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3D Icons and Architectural CAD

Robert Aish

Abstract 3D computer input has been a recurring challenge to engineers developing effective CAD systems. The approach adopted in this paper attempts to address a specific type of 3D input which is applicable to architecture and some engineering design tasks. In these processes, the object being designed is often an assembly of defined components. In a conventional graphics based CAD system these components are usually represented by graphical Icons which are displayed on the graphics screen and are arranged by the user. The system described here consists of 3D modelling elements which the user physically assembles to form his design. Each modelling element contains an element processor consisting of a machine readable label, data paths and control logic. The CAD system interrogates the elements. The logic within the element processors and the data paths are then used to interrogate other adjacent elements in the model. This system can therefore be considered as a user generated machine readable modelling system. In an architectural application this provides the user with a system of 3D Icons with which to model and evaluate the built environment. Keywords: Man-Machine interaction; Application of computer graphics to architecture; 3D input. 1. Introduction In order to apply computing to a human activity such as architecture it is important first to understand that activity and the objectives of the practitioners. Architectural design is concerned with prescribing and evaluating the 3D functional, constructional and aesthetic qualities of buildings. The prescriptive or generative phase involves treating and modifying design geometry. The evaluative phase involves both subjective aesthetic considerations and the use of formal engineering and quantitative methods. These methods help the designer to assess the constructional, thermal and visual
Ove Arup Partnership, 13 Fitzroy Street, London W1P 6BQ, England

environment and to predict the initial and recurring costs. For CAD to be accepted as an aid to architecture it must be capable of contributing to both the generative and evaluative phases. The CAD system must also provide a natural form of man-machine communication, particiculary during the generative phase. This paper focusses on the problems of man-machine communication in architectural CAD and describes a prototype 3D modelling system which can be manipulated by architectural users to communicate 3D information to a CAD system. The elements of the modelling system are effectively 3D icons and can be used to generate and control detailed geometry and material descriptions of building components. Conventional computer graphics within the CAD system can be used to represent this detailed geometry and also to present the output of performance evaluations of the building design. While this system is not intended to offer a completely free form input facility, it can be considered to be a specialist man-machine interface of particular relevance to architects and engineers. 2. 3D Input It is well established that computers can assist the design process by performing complex operations on numeric representations of design data, operations which would be time consuming and tedious for architects and engineers to perform. One of the major limitations to the potential application of CAD techniques is the translation of design data between conventional forms used by design professionals and the numeric representation used by computers. Graphical input and output devices have significantly contributed to the ease of man-machine communication in CAD. Computer Graphics are machine readable and man readable and therefore can act as a manmachine communication channel. In many situations, particularly in architecture, the graphic information is in fact a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object. There may be significant advantages if this three dimensional information could be directly communicated between the user and the computer

North-Holland Computer Graphics Forum 4 (1985) 177-186


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without the need to use an intervening two dimensional graphical representation. Three dimensional models have been a long established technique used by architects and other design professions. However, models are often static representations of particular design alternatives and are not usually part of the generative design process. The 3D modelling device used in this demonstration CAD system can be considered as a flexible modelling kit. The important extension to the construction kit idea is the inclusion of a special purpose processsor, which provides an electronically encoded label within each element. The mechanical links between the elements provide a simple communication system which connects through to a base board on which the model is mounted. This communication system enables the associated computer system to scan the model and to interrogate the individual elements. The computer system is therefore able to build up a data file describing the structure and location and label of each element. This data file can be used as input to different CAD visualisation and evaluation software systems. This system can be represented in the following diagram (figure 1). A prototype system has been implemented (figure 2).1,2,3 The user builds a model building using the elements. The scanning system in the base board interrogates the elements and transmits a picture file to the host computer. The picture file consists of the x,y,z coordinates and the orientation of each element. The user sets up a properties file in the host computer. This enables the user to assign physical, geometric and cost attributes to the elements. The picture file can be used to generate alternative graphic displays of the design geometry. The picture file and the properties file can be used to generate evaluation measures of the design being modelled. The general advantage of this system is that the user can easily generate and manipulate design information. The user directly creates and edits his design by placing, moving or removing elements. There is no operating system which the user is required to learn as in most graphic based CAD systems.

