New to Parametric Architecture; Here’s Everything You Need to Know

It’s hard to begin writing about parametric architecture since there are vastly different ways to look at it and fierce debate between each view in architectural practice.

An example might clarify. Let’s set the scene!

There’s a list with almost all the jobs out there with a percentage next to each one. It says how much by 2035, every given job is likely to go to extinction by robots (which is a cooler way to say computers).

Busy-work jobs are at the top of the list as being the first likely victims of the greed and genius of computers that excel humans in specific qualities.

Guess who’s the safest at the bottom of the list? Choreographers! Which is topped by other jobs in the design area where intuition and creativity are key.

Although there might be some arguments about that, architecture is among the lower bunch as you might have guessed it already

Just imagine if robots or computers were to take over your job as an architect? What were the things they would have to worry about? Do you think they could even manage it?

What if we told you there has been a trend for about 40 years now that has made some ponder the possibility of autonomous design robots on the horizon?

In its simplest definition, parametric architecture creates a system of so-called “parameters” or variables and a set of constraints to produce an outcome (say a geometric shape like a cube) that can be modified by changing the variables.

In the case of the cube, our variables can be the length, width and height of the cube to control how big or small the its overall size can get.

Now imagine instead of three simple variables of X, Y, and Z, we had like a thousand parameters that instead of a cube would make the best possible building form as the answer to your design problem.

Do you think that’s possible? That’s exactly what we want to answer.

What is parametric architecture and can it grow so much as to push architects out of their job?

We will first define it and talk about its history and find out what it’s grown into. Then we’ll bring opposing views about the whole concept and let you make up your mind about it yourself.

And our wrap will be a brief introduction to the tools for implementing parametric modeling architecture.

So, let’s get down to it:

A system with some parameters or variables

What is Parametric Architecture?

As we said earlier, parametric architecture is like a box with a set of keys as input that together will determine an output. What’s inside the box? There’s an algorithm.

Sure it might seem like a bunch of confusing jargons, but bear with me! We are about to be over the hump.

What is an algorithm you ask? An algorithm is a set of guidelines that describe how to perform a task.

Like this algorithm that multiplies two numbers:

  1. Take “a” as the first input
  2. Take “b” as the second input
  3. Calculate “a*b” and set the answer to “y”
  4. Give out “y” as the result

Why would we need a set of very clear guidelines? That’s because it is a computer we use to take those inputs, read algorithm guidelines, and produce the output; with a computer? not so much intelligence or thinking! They are just good at doing a lot of calculation in a very short time.

At its ultimate form, parametric architecture creates a rather complicated algorithm that is a set of rules and constraints, takes in a group of inputs we as architects give to it, and then performs the algorithm to calculate our output which can be the best structure or an architectural form we’re looking for.

Why does it give us the best answer? Because a good algorithm is designed in a way to find the optimum answer to a problem at hand. That’s the genius of parametric design architecture as it comes up with a great algorithm.

Sometimes, architectural problems can require complicated solutions. Like what is the best form for a tall tower to resist severe winds or say a crushing earthquake? Calculating the optimum form can be quite hard.

Nature has usually had the answers to such big problems. Architects have been using nuanced and complex natural forms as solutions in their design. There are numerous examples. Take the famous Sydney Opera house where Jørn Utzon has captured seashells as inspiration to defeat structural forces.

Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House

But new problems that might have not been tested in nature through millions of years of evolution need new solutions.

We clearly can’t wait for nature to run its million-year-long test, so we take computers to try all different solutions and find the best one for us.

By designing the right algorithm, setting proper rules and constraints, and tweaking our defined parameters, we can explore a vast range of forms and options.

One last question remains. What are the parameters and how should we define them? They are the design factors architects have to deal. Things like climate, culture, functionality, use, and so on.

But can they all be translated into the computer language? How can the social behavior of a neighborhood you want to build a shopping mall for, be put into a quantitative measure?

That’s a hurdle parametric architecture has not quite worked out yet.

What is the history behind parametric architecture

One of the first known efforts to come up with a parametric modeling architecture solution in history was Antonio Gaudi’s study on new arch forms for a cathedral.

Instead of using the computer or coded algorithms, he employed gravity as a supercomputer. He would hang a birdshot on different points of a loose string that was hung from two high polls itself.

