PhD Thesis – Modelled on Software Engineering: Flexible Parametric Models in the Practice of Architecture

Daniel Davis – 20 September 2013

In my PhD thesis I explore the relationship between software engineering and the design of flexible parametric models. It’s a little too long to fit on a single webpage, so either jump into the specific sections using the contents below, download the whole thing as a PDF, or buy a print copy from Lulu (at cost).

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Cite as: Davis, Daniel. 2013. “Modelled on Software Engineering: Flexible Parametric Models in the Practice of Architecture.” PhD dissertation, RMIT University.


In this thesis I consider the relationship between the design of software and the design of flexible parametric models.

There is growing evidence that parametric models employed in practice lack the flexibility to accommodate certain design changes. When a designer attempts to change a model’s geometry (by modifying the model’s underlying functions and parameters) they occasionally end up breaking the model. The designer is then left with a dilemma: spend time building a new model, or abandon the changes and revise the old model. Similar dilemmas exist in software engineering. Despite these shared concerns, Robert Woodbury (2010, 66) states that there is currently “little explicit connection” between the practice of software engineering and the practice of parametric modelling.

In this thesis I consider, using a reflective practice methodology, how software engineering may inform parametric modelling. Across three case studies I take aspects of the software engineering body of knowledge (language paradigms; structured programming; and interactive programming) and apply them to the design of parametric models for the Sagrada Família, the Dermoid pavilion, and the Responsive Acoustic Surface. In doing so I establish three new parametric modelling methods.

The contribution of this research is to show there are connections between the practice of software engineering and the practice of parametric modelling. These include the following:

  • Shared challenges: Both practices involve unexpected changes occurring within the rigid logic of computation.
  • Shared research methods: Research methods from software engineering apply to the study of parametric modelling.
  • Shared practices: The software engineering body of knowledge seems to offer a proven pathway for improving the practice of parametric modelling.

These connections signal that software engineering is an underrepresented and important precedent for architects using parametric models; a finding that has implications for how parametric modelling is taught, how parametric models are integrated with practice, and for how researchers study and discuss parametric modelling.


Back in 2008 I found myself in a bar with my friend Kurt Rehder. We were talking about how my plans to spend the summer working in Melbourne were unravelling (I still had not found a job even though I was scheduled to travel there next week). I was explaining the start of the Global Financial Crisis and a multitude of other crises, but Kurt was not interested. He wanted to know who I most wanted to work with. I told him about Mark Burry and the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL). Kurt interrupted, “leave it with me.” Although Kurt spoke with the authority of someone formally in the United States Navy, and although we had been at the bar long enough for his suggestion to sound plausible, I was also aware that Kurt knew no one in Melbourne and that I would need to invent a more feasible plan in the morning.

I awoke hazy and resumed my fruitless search for a summer job. A few days later a single-line email arrived, “Hi Daniel, We hear you are going to be in Melbourne, can you start on Monday – Mark.”

Kurt never told me how he managed to get that email sent. I have often thought about it in my four years at SIAL. I have often thought about Kurt’s insistence on aspiring towards something even when it feels unachievable. I have often thought about how small interactions can change the course of our lives. And here I would like to acknowledge some of the many small and large interactions with some of the people that have contributed to the course of my research. Save for my family, these are all people I would have never met had I not met Kurt in that bar back in 2008.

I am extremely grateful for Mark Burry and Jane Burry’s supervision throughout my research. Together they have given me the latitude to explore while also giving me the critical grounding to ensure that I did not get too lost. In particular, Mark has been instrumental in facilitating many of the case studies my research examines. His humorous stories of parametric models failing in practice prompted much of this research. Jane has taught me a great deal about mathematics and made a number of important intellectual contributions to the project by quietly asking crucial questions at exactly the right time. Mark and Jane, together with John Frazer, were awarded the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant for Challenging the Inflexibility of the Flexible Digital Model that has funded my research.

A number of people at SIAL have helped shape my research, as collaborators on projects, as guides through institutional bureaucracy, and as sounding boards during chance meetings in corridors and formal presentations. In particular I would like to thank Alexander Peña de Leon, Chin Koi Khoo, Sascha Bohnenberger, Kamil Sharaidin, Nick Williams, Andrew Burrow, Flora Salim, Brad Marmion, Nicola Narayan, Susu Nousala, Juliette Peers, Margaret Woods, Dominik Holzer, Tim Schork, and Inger Mewburn. I am also thankful to the people who have visited SIAL and critiqued my thesis as part of RMIT’s Graduate Research Conference: Jeff Malpas, Terry Cutler, Michael Ostwald, Anthony Burke, Jill Franz, Jules Moloney, Ken Friedman, Margot Brereton, and Tom Daniell.

My thesis was examined by Sean Hanna and an individual who would rather not be named. Their comments have been crucial in adding the final polish and I am appreciative of the time they both invested in closely reading this thesis.

Many of the projects in this thesis have taken place at Center for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA) in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Mette Thomsen has generously welcomed me into CITA where I have spent many enjoyable days working with Martin Tamke, Brady Peters, Phil Ayres, Anders Deleuran, Aron Fidjeland, Stig Nielsen, Morten Winter, Tore Banke, Jacob Riiber, and John Klein.

My friends have been extremely supportive. Together we have despaired and joked, enjoyed meals and been on adventures. A number of them have also read and edited my thesis. I would especially like to thank Kira Randolph, Jordana Aamalia, Luke Feast, Byron Kinnaird, Rhys Williams, Ross T. Smith, Agnes So, and Richard Maddock. And, of course, my family: Lloyd Davis, Frances McCaffrey, and Kelsey Davis.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this thesis to Kurt Rehder (1969-2010).

Continue reading

  1. Introduction
  2. The Challenges of Parametric Modelling
  3. The Design of Software Engineering
  4. Measuring Flexibility
  5. Case A: Logic Programming
  6. Case B: Structured Programming
  7. Case C: Interactive Programming
  8. Discussion: Beyond Toolmaking
  9. Conclusion