3. System Design The essential components of this system are: Physical modelling elements - each containing an element processor a scanning system contained within a baseboard on which the model is built a host computer implementing a CAD system with evaluation software and graphical output In describing the design and operation of this system it may be useful to consider the objectives which we wished to achieve in this project. These objectives are: to achieve a reasonable level of functionality in terms of the complexity of the constructs which the user could model with the system to design an element processor which was capable of being implemented as a single VLSI device to demonstrate that topological data recovered from the model could be effectively processed by application software in a host computer. 4. Functionality As an initial prototype system, we wanted to achieve a level of functionality comparable with many of the existing architectural modelling systems. In these systems, the elements can be connected to a baseboard or to other elements at a number of different locations. The relative orientation between adjacent elements can also be varied. Fairly complex structures such as lintels and overhangs can usually be achieved with existing modelling systems which do not depend on a simple vertical continuity of elements. The complexity of topology which we aimed for is appropriate to simple buildings but is not meant to be a generalised topology. We therefore limited the blocks to simple parallelepipeds of various proportions. The connections between blocks occurred only in the Z (vertical) direction. The essential aspect of this system is to produce a processor which can be included in each element. This processor must be capable of being interrogated and of interrogating a similar processor in other elements. The user must be free to arrange the elements in any configuration and the three-dimensional array of processors must be capable of responding to this user generated arrangement. In this example the elements are

R. Aish / 3D Icons


Fig. 1 Systems diagram for 3D modelling device used as an input peripheral to a CAD system

Fig. 2 The prototype system


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arranged on a baseboard which is essentially one large interrogate only processor. The baseboard is connected to the CAD system. In other applications a single element could act as the connection to the CAD system and the model need not be mounted on an identifiable baseboard. The key feature of the element processor was the design of the data word which is used to communicate information from each element to the scanning system in the base board. This word is used to communicate information about the element being interrogated: the element size (height, width, length) a unique preset label (used by the host computer to assign properties from the properties file) the input location at which the element is interrogated the orientation of the interrogated element with respect to the interrogating element Finally the data word contains one bit which is used as a flag to indicate whether this element has been accessed during a particular scan cycle. In the prototype system a been used which allows elements lengths, 2 widths, 4 heights, 8 (each location has 4 orientations) presettable labels. 16 bit word has with 8 different access locations and 16 different

This operation will now be described in more detail with reference to the assembly of elements illustrated in figure 3. The interrogate only processor in the baseboard scans each X,Y baseboard location. If an element (A) is detected at a location then it is interrogated. Control is passed to Element A which scans its outputs. Element B is found at one of these outputs and is interrogated. Control is passed to Element B. Element B scans its outputs, finds Element C, interrogate C and passes control to Element C.Element C scans its output finds no further elements and returns control to B. B continues to scan its remaining outputs and finds Element D. Element D is interrogated and assumes control.D scans its outputs finds no elements and returns control to B. There are no further outputs on B to scan so B returns control to A. A continues to scan its outputs and finds Element B. Element A finds that Bs interrogate flag has been set indicating that Element B and all elements above B have been interrogated. Element A has no further output and therefore returns control to the baseboard. The baseboard continues to scan its outputs and at another output finds Element A with its interrogate flag set. The baseboard continues to scan but finds no further elements. After the user has changed the arrangement of the blocks a code is transmitted to all blocks to reset the interrogate flags prior to the start of a further scan of the model.

The element processor not only transmits this data word when it is being interrogated, it must also perform the interrogation of all elements connected to it and transmit the data words from these other elements through to the element which originally interrogated it. The element processor is implemented as a synchronous digital system using standard CMOS integrated circuits. The scanning system in the baseboard includes a single board computer incorporating a Motorola 6809. The host computer is a BBC model B microcomputer. 5. Operation The operation of the system can be summarised as follows. The assembly of elements forms a network of element processors. The network of processors collectively perform a tree searching algorithm in which each processor interrogates adjacent processors in the network. Redundant interrogation is avoided since no processor completes the interrogation of another processor which has aready been interrogated.