Birdshot’s weight (as an input) would represent the structural burdens and the string holding within a shape that was the best form in response to the corresponding load.

So, changing positions of the birdshot would change the string’s shape accordingly; always giving the best form to hold the load it was bearing.

Now, by understanding parametric modeling architecture in both its algorithmic computer-aided approach and the smart traditional way Gaudi devised, we can smoothly skim through how it advanced in almost a century all the way to this day.

Apart from what Gaudi accomplished with his nature-inspired string model, Ivan Sutherland dug into computers’ potentials for such calculations in the second half of the twentieth century; paving the way for further research into the field.

But it is Greg Lynn who is known to be the first architect to use computers for generating architectural forms. His Blob, and later, Folding architecture styles were driven by computer-generated forms.

Greg Lynn’s Blob architectural style

Benoit Mandelbrot’s efforts to justify natural patterns by Fractal Geometry which was basically a way to describe and produce seemingly arbitrary but complex natural forms like thunderbolt or soil cracks, also was another step to emulate nature’s formal answers that could be applied to design problems.

Frank Gehry’s architecture firm, used aerospace modeling programs (CATIA) to parametrize its design and come up with groundbreaking forms as in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

A view of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall

Favor toward parametric design architecture has been growing since computers came by and architects around the world have been using the technique in their design process, but some voice criticism too.

UC Berkeley assistant professor and a renowned author, Christopher Alexander, believes that the architect’s genius and intuition and professional skill should be the main design tools rather than computers that require an oversimplified version of the problem.

Zaha Hadid’s Haidar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan

Benefits of parametric architecture

There are other perks to parametric architecture other than creating a wide range of possible solutions by changing basic variables.

Parametric modeling architecture is not just a way to observe a set of limited outcomes by changing limited inputs.

It can also be a way to come across forms and solutions that were not initially intended by the architects and so it can be an approach to discover design solutions.

Parametric architecture can help scour through possibilities and not just a quick way to model your design.

This is where parametric architecture parts ways with merely using computer to produce CAD files of your design. The fact is that parametric architecture can be a designing tool rather than just creating a representation of your work.

Another advantage of parametric design architecture over conventional 3D CAD-modeling is when you modify your work.

Imagine remodeling all the arrangements, dimensions, and elements of glass windows in a round-shaped tower you are modeling, all for just a little change in the tower’s diameter;

when all you could do is having everything automatically realigned by merely adjusting the variable that sets your model’s overall diameter.

So, you can substantially change your model by tweaking a limited set of fundamental variables in your modeling algorithm.

A view of a parametric building just with visual interest

What is the downside?

Is an architectural solution all about form? Some say it is not.

Depending on how an architect defines aesthetics, design priorities will follow and things other than the visual form of the building might be of prime value. So how then, parametric architecture can be incorporated into the design process?

Some argue that parametric method has been all about just being visually appealing. But the fact is that all design constraints have to be considered for a proper solution and not just how the project looks.

Parametric modeling architecture tools

Here’s a brief introduction of three of the most widely-known tools for parametric architecture.

Autodesk 3D Max
is a parametric 3D modeling tool for architects, graphic designers, and simulators. 3D Max’s geometry engine produces 3D forms that rely on modifiers and wired variables.

Autodesk Revit
The name Revit is short for “Revise it”; meaning you can start modeling any building in as much detail as you like while you’re able to fully revise every element along the way and have the relevant pieces adjusted automatically. It practically allows us to make changes up to the most substantial scope possible. So, it has the essential characteristic of parametric architecture natively built-in the platform.

It’s much more than a geometric simulation environment in that it comprises architectural rendering tools, an extensive repository of building components, and the framework for any BIM-oriented project; So rather than just a building, you can model the construction process with all its time and cost requirements.

Grasshopper 3D
is a plug-in that is developed for the 3D modeling software Rhinoceros. It is specifically for modeling algorithm-based parametric forms. It allows complicated generation of algorithmic patterns for your model.


Parametric architecture can easily turn into a double-sided blade. Given the right algorithm, parameters, and constraints, it can help find the most efficient and effective form for a specific design problem.

But it could also oversimplify a design problem by overlooking unquantifiable parameters like cultural or social concerns.

You sure have to have some thoughts about parametric architecture after hearing all about it. Make sure you check our modelling services if you’re interested in how exactly the implementation goes.

This article first appeared in by Author Mitchel Sardy