Sunday, February 23, 2020


There are certain categories of Revit family which troubled me from day one.  The out-of-the-box content was useless, and making your own families for those categories was quite challenging.  One issue was to do with “organic shapes” (sanitary ware, certain types of furniture, etc.)  Doors present a different challenge. 

This post from May 2012 looks at some of the options available, and in particular the “Door Factory” plugin that was developed in New Zealand. (Something that many people feel should be built in to the installed version of Revit).  Ultimately I have developed my own system for generating a wide variety of door families in a systematic and predictable way.  This has been operating successfully at GAJ, where I work for several years now and has proved to be quite adaptable.  Will there ever be a universal, shared approach to creating door families in Revit?

Next comes a post about those pesky Plumbing Fixtures.  In this case, many of the families I created were quite straight forward, although the toilet bowls and urinals did involve subtle “organic” shapes.  That was an interesting project for me.  A chance to build up a library of content for public rest rooms.  That continues to be an ongoing project.  In fact I have been reorganizing the “collection” file on our server just this week. 

I am a big fan of organizing all the Revit families for a particular category in a Revit project, with views and sheets that help end users to understand how the families work and to find the content that they need for a particular project.

One thing I have discovered that if you name a blog post after a well known catch phrase, a pop song, or whatever … the spam will find a way past the robot checker.  Windows from Kerala etc advertised in my comments section … the internet at its worst. (no reflection on Kerala, I have several good friends who hail from that state)  I was working on roads that wind around a hillside and trying to speed up the process of cutting into Revit topography with pads, simulating sloping faces and building objects to represent roads (Point World inevitably)

One answer to the spam issue is to miss-spell words, introducing an element of double-entendre in the process. This work was part of an effort by our office to get the civil engineers to be a bit more creative in their approach.  BIM is supposed to be a tool for interdisciplinary coordination, although the usual narrative is not quite so combative, but then again, the usual narrative assumes that the engineers are using BIM.  Thankfully, almost 8 years later, many of them are.

The next post coincides with my first RTC event.  I was just an attendee. Since then I have always gone as a speaker.  These are reflections on the US and cultural differences.  I have lived in England, Zimbabwe and Dubai.  Standards are good in many ways, but cultural variation is also fascinating and the creativity with which people design devices for simple bodily interactions like switching on a table lamp or controlling the flow of water … I really enjoy the surprise of finding that these work in a different way from past experience.  My search for an effective digital drawing tool had lighted upon the bamboo, which really draws on paper in the normal way while simultaneously recording digital image files. Didn’t really catch on.

The conference was in Atlanta but I stayed with my daughter before and after, in New Jersey which has a town called Millburn, like my surname but with an extra “L”.  Travelling is always invigorating.  Everything is slightly unfamiliar, constantly noticing things that you wouldn’t normally think about.

Passing through England on the way home.  I went to see Richard Arkwright’s first spinning mill in Derbyshire. This was early on in my deep dive into the industrial revolution by looking at buildings and how they were built.  This factory takes us back to just before fossil fuels became our main source of power.  Arkwright used water power as a bridge while steam engines were ramping up their efficiency, until eventually he ran out of streams.  St Pancras station provides a perfect link.  This terminus was a gateway into London for people from Derbyshire once the chain reaction unleashed by Arkwright’s factory progressed to steam powered public transport.  The magnificent single gothic arches of the roof were manufactured in Derbyshire, as was the beer that was stored under the platform in huge quantities. This warehouse has now been opened up to the arches in places to create a modern shopping mall.  Gothic Revival side-by-side with minimalist modernism.

Back in Dubai, I started implementing ideas that I had picked up at RTC (the forerunner of what are now the BiLT conferences)  I particular, I was using an “excel and back” workflow to randomize curtain panels.  This was quite exciting for a while.  I haven’t used the technique on actual fee earning jobs, so the novelty wore off after a while.  There was a free app that did the job for a while.  I guess these days you would probably use Dynamo, if you had the skills.

I was creating imaginary facades.  Nothing very exciting from a design point of view.  Variable depth, holes of different sizes, colours randomly distributed.  I learnt some new stuff about Excel and was hopeful that it would become a regular bolt-on for handling Revit data.  Hasn’t materialized.  Is it me?  Would it make a difference if the connection to Excel was built into the core of Revit?  Who knows?