Fig. 3 Using the 3D modelling system to describe an overhang

R. Aish / 3D Icons


The data recovered by this interrogation is a series of relative positions and orientations between the output position of the interrogating element (or baseboard position) and the input position of the element being interrogated. Starting from a known position on the baseboard, this data is used progressively to generate appropriate transformation matrices with which to derive the absolute coordinates and orientation of each element being interrogated. For example, once the absolute position and orientation has been found for element A, this can be used, together with the relative position and orientation between element A and element B, to find the absolute position and orientation of element B. The software which achieves this follows the same tree searching algorithm that is implemented and distributed in the processors within each element.

building with six external surfaces. The user can define the thermal properties of the surfaces and the area of glazing. The software then calculates heat losses and passive solar gains for each hour of one typical day per month. The resulting data can be displayed in a graphical form to the user (figure 6). This performance measure may be used to indicate the plant size and running cost that would be associated with a particular building form.4 Other more complex thermal and visual evaluation methods can also be applied to the building geometry data. 7. Using the System The user can define the scale of the architectural feature that each element or icon represents. He can also define the physical properties of each exterior surface of each element. Once this data has been established the user can begin to design his building by constructing a model of it using the elements.At any stage he can request a visual or thermal analysis. He may then wish to change his design. This is achieved by adding, moving or removing elements. For example, figure 7 illustrates how the user has simply picked up the model building in order to alter its orientation. The user may then wish to evaluate the energy consequences of these changes by requesting a further analysis (figure 8). The user can then balance his aesthetic judgement with his perception of the change in performance represented by the comparative analysis (figure 9). This complete system enables the user to manipulate typical independent architectural variables such as the compactness and orientation of the building form and the design of the exterior facade of the building and to assess a resulting dependent variable such as thermal performance. 8. Architectural Modelling System While this functional prototype demonstrates many of the logical facilities required by a 3D input device, it is recognised that the scale of the prototype may limit effective architectural use. The scale of the elements will be significantly reduced by using a single chip CMOS implementstion, Therefore in parallel with the developement of the electronics system, a prototype scale modelling system has been developed as an example of the type of modelling system which could be used to package the single chip CMOS implementation5 (figures 10-12). This particular prototype packaging system was made on a computer control machine tool and demonstrates the ease and econ-

Fig. 4 Using the 3D modelling system to describe a lintel Figure 4 illustrates an alternative assembly of elements forming a lintel or arch, where there is no vertical continuity between the highest element () and the baseboard.In this assembly element B and C are interrogated through element A, while element D is interrogated later but does not in turn interrogate B and C. 6. Evaluation Software The particlar software used in this prototype system considers each block as a room or wing of a


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Fig. 5

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Fig. 7

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Fig. 9

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9. Origins The idea of a 3D modelling system for computer aided architectural design has evolved from a number of research concepts and practical developments in architecture, psychology and CAD systems design. 3D models are a standard technique for presenting the design of building. Conventionally these models have been static objects and only presented a single definitive version of the design proposal. The architectural psychologist, Sorte6 conducted a formal experiment which confirmed that 3D models are an effective way of communicating architectural information. In his research, he compared peoples responses to a series of building designs, as represented by different visual and modelling techniques, with the response to the real buildings which had been used as the basis for the models and visual representations. He found that of all the different techniques used, a 3D model produced responses which closely emulated the responses evoked by the real buildings. Therefore, it can be concluded that the response to 3D models of unbuilt designs can be considered to be an accurate predictor of the response which can be expected to the finished building. Hopefully,. this research confirms many architects intuition, that models are an extremely important component in the architectural design process. Models should not be considered as the only design device, but they do have advantages over conventional perspective and other projections which are based on a single predefined viewpoint.

