Monday, March 19, 2018


Next month I head for Italy for a reality capture workshop and another serious think about European cities past and present.  I've been trying to record some ideas about my particular area of interest to share with the rest of the group.  One them that has long fascinated me is the way urban streets vary from city to city.  Take for example the Newari house.

I visited Kathmandu in 2006 and have had a couple of stabs at capturing the typical shop-houses form that enchanted me then.  Very vertical, jammed together with carved hardwood doors and windows, red clay bricks and tiles; propped, overhanging eaves.

The only Italian house-form I have attempted is the Trullo.  Shamelessly copied from Paul Oliver's books this presented an interesting challenge for a fledgling Revit user 10 years ago.  I used this as part of the introduction to one of my sessions at RTC Chicago: an example of trying to capture "organic" form using "clunky" Revit.

Another half-finished experiment arount the same period was my "African Hut", hommage to my 23 years spent living in that continent.  Again this was an interesting technical challenge at the time, but I never took it far enough to describe a way of life convincingly: kitchen, bedrooms, granary, household utensils, etc.  My life seems full of incomplete intentions.

The same criticism applies to my Dogon hut, also based on images from books and mostly about demonstrating tricks for emulating lumpy-bumpy materials like mud and thatch.  All the same it kept alive a dream that has been floating around my head for around 25 years now: a book called "The Way We Build" which explores responses to climate and culture alongside the nitty gritty of bricklaying techniques and eaves details.

In my day job I have had the opportunity to apply Revit to the business of recreating an urban tradition here in the Arabian Gulf: wind towers and courtyards, narrow winding streets, rhythmic rows of recesses.

My role on this project was to create a library of Revit families that could be used in different permutations and combinations to compose and entire urban district.  This is what I have in mind for Volterra also.  If we can capture a variety of typical elements: windows, doors, eaves, chimneys ... then recreate them as parametric families ... maybe students of Architecture could use these to study typical urban groupings. 

But this weekend I was drawn into another urban study that I began in 2007 when I visited a friend of mine in Saltaire.  Titus Salt was an industrialist who made a fortune by spotting an opportunity to convert a neglected raw material into a luxury product.  He took over his father's business in 1833, the year that Soane retired as architect to the Bank of England, and over the next twenty years built a huge business based around "Alpaca".

Saltaire is the urban village he built around his new mill on the outskirts of Bradford: an attempt to create a healthier environment for his workers, within walking distance of open countryside.  The design of the housing units was also substantially above the norm in terms of both form and function.  There was a serious attempt to find a balance between privacy of the family unit and communal facilities for the benefit of the community.

Oddly enough the architecture is inspired by northern Italy, but filtered through the mindset of Victorian England.  The tedium of rows of small terraced houses is relieved by creating 3 storey pavilions at the corners and adding simple decorative flourishes.  Round headed windows, sometimes grouped into threes, add just a hint of Italianate style.

The standard worker's house of the era was the back-to-back terrace, but these houses are more generous with small backyards offering a private outside WC and coal storage.  Full depth houses also provide better cross-ventilation of course.

I intended to just do a quick spruce up, then export a few images, but it turned into a whole weekend.  Quite revealing how far my ideas have progressed when it comes to making complex door and window families for example.  I enjoyed adapting my current modular system to round-headed versions.  This is all based on nested components with standardised names and linked parameter sets.

I previously developed a "Trim" profile for Project Soane which uses a simple "equalised grid" to scale a complex shape parametrically.  This proved very easy to adapt to the simpler mould used in Saltaire.  Didn't have to be parametric, but now that it is I can use it elsewhere with different proportions.

This modular "mix and match" system that have been developing (for doors, windows and classical columns at present) is an ongoing project.  I think the Volterra workshop will be a good opportunity to extend it further.  There are always new challenges when tackling components from a historical context.  Hopefully we can build up a useful "public library" of consistently modelled parametric families with interchangeable nested components.

I spent my childhood living in a terraced house in the north of England.  I think it's called "row housing" in the US.  There are very many variations on this theme and I have long wanted to create an in-depth "BIM pencil" study that explores the construction, functional arrangements and social context a representative selection.  Here is the ground floor plan of four units from a typical Saltaire row.  As you can see, the end pavilion comprised two dwellings (although they were altered in modern times and condensed into one)

That's about it for now.  I'm finishing this off at the office having arrived long before "opening time" to beat the traffic.  My last image uses "cutaway" views.  This was always one of my favourite features of Revit, so exciting a dozen years ago when I was still a novice.  Revisiting projects like this one has a special magic because of the "flashbacks" that occur in the recesses of my brain, remembering what it felt like to take those first faltering steps on my BIM journey.

One question here.  Not quite sure why there is coal storage in the cellar and also in the back yards.  Does it mean that some houses don't have cellars?  I have strong childhood memories of the coal man arriving and tipping sacks down a round hole in the pavement, cast iron covers with an internal chain as an anti-theft device.  So many little details of a bygone era that I would like to capture and share.

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