ZGF design technology specialist Dane Stokes has been named to Building Design+Construction magazine’s 40 Under 40 list. Read more in the September issue (p. 60).
Stokes’ first career in the automotive world shapes his approach at ZGF. Stokes turns regularly to computational design — tools for translating processing power into unique design solutions — to solve complexities inherent to high-performance architecture.
“I have always had a love for building, designing, fabrication and problem solving,” he says. “Although the entirety of my current work is centered around the power of the computer, it is really the thrill of making that drives me. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the end product is: a race car, a building, or a database. The process with which it is made, and the challenges that need to be overcome during the design process, is really where my passion lies.”
At age 16, Stokes restored his first vehicle: a 1937 Plymouth. Eventually, he was named a lead designer and fabricator for a Porsche racing and restoration shop. There he gained an appreciation for the design and construction of racing vehicles and the analytical approach to optimizing them through research and development.
As time passed, Stokes noticed parallels between the automotive industry and architecture, where meeting dual performance and visual requirements pose intricate challenges.
Stokes started using computational design during his undergraduate years at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he majored in environmental design with an architecture emphasis. He had an ah-ha moment in school when he was completing a fabrication project with many unique, interlocking panels. Adopting a computational design process allowed him to manage the different items simultaneously, while building more complex and advanced installations. The ability to dictate design intent to an algorithm, and to have it respond with specific and intricate geometrical solutions, which are organized and quantifiable, was a real game-changer for his work.
After graduating as valedictorian, he pursued his master’s in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Travel scholarships took him to places like Rome and Costa Rica, where he gained a broader perspective on his studies.
After Penn, Stokes joined ZGF Architects in Seattle. He found himself continuing to drift toward computational design, using data to create and support his projects. ZGF took notice and created a new position for him within the firm. In the role of design technology specialist, Stokes supports projects in all six offices, with work ranging from building design to data management. Clients include major tech companies, healthcare systems, and government agencies.
According to Stokes, his computational design processes excel when large amounts of data or a large number of objects in a design model need to be processed in unique ways. For example, the city of Seattle’s energy code requires architects to produce drawings wherein each panel in the building’s unique façade is outlined and color coded based on its type. Areas of these panels are also calculated into a spreadsheet. A typical building of the scale ZGF builds has between 10,000 and 20,000 panels on it. With computational design, Stokes wrote an algorithm that shortens the time needed to complete this task from months into hours. The program is currently shaping the design of Bosa Properties’ 2014 Fairview building, an upcoming residential tower in Seattle with an undulating form where every floor is geometrically different.
One of Stokes’ emerging tools is deployed in the early stages of new projects. By using sensors, GPS tracking, ID badge data, surveys, and other data-collection tools, Stokes can document occupant behavior in existing spaces. Algorithmic models use this data to simulate movement within numerous proposed design schemes, predicting occupant behavior in the space to identify what aspects of a design work well and what don’t – like a hallway that fills up too quickly during the lunchtime rush. Dane’s tool informs design choices such as location, size, and layout. Armed with actionable data and easy-to-digest visuals, this process is currently informing the design of a major confidential tech client’s headquarters.
Another interesting example is a high-profile interiors project that involved weaving hundreds of unique panels throughout a childcare facility for a Bay Area tech client. The act of making the panels, which created a whimsical pattern on the lobby walls, wasn’t difficult. However, when the sheets required to document the panels needed to be produced, the simple process of laying every panel flat and arranging them on sheets — with all dimensions and angles documented across these hundreds of panels — became unwieldy. The process was so labor-intensive that the designers were hesitant to explore multiple design options for the installation. By writing an algorithm to automatically document every panel, Stokes saved the team time, money, and gave them the freedom to play around with the actual design.
Stokes sees almost endless possibilities for the implementation of computational design within the AEC industry. He argues that more advanced algorithms and more powerful computing systems will allow us to speak more generally to the computer programs we rely on to produce our work, rather than focusing on explicit commands.
Stokes is working to advance the broader computational design conversation by sharing his knowledge with others, coordinating the Seattle Dynamo Users Group and by hosting frequent technology teaching sessions and presentations at ZGF. He also coordinates the Idea Foundry, an in-house research program within ZGF that fosters rigorous evidence-based innovation in the built environment and advances technological exploration within the firm.
Outside of the office, Stokes participates in the Seattle Design Festival, which brings together designers, community members and city officials to explore how design improves the community. He volunteers for the ZGF Weeks of Giving that raises more than $60,000 annually for the United Way of King County. He also takes part in a variety of volunteer design projects such as building and donating custom furniture for an auction to benefit the “It Gets Better Project,” a charity that supports LGBTQ youth.