Fig. 10 3D architectural icons modelling system

omy with which a specific packaging system can be made to suite the requirements of different building types or architectural forms. It is therefore envisaged that different architectural groups would be able to design their own modelling system to suite their specific design requirements and use such a modelling system to package the standard single chip electronics system. The functional electronic prototype (figures 1-9) and the architectural modelling system (figures 10-12) illustrate the two separate development paths to an integrated system.

Figure 5.

Computer generated perspective used to indicate that the correct interrogation has occured.

Figure 8.

The resulting thermal performance of the modified building described in Fig. 7

Explanation: THERMAL ISOPLOT: East Max gain = 47.0kW at 9 hrs in Jun Max loss = -23.1kW at 3 hrs in Feb

Explanation: Windows facing South

Figure 6.

Isoplot of the thermal performance of a building described in Fig 5

Figure 9.

Explanation: THERMAL ISOPLOT: South Max gain = 54.5kW at 12 hrs in Aug Max loss = -23.1kW at 3 hrs in Feb

Evaluation of the change in performance of the building design between Figs. 5/6 and Figs. 7/8

Explanation: THERMAL ISOPLOT: South minus East Min Max = 23.7kW at 12 hrs in Sep Min = -27.8kW at 7 hrs in Jun

Figure 7.

An alternative building design

Explanation: Windows facing East


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Fig. 11 3D architectural icons

Fig. 12 3D architectural icons

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With a model, the viewer can freely alter his viewpoint. Computer graphics systems are now used for visualisation tasks in many architectural practices. With extremely complex building designs it may soon become more economic to generate the geometry data for a computer graphics system than to build a physical model. Often computer graphics systems can generate defined views and sequences of views.There have been some impressive demonstrations of these systems using architectural and city planning data. However, the cost of a full real-time transformation system which can allow the user to freely vary his view point, is usually beyond the range of the typical architectural practice. Holography is another technique which can give a 3D view and allow a limited variation in view point. However, the problem with presenting 3D design information by Holography or by computer graphics is that it is a non-trivial task for the user to generate or to modify the design information. As Franke has suggested7 these techniques are essentially output only, with the users (particularly non- professional users) operating in a read only mode. This effectively limits the interactive potential of CAD systems. What is required to turn an output only system into an interactive system is a suitable input device. If we are prepared to accept certain restrictions on the repertoire and on the combinatorial rules, then a 3D modelling system can provide a suitable input device for design and visualisation systems with which the user can easily generate and modify geometric information. The 3D modelling system offer some fundamental advantages and also some limitations. It is recognised that the ease with which a user can build and modify a model building has to be balanced against the constraints imposed by the design of the modelling system. It is therefore acknowledged that this type of system is fundamentally more applicable to conventional forms of architecture than to sculptural or free form styles. It can be expected that different architects, clients and building users will vary in their conclusion as to whether the constraints of modularity of the system are outweighed by the advantages of a 3D modelling system. One of the most interesting applications of this type of user generated 3D modelling and design aid was used during the 1970s in the PSSHAK project by the GLC Architects Depart-

ment.8 In this project tenants used a 3D scale modelling system to plan the interior layout of their housing. This design procedure was linked to the Harbraken concept of providing an independent building support structure which gave a degree of flexibility to the planning of the buildings interior.9 The PSSHAK system provided the users with a full 3D modelling facility but was not linked to a computer. This meant that the users were dependent for advice from professional members of the design team. This can be contrasted with computer graphics based architectural CAD systems, for example the PARTIAL system developed at ABACUS. 10 This system provided a layout planning facility in which the users arranged 2D icons representing conventional architectural elements such as walls, windows and doors on an interactive graphics display. PARTIAL, in common with other architectural CAD systems also provided important facilities for computer based cost and performance evaluation. With the 2D graphics of the PARTIAL system, the user may not have received such an effective impression of his design as could be achieved with a 3D modelling system. However, using the computer based evaluation system the user could operate to a large extent independently of professional advice and design at his own speed. While professional advice is important, the opportunity for a user to operate at his own speed is a significant advantage of a CAD system and allows it to be considered as a self-adaptive learning environment which is infinitely patient. The professional members of the design team indirectly influence the user by programming the rules used in the evaluative software within the CAD system. The objective of this research is to combine the 3D modeling ideas inherant in PSSHAK (and generally exhibited in modelling toys such as LEGO) with the advantages of the evaluation and tutorial facilities available in conventional graphics based architectural CAD systems. The integrated concept can be described as an architectural model which is both user-generated and machinereadable. Although this system is not intended to offer a completely free form input facility it is applicable to architectural design activities where the object being modelled is either an assembly of defined components or conceptalised as such an assembly. In addition there are a number of architectural like design activities, such as office interior and factory planning, and process plant layout,


