Q&A: Computational Design with Dane Stokes

Years before ZGF design technology specialist Dane Stokes embarked on a career in architecture, he was entrenched in the Las Vegas car scene.

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. He gained an appreciation for not only the design and construction of racing vehicles, but for the analytical approach to research and development: a blend of structural analysis, performance metrics and aesthetics.

Stokes noticed parallels between the automotive industry and architecture, where dual performance and aesthetic requirements pose complex challenges. He eventually returned to school to earn a masters in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, his first career shapes his approach at ZGF. Stokes and colleagues regularly turn to computational design — tools for translating processing power into unique design solutions — to solve complexities inherent to high-performance architecture. He recently took some time to trace his career path, and to describe how computational design is being deployed on ZGF projects.

Dane_originalHow does your background inform and inspire your work now at ZGF?

I have always had a love for building, designing, fabrication and problem solving. 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.

Can you describe why you first started using computational design?

I started using it during my undergraduate studies. I was completing a series of fabrication projects including a wall of several hundred unique panel components. Adopting a computational design process allowed me to manage these unique 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 my capabilities as a designer and builder.

How are you currently using computational design?

Computational design processes really excel where large amounts of data or 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 a drawing, wherein every unique façade panel 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 we usually build has 10,000 to 20,000 panels on it. With computational design, we write an algorithm that shortens the time needed to complete a task from months into hours.

What’s the most interesting way you’ve applied computational design on a project?

We had an interiors project that involved weaving a couple hundred unique panels throughout a space, in unique positions and orientations. The act of making the panels wasn’t terribly 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 totally unreasonable. The process was so labor-intensive that the designers were hesitant to explore multiple design options for the installation. In this example, writing an algorithm to automatically document every panel allowed the design team to focus on the actual design. This is how we use computational design: to allow more freedom for our design staff by focusing on the design decisions that really affect our finished product.

What’s on the horizon for future uses of computational design?

I see almost endless possibilities for the implementation of computational design within our industry. 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.

Daniels Real Estate, The Mark

ZGF designed the iconic 750,000 SF, 44-story office and hotel, a striking addition to downtown Seattle’s skyline. The project is the first quarter block site to be developed in the city with the remainder occupied by two historic buildings—the First United Methodist Church and Rainier Club—significant of Seattle’s history and founding families. The design of the tower maximizes the development potential by flaring out over the historic structures and subtly tapering back through a sequence of building planes. The office component, to be occupied by F5 Networks, features column-free floor space and floor to ceiling windows—the most per square foot than in any other building in the city—that maximize daylight and provide unobstructed views. The 189-room luxury hotel space is located on floors one through 16 and repurposes the church to include hotel meeting, event and amenity space including a restaurant, bar, spa, and 20,000 SF ballroom.



ZGF created a branded identity for the 750,000 SF tower to highlight the building’s many amenities and clearly guide tenants and visitors throughout the space. Elevators in the hotel and office cores include a custom designed pattern etched on an oil-rubbed bronze overlay, a detail to highlight the tower’s vertical expression and distinguish between the two uses.

Washington State University, Paul G. Allen Center for Global Animal Health

ZGF programmed and designed The Paul G. Allen Center for Global Animal Health, which is dedicated to providing research solutions to worldwide health challenges. The 62,000 SF Phase 1 building is designed to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and offers the flexibility necessary for grant funded research. The ground floor features an entry lobby and reception area open to the floors above. The entry opens on to a terrace with sliding glass doors which support larger gatherings and fundraising events. The highly contained, ground floor BSL-3 laboratory provides safe access for research specimens. Upper floors include BSL-2 laboratories and open offices organized into neighborhoods to facilitate exchange and discovery. Laboratories and offices are visually connected by a glass wall to allow continuous visual connection and maximize daylight and views. The Phase 1 building is LEED Silver®.



The design team produced a graphics package to emphasize and clarify the building’s mission and inform visitors of research initiatives. The building’s entry lobby features a three-story panel celebrating the mission and vision of the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the facility’s research initiatives. The materiality and the size of the panel’s text and icons vary to add visual interest and depth. Below the panel stands a blue glass video wall containing three monitors that display university announcements, one of which is interactive and features current research performed in the facility and implemented internationally.

Clif Bar Headquarters

The 107,000 SF Clif Bar Headquarters transforms an original World War II valve manufacturing facility into a workplace haven for the outdoor enthusiasts at Clif Bar & Company, a leading maker of organic sports nutrition foods and healthy snacks. The space celebrates the inherent natural light and volumetric space of the repurposed warehouse, while capturing the company culture and connecting employees to the outdoors through biophilic interior design. From custom door pulls made from repurposed bike frames to the largest smart solar array in North America—which provides most of the office’s electricity needs—the adaptive reuse focuses on Clif Bar’s core values to sustain its brands, its business, its people, its community, and the planet. The LEED Platinum® for Commercial Interiors headquarters features an open office working environment, a research and development kitchen, an employee wellness area, on-site childcare, theater space, and a café. Building upon the previous expansion completed in 2012, ZGF is currently working on an additional 45,000 SF second-floor expansion project. Other program elements include a café/coffee bar, bicycle parking, a fitness area, quiet rooms, and a large conference room with advanced AV capabilities.




Re-purposed bikes, kayaks, snowboards, and surfboards that had passed their useful life as sports equipment, now serve as artwork suspended from the ceiling. These art installations were a unique collaboration between the ZGF design team and Clif Bar and were assembled on site to represent shapes found in nature such as a helix, comet and lotus.

Each art piece was a live experiment, beginning with a fully engineered, computer-modeled concept developed by an in-house artist/model maker. For example, the kayak helix was dynamically spun in place to achieve the desired effect and the bikes in the bike comet were systematically suspended from the ceiling with stainless wire and elevated and shifted to achieve the desired result. Each hanging art piece assists in wayfinding and tells a story about Clif Bar employees or sponsored athletes.

Gerding Edlen Development Company, Twelve | West Mixed-Use Building

Rising 22 stories above Portland, Oregon’s evolving West End neighborhood, Twelve | West is a 550,000 SF mixed-use building designed by ZGF to serve as a laboratory for sustainable design and workplace strategies. The double LEED Platinum-certified building features street-level retail space, four floors that house ZGF’s Portland office, 17 floors of apartments, and five levels of below-grade parking. The building has an eco-roof, a rooftop garden and terrace space, a complete fitness studio, and a theater. Four wind turbines sit prominently atop the building, representing the first U.S. installation of a wind turbine array on an urban, high-rise. Twelve | West serves as not only an anchor in a rapidly transforming neighborhood, but also as a demonstration project to inform future sustainable building design. The building is located immediately south of Portland’s well-known Pearl District—an acclaimed urban renewal district that is considered a model of live, work, and play mixed-use development. Twelve | West’s site was selected in part to serve as a catalyst for additional transformation in the West End. The goal is to create a significant retail and pedestrian connection to the Central Business District to the southeast and the mixed-use neighborhoods to the north and west of the West End.