Last post in this sequence is something completely different.  Very much bread and butter problems that crop up in our office, mostly when doing “Gulf Traditional” style architecture.  We use cavity walls to generate the thickness needed to pull this style off effectively.  The problem comes when trying to join up the various wall types and to create deep recesses all over the façade.  Not sure I have developed a really satisfactory solution yet, but haven’t done a project like this for a couple of years now.

Friday, February 21, 2020


I think I’m going to coin another word, or maybe an acronym. BDYBRN …

It represents the Body-Brain symbiont.  Most animals are BDYBRNs. Sponges are an exception, but crucially the body doesn’t move about.  There are some wormy things that have nervous systems but no real CPU.  Then you get to the BDYBRNs.  The idea is that our thinking is rooted in physical actions of our bodies.  We think by doing.  

My "doing" usually involves BIM, but in this case it’s a combination of hand drawing and image processing (Sketchbook Pro & PIXLR) all “done” on my phone.  What a strange word that is to give to that ubiquitous extension to our BDYBRN.  I guess a lot of people still do use the auditory channel (Phon-) but for me it’s very rare.  Text and images dominate entirely in my use of a mobile device.

This 4x-tiych image dates back to sketching I did a couple of years ago when I got back from my first Voterra workshop.  My second visit is coming up in April. We will be scanning various built elements that have survived from past ages… anything up to 3000 years ago. Personally I am also interested in current vernacular building trades, which clearly evolved from a deep past history.

The windows are especially fascinating.  Side hung casements with a variety of configurations involving louvres, glass and solid panels, opening in or out.  The louvres commonly have a top-hung element hinging outwards, nested inside a larger side-hung panel.  The complex profiles on the edges of the framing, and the varieties of metal hardware used, are quite fascinating.  

Carved stone surrounds were once a very common feature, and I would like to capture a number of examples of these as mesh objects.  Photo-textured meshes would be great suitable for viewing on a web page.  Then I would like to extract “typical elements” from the mesh to incorporate into Revit families.  This would allow us to represent shapes that are very difficult to model with native Revit geometry, typically resulting in very heavy files.  It would also capture some of the textured irregularity of a heritage building.  These things were not built yesterday, and that sense of insight into a bygone age is a large part of the fascination we have for old structures.

I assembled these sketches after an online meetup with other members of the group who will be attending this year.  It was a way of revitalizing my memory of that intense experience, two years ago.  Scanning through folders, selecting images that “jump forward” in my BDYBRN awareness system.  Then processing those selected images, spending time “doing stuff,” drawing lines to highlight aspects of the geometry, filling regions, applying filters … all the time following my subconscious urges to simplify and condense the image into an eye-catching essence.  

All the time while working my BDYBRN is going “how was this actually built?” “why do they do it like that?” “when was glass introduced” and similar speculations, sometimes pausing occasionally to wave my arms around and other bodily thinking motions.

Thinking by doing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


We see what we expect to see.  There are lots of psychology experiments that play off this reality.  The famous gorilla suit guy waltzing through the basketball players is particularly dramatic.  I’ve been reading and watching discussions in the world of neuroscience and cognition.  We are engaged in a “learning by doing” exercise as we recreate Notre Dame.  The “embodied mind” and “predictive cognition” are academic variations on this theme.  We understand the world by acting upon it.  We act by predicting what will happen when we do X, noting any prediction errors and adjusting our actions accordingly.  

All our ideas are metaphors deriving from the ways our bodies interact with the world.  I am “falling behind” with my blog posts.  This weekend, Francois shared images from a book he had acquired.  It’s full of drawings of Notre Dame, but it’s not altogether clear who made the drawings and how accurate they are.  This is discussed in the foreword of the book.  Certainly, there are many discrepancies between the drawings and the cathedral as it was a year ago.  

Difficult to interpret.
  • Mistakes by the artist?  
  • Changes made to the building by Viollet le Duc and others?  
  • How will we ever know? 

The only way I know is to “do stuff”.  If you want to understand something, try to draw it.  That was my mantra as I was growing up.  We learn by acting upon the world and picking up on anomalies.  