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where non-architects may wish to contribute but may feel inhibited because they do not possess the usual graphic communication skills. It can be hypothesised that in many of these design activities, it is the functional aspects of the layout and the corresponding evaluation which is of primary concern to the users. Therefore a modelling system which allows the functional attributes to be modelled is acceptable even if the visual attributes of the elements being arranged are only symbolically represented. Such layout tasks also often use modular components and therefore may not be restricted by the modular characteristics of the modelling system. 10. Implications Many of the early developments in computing were in responce to defined computational needs, often specified by the numerate professions. The development of techniques which satisfied these requirements then enable a further generation of developers to explore other applications of these techniques which are often far removed from the requirements of the early numerate users. CAD in the construction industry was originated by engineers with genuine numerate tasks which could not be adequately solved by human computation. CAD did not remain as an engineers tool. The technology was further developed mainly by the addition of modelling and visualisation systems.It now provides other users such as architects with access to graphical techniques which help in the subjective evaluation of buildings; techniques which would not have been considered feasible a decade ago. In one sense the impact of computing can be easily measured in terms of the quantities of processors, MIPS, Mbytes of memory, depths of frame buffers, etc. which are in use within different professional disciplines or user groups. What is more difficult to assess is the effect of this computerisation on the users and their activities. In an architectural context we should consider the change which CAD may induce in the relation between architects, clients and the users of buildings. We should also consider how the architectural application of CAD may effect the built environment and the process of urban renewal. Computerisation not only speeds up conventional professional activities, it can alter these activities by externalising what may have been pre-

viously a closed professional system. In this context, we can envisage that improvements in manmachine communication (by computer graphics and by specialist interfaces such as the 3D modelling system) may influence architecture simply by making the design process more accessible to nonarchitects, i.e. to the users of buildings. It is usually agreed that architecture has important social and cultural implications.Architectural CAD which involves building users will not only influence the role of architecture in society, it is also an important social application of computing. Acknowledgements Ove Arup Partnership British Technology Group Peter Noakes, University of Essex References 1. 2. 3. 4. Robert Aish, Modelling Arrangements, UK Patent 2020073(February 1982). Robert Aish, Modelling Arrangements, US patent 4275449(June 1981). R. Aish, 3D Input for CAAD Systems, CAD 11(2)(March 1979). R. Aish, THERMAL - A Computer System for Building Services Design, pp. 627640 in CAD80, (March 1980). Robert Aish, 8412890(1984). UK Patent application

5. 6.

G.J. Sorte, Methods for Presenting Planned Environments, Man-Environment Systems 5(3) pp. 148-154 (1975). H.W. Franke, Graphics on Art and Society, Computer Graphics Forum 2(2/3) pp. 145-152 (August 1983). N.J. Harbraken, J.T. Boekholt, A.P. Thijssen, and P.J.M. Dinjens, Variations: The systematic Design of Supports, MIT Laboratory of Architecture and Planning (1976). PSSHAK, Architects Journal, (12th October 1977). pp. 698-693



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R. Aish, Initial Development of a Participatory Computer Based Design Aid, ABACUS occasional paper No.72, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (Feb 1979).