The Architectural Information Map
From Design Informatics
Semantic modeling in conceptual architectural design
3 December 2009
This research focuses on the acquisition, representation, sharing and reuse of design information and knowledge in the conceptual phase of architectural design, and targets the creation of situated digital environments where teams of designers communicate and collaborate using this information and knowledge.
The main product of the conceptual architectural design phase is a design concept that promises to be successfully developed for the given design project. In order to foster this concept generation, designers gather information in order to gain knowledge and insights about a design task at hand, but also to get inspiration and creative ideas. Precedents – known examples of good design solutions – act as a common source of knowledge and inspiration for designers. Many precedent libraries exist where (visual) documents are collected in a repository, generally organized according to common categories such as ‘year of completion’ and ‘architect’. However, in the conceptual design phase, designers are generally not ready to formulate specific queries for retrieving information. One may be interested in looking at all documents about a certain topic, or just jumping from link to link, following a certain thread. This requires that the information structure that relates the documents is dense enough and at the same time possesses an organizational structure that allows a categorization of documents that is more powerful than a simple collection of common categories. Furthermore, when designers define an organizational structure for the knowledge and insights they gain from precedents, this fortifies their design reasoning process. That is, designers construct a cognitive model of relevant connections between the current problem and the design rationale on the one hand, and the knowledge and concepts underlying precedents stored in the repository on the other hand. Therefore, the digital environments aimed at in this research enable their users to collectively, interactively and incrementally develop an information structure that organizes the information and knowledge residing in the environment.
A community of designers commonly shares a common professional language where the vocabulary of this language represents a shared understanding. This language is formed over time and passed on to new members of the community. Members of such a design community working together on a common goal (generally a project) form a community of practice. Members of a community of practice operate both by recording common knowledge into documents and by actively participating in social processes in order to personally contextualize this recorded knowledge. These activities are both the means and the result of an architectural community of practice. By performing both activities, members of an architectural community of practice collectively agree on the value of this knowledge and information. This is denoted correspondence, i.e., communication with the aim of reaching an agreement. Correspondence ensures that the creators of the information and knowledge are also its users. Correspondence is the key to the creation of a dense and highly inter-related information structure that forms the basis of digital information environments for the conceptual phase of design. Such information structures are denoted ‘complex information structures’ in this research.
A complex information structure is composed of information entities and their relationships, tagged with certain design concepts. These design concepts are themselves related through semantic relationships forming a semantic structure. This semantic structure acts as the organizational backbone of a complex information structure. Elements (concepts and relationships) of this semantic structure are associated with information entities (documents) and describe them. A complex information structure created by a community of practice through information and social processes has characteristics of a ‘complex adaptive system’ where the structure of the system is non-hierarchical, the interactions are not predefined, and the state of the system is unpredictable.
In this research, grounded theory has been adopted as the research methodology in order to develop a context based and iterative approach to the research domain and issues. In this context, the research question has been iteratively formulated as: How can communities of architectural practice correspond on design information and knowledge during the conceptual phase of design? Case studies have provided empirical and qualitative data in order to ground and iteratively formulate the theory. This research question has been addressed through a study of relevant literature, theories, methods and techniques, and has led to the development of a computational framework called the Architectural Information Map (ArcIMap). Complex information structures form the basis of ArcIMap. The goal of ArcIMap is to define a structure for the design and creation of digital applications that support designers in the conceptual phase of design by defining the representational framework for achieving an integrated information structure of components, relationships and metadata from a collection of design documents and the knowledge that resides in these documents. The framework can then be implemented for different purposes, domains, contexts, or architectural bodies.
ArcIMap is both a method and a model. The method defines social and information processes in order to create complex information structures underlying complex adaptive systems. The model acts as a structure for the design of complex information structures. The techniques and technologies encapsulated in the model enable the implementation of applications of ArcIMap in various educational and practical contexts. An application of ArcIMap must be rooted in its use context, therefore, a study of the social and work processes of the users and the organizational structure of the context in which it will be used must be studied in the design stage of the application. Environments to be used in an educational context have different requirements than ones to be used in practice, because experienced designers have different needs than novices. Four prototype applications of ArcIMap have been developed, situated, and evaluated in different architectural education and practice contexts. These applications and their evaluation have provided valuable feedback to the theory forming and to the iterative definition of ArcIMap.
The first application is an analysis presentation tool that uses three Ottoman mosques as its case study, researches and validates the unified representational framework and evaluates the notions of interaction and associative browsing in an application of ArcIMap. The second application, Blob Inventory Project (BLIP), is a precedent library designed for modeling knowledge that has emerged from digital design, engineering and production processes of free-form geometry buildings and has been used in the 3rd semester of the MSc. architecture education. BLIP researches and evaluates user interface and interaction aspects of ArcIMap. The third application, Design Analysis Network (DAN), is an information system implemented as an educational architectural analysis environment used in the undergraduate 2nd year design studio. DAN researches and evaluates all components of ArcIMap, but especially the embedding in a context. The fourth application, DesignMap, is a flexible and extensible content management system intended to be used at the early stages of design, is targeted towards small and medium-sized architectural offices, and has been used and evaluated at the architectural office Mecanoo in Delft. DesignMap researches, implements and evaluates ArcIMap within the context of architectural practice.
The utilizable outputs of this research are the ArcIMap method and model, and the four prototype applications. Additionally, KeySet, as it has been developed and used in DAN, is being successfully used by thousands of students at the Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft, and at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Utrecht since 2003, demonstrating the success of the research.