Architectural Design Performance Through Computational Intelligence: A Comprehensive Decision Support Framework

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

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Identification of design solutions for a built environment that caters to the human needs at all levels, and more specifically, to the needs of the clients and the society, is the main task addressed by architectural design. Architectural design is a prime example of a design task that is characterized by a high degree of complexity. Architectural design problems by definition entail relationships between decisions and objectives that are all but transparent. For the decision-maker to be able to guide design towards fulfilling objectives, a ‘closed-loop’ approach where variations in design solutions are generated and evaluated in an iterative process is employed. Due to the sheer number of alternative solutions to problems of even a moderate scale (due to combinatorial explosion), it is only feasible to iterate over a minuscule fraction of possible solutions. Design intuition of the professionals involved in design is a strong driving force behind the identification of design direction, in which alternatives are explored as part of the preliminary design process. This is an approach that depends on the human cognitive capabilities to navigate the design space and identify potentially promising solutions. Regardless, the complexity associated with architectural design often poses significant challenges to human cognition. Human cognition, while formidable in its ability to flexibly and efficiently navigate challenging environments, is faced with difficulties in addressing the complexity factors outlined previously, namely: the excessive (combinatorially explosive) number of potential solutions to architectural problems, the complex and non-linear relations between objects and their properties and the conflicting nature of design goals that architectural design entails. Thus, design professionals are often faced with the real threat that their decisions may be biased due to the natural limitations of human cognition acting in complex environments.

Due to the reasons highlighted above, a systematic approach to design space exploration must be undertaken, to maximize the potential for discovering optimal solutions to design problems. Due to the nature of such problems that entail multiple conflicting objectives, a single best solution is generally not attainable. Nonetheless, best-tradeoff solutions are distinguished and highly desirable for such multi-objective design problems. The field of Computational Intelligence, and within that in particular Evolutionary Computation-based (EC) intelligent approaches, offer a lucrative option as decision-support tools in design, as they are able to efficiently address the aforementioned proponents of design complexity. EC approaches are able to navigate the design space efficiently and systematically, considering multiple conflicting objectives and hard constraints, and being able to deal with arbitrary relations between design decision variables and design objectives.

In today's setting, products of architecture must lead the way to a sustainable and environmentally friendlier society. As such, the performance of buildings has become the main driving force behind the design process, being referred to as ``performance-driven design''. This initiative emphasizes the quantitative evaluation of a design's function in accordance with established design objectives, related to aspects such as energy performance, visual and thermal comfort, cost and environmental footprint, etc. Simulation-based tools that enable accurate design evaluation are gaining ground and offering valuable insight into the performance of buildings. Nonetheless, making decisions in this multi-objective environment is not trivial, and, as stipulated above, may be challenging to human cognition. Thus, in today’s setting where the quantitative performance of buildings keeps gaining ground, the research on the application of EC in architectural design is high on the scientific agenda.

Recognizing the impact design complexity has on architectural design and the potential that EC-based approaches offer in addressing it, this thesis proposes a comprehensive computational intelligence decision support system that combines components based on intelligence with ones based on cognition, with the ultimate aim of enabling decision-makers manage design complexity and improve decision making. In particular, this thesis adopts the theoretical standpoint that efficient navigation of an unknown environment assumes a fusion of intelligence and cognition. In this sense, and given the already widespread adoption of intelligent approaches (such as EC mentioned above), the main contribution of this thesis is to endow the intelligent approach with cognitive facilities, so as to improve its efficiency to the point that it is readily applicable to the early stages of the architectural design process.

Fusion of intelligent with cognitive approaches, as outlined in the approach proposed by this thesis, offers the unique advantage of a decision support approach that is both powerful, owing to the extensive capabilities of intelligent search algorithms, and flexible, owing to the extensive knowledge modeling capabilities of cognitive approaches. As such, it is uniquely suited to the early conceptual design stage where the need to explore large design spaces, flexibly redefine the design problem, and satisfy preferences that are not included in the primary design goals, are all paramount.

Thus, the word ``comprehensive'' as it appears on this thesis' title obtains a twofold meaning: On one hand comprehension as in the combination of computational intelligence and cognition in a single approach; on the other hand, as in \textit{comprehension} of the environment, the result of an intelligent and cognitive approach to understanding.

Firstly, it seeks to address the excessive computational burden associated with the use of modern high-fidelity simulation software in architecture, to render computational optimization more approachable. There is a clear trend in modern design practice to employ accurate simulation-based performance assessment tools from the very early stages of design. The use of such tools provides a valuable advantage to the decision-maker, in endowing objective awareness regarding the performance of a design solution. On the other hand, such tools are associated with a heavy computational burden, which may limit their application to the conceptual design stage. There exist methods to alleviate the computational burden through the use of computational cognitive machine learning tools, also known as surrogate modeling. However, training of surrogate models can be time-consuming itself, thus limiting the application. This thesis proposes a surrogate model that is modular in that it considers each space of the building in question as a separate entity, encoded through generic variables, and as such promotes model reuse in different design cases.

Secondly, it seeks to advance the state of the art on post-Pareto decision support by proposing a cognitive machine-learning based approach that enables the decision-maker to combine near-optimality with preferences regarding concrete features of the design solution. Post-Pareto decision making is an important step of the decision-making process, that seeks to identify a best-tradeoff solution among the possible ones that best matches the decision-maker's preferences in terms of performance. Such preferences are termed second-order because they follow design objectives in terms of importance. Nonetheless, it is often in architectural design that preferences are expressed in terms of design properties and not performance. Due to the non-linearity between the objective function space and the decision variable space that dictates object properties, it is challenging to exercise decision making using second-order preferences. Here the contribution of this thesis is a machine cognitive approach that learns the underlying relationships between object properties, distinguishing those that are relevant when the object is optimal with respect to design objectives. In other words, only imposing relations that are relevant to achieve optimality, it enables the expression of preferences by the decision-maker that are minimally constrained.

The main output of this thesis is a comprehensive decision support framework; it is a framework, in the sense that it comprises a set of methods and implemented tools that seek to augment decision making in architectural design; it is termed comprehensive in that it employs computational cognition and machine learning to augment the intelligent decision support capabilities throughout the design decision support process. It is also generic and applicable as-is to a wide spectrum of architectural design problems. In the context of this thesis, validation of the proposed approach is performed mainly in case studies relevant to facade design, recognizing this design topic as a complexity-exhibiting exemplar in architectural design practice.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Delft University of Technology
  • Sariyildiz, I.S., Supervisor
  • Turrin, M., Advisor
Award date8 Sep 2021
Print ISBNs978-94-6384-247-1
Electronic ISBNs978-94-6384-247-1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Computational intelligence
  • Complexity
  • Architectural design
  • decision support
  • Evolutionary computation
  • Neural Networks


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