Generative design helps these architects hold their clients’ horses—literally

The generative-design process is a beast of burden for Populous architects—facilitating the layout of equine expos and livestock shows is just the start.

spectators watching cattle at an indoor arena

Patrick Sisson

October 1, 2021

min read
exterior view of the WestWorld venue in Scottsdale, AZ
When renovating the WestWorld equestrian sports and event complex in Scottsdale, AZ, the Populous team made space for updated fan amenities without reducing seating capacity. Courtesy of Populous Architects.

Of all the creative constraints designers face, time may be the most challenging.

At Populous, a global architecture firm that specializes in stadiums and arenas, every venue project—regardless of the budget, sport, or site—is limited by deadlines and the minutiae of fitting fans, players, concessions, and many other elements into a coherent whole.

The time-consuming process of solving these spatial puzzles is familiar to designer Kristin Gardner, who works in the firm’s Norman, OK, office. As part of the team that designs venues for equine expos and livestock shows, one of Gardner’s tasks is creating stall layouts that may be reconfigured multiple times during the course of a single event. The same intricacies that apply to stadium seating design and convention exposition floors apply here—maximizing capacity and flexibility while creating a holistic design—and the rote design tasks of this repetitive work can take weeks for every new venue-plan scenario.

Complex Design Problems Call for Innovative Solutions

exterior view of Bennett Events Center and parking lot with fair
The Oklahoma State Fair’s Bennett Event Center hosts equestrian shows; state basketball and wrestling finals; rodeos; concerts; and traveling productions, including Disney on Ice. Courtesy of Populous Architects.

The crux of this challenge may be familiar to many architects: Take a big, open expo hall with a concrete floor and maybe a few columns in the middle, and maximize occupancy for a variety of clients, sizes, and scenarios.

But when designing for livestock shows, things quickly get complicated: Structures vary in size, such as equine stalls (10 by 10 feet) and stalls for pigs (6 by 6 feet); occupancy information is fundamental to the layout and design of the rest of the structure; and clients increasingly request multimodule setups and larger venues, requiring more planning within the open-ended box.

The Populous Equestrian/Livestock design team found a more streamlined approach using generative-design capabilities in Autodesk Dynamo. The technology can best be understood as a test-run generator: An architect or designer codes in logic, requirements, and limitations; then, a generative-design program explores a range of solutions, one possibility at a time. By vetting so many options, the program uncovers optimal solutions from infinite variations, a complex process human designers wouldn’t have time to fully explore.

“Instead of being handcuffed to your first two or three ideas or layouts or designs, you can test as many as you want because there are no time constraints,” Gardner says. “If I can think of 10 ideas in 10 minutes, we can test them almost as quickly.”

In this case, Populous input stall dimensions, spacing and aisle preferences, and the accumulated knowledge from years of doing these projects, and the script rapidly popped out potential parameters and solutions. For one project, the team ran the generative design overnight and had the five best solutions to parse the next morning. But that’s not the final blueprint—generative design takes care of the repetitive tasks and the human design team benefits with more time to be creative and engage in higher-order problem solving.

The benefits of generative design go far beyond project-delivery efficiency, says Populous Principal Charlie Kolarik. “One traditional model is to view the productivity efficiency gained through generative-design technology as an opportunity to deliver the same quality product faster and cheaper than our competition,” he says. “However, I am not personally satisfied with that model, as it falls short of our core values at Populous of entrepreneurial creativity, excellence, integrity, and enjoyment.”

Kolarik explains that a higher-tier value is realized when minimizing time spent on repetitive work lets the firm focus more on the things that set it apart as industry thought leaders. “This creates the space for us to provide significant value and innovation in what we deliver for our clients,” he says. “This leads me to the highest tier of value, which is leveraging our technological capabilities and innovation to help strengthen our market position as trusted advisors to our clients.”

Finding a Better Way Forward Through Technology

Color rendering of the Calgary Stampede's BMO Convention Centre
When completed in 2024, the Calgary Stampede’s expanded BMO Convention Centre, designed by Populous in partnership with Stantec and S2, will be the largest conference facility in western Canada. Courtesy of Populous Architects.

To create the expo grounds of the future, the Populous team devised a system that offers great promise for architecture and design at any scale. They created a generative-design process that can rapidly test, iterate, and choose the best possible layouts for livestock shows and arenas.

With the power of cloud computing, such programs run scripts that basically eliminate time as a constraint, testing hundreds or thousands of possible layouts in a fraction of the time it would take a human designer to complete.

“You’re not taking away anyone’s design capabilities or saying, ‘Here, let the machine do this,’” Gardner says. “It’s about using generative design to find the best solutions to issues that are just numbers and data.”

Populous Design and Technology Manager Jason Gardner, who helped design the script and create the application, found the process fascinating: “I had no clue that I was going to learn so much about cows, chickens, pigs, and horses, so it became an education in all areas.”

Encouraging a Culture of Innovation

“It may seem a bit contrary for a global design leader like Populous to spend time and resources developing software code to populate boxes on a floor template, but innovating and exploring this type of technology are instrumental in giving our design teams and our clients clarity on how our designs will perform,” Kolarik says. “If we can’t prove that a project will perform or that it can be constructed, then it simply shouldn’t—and won’t—be built.”

Taking opportunities to learn, innovate, and explore is central to the way Populous operates—and the reason that the team could experiment to find this creative solution to a complex and challenging design problem. “Innovation-wise, we are really open to let people try and innovate themselves,” Jason Gardner says. “It doesn’t matter if you are an intern or a principal in charge, at some point, you’re given an opportunity to speak about your ideas and your processes. That’s our focus as a company, I think, to be open and collaborative and listening.”

This extends to embracing new processes and technologies across the board. “This culture is blossoming within our firm as more and more of our design teams discover the freedom of expression and creativity associated with manipulating our digital design capabilities,” Kolarik says. “I think the primary motivation is the collective celebration of the amazing innovations our design teams have fostered into reality, thanks to the innovative technological solutions implemented at Populous.”

More Projects, More Profitability, Better Partnerships

Populous’s generative-design innovation came along just as COVID-19 hit and many venue-design projects were put on hold. Populous used this scenario as an opportunity to become a contributor to the industries it serves, utilizing generative design, capacity modeling, crowd modeling, and other design technologies to inform the venue-reopening plans and strategies of its clients and their peers. In recent months, many new, large-scale projects have been booked or restarted, and the firm is taking advantage of technology advances that it was able to develop during the pandemic slowdown. This investment in processes is paying off: Recently, while configuring a new venue with 1,800 stalls, Gardner finished the layout in four hours—instead of two weeks.

“What we are doing is right-sizing venues based on clients’ needs and market demands and providing proof of concept that what we are proposing actually fulfills the programmatic needs, provides for growth, and fits the market feasibility demands for multiuse functionality,” Gardner says.

To Kolarik, this sentiment reinforces generative design’s greatest advantage: “Our most successful applications of generative-design technology have originated in our ability to partner with our clients to solve complex functional, operational, and event overlay challenges with data-proven design solutions,” he says. “We can quickly prove design concepts with data and graphics that galvanize complex groups of stakeholders around a focused design direction. This is the top tier of value for generative technology, and we are just scratching the surface.”

Patrick Sisson

About Patrick Sisson

Patrick Sisson is a Los Angeles–based design and culture writer who has made Stefan Sagmeister late for a date and was scolded by Gil Scott-Heron for asking too many questions. His work has appeared in Dwell, Pitchfork, Motherboard, Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Chicago Magazine.

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