an answer and the speed of that answer is only limited by the cost of your hardware to generate that solution. We have to think of the questions, and this is a total departure from how we used to do things. This is a new way of working.”

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The two images highlighted in red were created by employees who had no design experience

Poon explained how getting people to work differently is “hard but it’s not impossible”. She offered an example of an internal hackathon at Callison for employees to make something using a computer, and the firm had contributions from its CEO’s executive assistant and director of HR. Two people in the company that had never designed a thing in their life, written any code and had never used any design software.

She urged the built environment to do something that captured people’s imaginations, and to reach for the “Moon shot”, referring to the Apollo 11 mission, a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy to land on the moon, which captured the hearts and minds of America and the rest of the world still today.

View the slides from Poon’s presentation on our SlideShare page.


Michael Guerin was speaking at PlaceTech Trend Talk Dublin sponsored by Mills & Reeve, Node, Bruntwood Works, PropTech Ireland and FUTURE:PropTech.

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