Among the drawings are the two end elevations of the transepts: North and South.  Every time we have set about making a family for these locations, we have quickly discovered that they are quite different.  And yet, at a glance we see them as twins.  This delusion persists despite the discovery of multiple differences.  This weekend I realized that the horizontal elements on the North façade are systematically lower than those on the South.  

There are fascinating little flights of steps leading “nowhere” at the ends of the Triforium galleries where they meet the transepts and turn the corner.  I have looked at these on the TruView site many, many times.  Actually, they don’t go nowhere, one of them leads to an access door.  Maybe they both did, originally.  There are small access doors below the steps in both cases.  

Looking is not seeing.  As soon as I thought about “making” these steps I noticed something new.  There is a zig-zag pattern.  It’s almost as if they are straight versions of the spiral stairs that lead up to the roof.

This is a fascinating variation on the “cantilever stair” beloved by Soane, and more correctly called a Torsion Stair because each tread is supported on two edges, although the whole stair appears to cantilever from the wall.  It also reminds me of those kinds of ladder that have different rungs for left and right legs.  Clearly you have to predict which step is intended for which leg before attempting to climb these stepping-stones.  I imagine that most of us would do this quite subconsciously.  

Amazing how often our body does the thinking for us, and our brains just go along for the ride.

It has been a weekend of small insights.  We started to unravel the access routes that weave their way through gothic cathedrals quite early on in our modelling activities, but they are very complex and varied.  I had assumed that there were spiral stairs at all four corners of the transepts, simply because there are external projections that climb all the way up to the eaves.  I knew that those to the west didn’t extend to ground level, but so what?

Well it seems that they don’t exist at all.  Why then the splayed projections?  As far as I can tell these allow for narrow passageways within the thickness of the wall, leading to the “bridges” that cross below the rose windows.  There must be small flights of steps within these passages to handle the different levels, but not continuous spirals like there are on the East side.

When I first tackled the Bell Towers, I tried to make them square. Couldn’t quite manage it, and it’s clear now that it was a mistake. They are markedly rectangular in plain. Wider in the North – South direction. So I’ve started to correct this.  On the right a sketch that I did on my phone while mulling over how the stepping-stones worked.  It’s quite staggering the extent to which the Note 8 has become an extension of my brain-body amalgam.  I guess it started with clay tablets and cuneiform, invaded my childhood in the form of pencil & paper, then mutated into this all-purpose device that allows me to collect and/or originate dozens of images per day.

It connects me to hundreds of people around the world who share an interest in buildings.  We exchange selected items from our daily encounters with this domain.  Recent among these was drone captured geometry of a rose window.  Alfredo commented on this and I was motivate to find the source, a private school in West Sussex, not far from where my parents once lived.  

This got me thinking about a comparative study of Rose Window Geometry.  Revit’s drafting tools suit this task better than hand sketching.  I need at least another 5 of these to make it worthy of the name “study”.

Nader joined our team recently and has been looking at stained glass material textures.  I think it may be difficult to create materials that render equally well in different applications, but some good progress is being made.  There are at least three different styles of stained glass:  
  • Richly coloured medieval style pictures, 
  • “grisaille” patterns in more muted colours and 
  • “modern” abstract designs created in the 1960s … which is what I am showing below.

Project Notre Dame is quite an intense group experience, with a common goal and regular interactions.   More diffusely this interweaves with other networks, notably LinkedIn and YouTube.  There are seemingly endless communities of enthusiasts out there.  Last weekend I watched some time-lapse drawings of decorative scroll-work and foliage.  

This reminded me of work I was doing just before Notre Dame invaded my consciousness.  I was working through classical motifs (rosettes, acanthus leaves) with a combination of Revit modelling and digital sketching.  At that stage I was just mostly sketching over photographic images, often simplifying and abstracting, but not inventing from scratch.  The videos helped me to believe that freestyle improvisation was achievable.  

My first attempt is very loose and quirky, but quite lively.  No guides or source, I just started drawing and made it up as I went along.  I am loving the contrast between this quick flight of fancy, and the long haul of recreating a cathedral.  Geometrical precision of the rose window geometry versus free-flowing lines and wash effects.