Parametric design for better buildings

User-friendly interfaces makes easier engage client and architect

by Dorothee Citerne
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ARUP'S WEEKLY COLUMN _ Parametric design lets you specify the key parameters of your project and make changes interactively, with the model updating automatically. It can be used for architectural showmanship but I believe good engineers will use it to make more efficient designs, explore more options, and optimise buildings.

In fact, I think it’s our job as engineers to help architects take full advantage of parametric design. By finding the right input parameters and geometrical logic we can achieve simultaneously a challenging aesthetic shape and an efficient design. This is nothing new in terms of engineering best practice, but it is now possible to do it at a much higher level thanks to these tools.

Absolute Towers - Marilyn Monroe Penthouses by MAD architects; Cover Grace on Coronation by Zaha Hadid Architects

Will this make designers rely too heavily on computers or produce shapes that are unnecessarily complex and full of waste? I don’t think so, if they are used as an aid to, rather than a replacement for, good engineering. As engineers, we must still use our judgement, experience and professional standards to define reasonable design parameters and understand their relative importance to the safety and quality of the building. This approach not only applies to geometrical parameters, but to all the design assumptions engineers make to plan for the uncertainties and possible variations of the design environment during the building life cycle.

Burj Khalifa by SOM - Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP

Yet parametric design tools are incredibly useful – particularly for high-rise buildings in China, where the high level of seismicity makes the analysis process even more complex – even in early project phases. On the Z15 tower in Beijing, using these tools has reduced the time between architectural proposition and analysis from weeks to just days. It’s led us to a better design, with more in-depth understanding of the critical parameters of the structure. And it’s enabled us to study the most efficient scheme amongst the numerous design options.

Z15 by KPF - Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates

The different tools have now developed user-friendly interfaces which makes it easier to engage the client and architect on higher level discussions on the topic of design parameters and on the geometric logic of the shape (for example for fabrication issues). The information exchanged between engineer and architect is also of higher value, since you don’t exchange only the final design geometry but also the logic of your design.

Parametric design also offers a good way to have a stronger influence on key design decisions, by analysing more options and giving quantitative feedback, whereas before we could only give global trends based on intuition or very simplified studies. This is particularly useful in a context like China, where the culture and the clients demand that projects must be planned, designed and built super-fast, while breaking world records at the same time (the 528m high Z15 tower is to be the world highest tower in a region of high seismicity).

The Endless City by Sure Architecture

And finally, parametric design can help us use resources more efficiently through optimisation studies.

That’s why I think parametric design is not so far away from our engineering best practice and used efficiently can really lead to a better world. Do you agree?

This article was first published by Arup at

    • Dorothee Citerne

      Dorothee Citerne


      London / United Kingdom

      I am a senior structural engineer now working in Arup’s London building team, after three years in the Beijing structures group. I have had the opportunity to work on challenging projects designed by international architects in France, China and the UK and I’ve acquired a strong expertise in complex shape projects, parametric design and building information modelling (BIM). I am passionate about any technology that can help me deliver elegant and efficient engineering solutions for ambitio)

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