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Why I matterlab

Laurence Elsdon

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Laurence Elsdon joined matterlab as a Computational Specialist in July 2020. For his matterlab insights spotlight, he’s written an account of how and why he chose to work at matterlab. Laurence is one of three matterlabites to have lived or studied in Newcastle, we encourage anyone reading to keep an eye out for the toon based easter eggs hidden within.

Challenging conventions - An early taste for efficiency

For the past decade, I’ve studied and practised architecture in many different forms; throughout those years I became more and more aware of how much repetition there was in the tasks I was undertaking. As technology and coding have always been key side pursuits for me I began to explore computational methods to improve the efficiency and productivity of design workflows while at university.

This reliance on computation wasn’t always well received as highlighted by the feedback I once received from a tutor during my masters:

“I am concerned though about your extreme reluctance to relinquish your laptop (comfort blanket)…
I rarely insist on students following my instructions – it is your project not mine – but, as you didn’t do it when I asked you nicely before the review, I will now insist that you spend the two weeks after the SSI hand-in … [doing something artistic rather than practical]     … (As it is written here, your External Examiner will be looking out for this especially in the Degree Show!).”

Extract from Formative Review Feedback (18th October 2016) by an unnamed tutor [square brackets mine].

That feedback highlighted to me the disparity in how architecture is taught in academia vs the realities of what the AEC industry is looking for. Thankfully following that feedback another tutor took me on and fully supported me in my grounded approach and encouraged my experimentation with computational methods.

Making computational strides

Similar to many others my exploration into computational design began with using Dynamo to generate roof forms and auditoria layouts in Revit. It has often been argued that an overreliance on technology limits your creativity but that’s only the case if you let it be. CRTKL recently challenged their designers to learn Dynamo and see what they could come up with and the results speak for themselves.

Over the years that followed, I built up a great deal of experience on conventional architectural projects with a particular focus on residential design and later modular design. I found myself repeating a lot of the same steps when completing capacity studies and masterplans for residential developments so slowly I introduced some Dynamo scripts to do the heavy lifting for me.

It wasn’t until April 2019 that I got my first introduction to the wider computational design industry when I attended the Dynamo and Generative Design Hackathon in London. I was grouped with three talented computational practitioners and together we developed a prototype analytics extension for Dynamo for which we were awarded first place. That event was the gate into the computational design community for me and I was completely hooked.

I went on to attend the next hackathon in Toronto with a team of architectural and engineering specialists, where we went on to take second place, this ultimately led to the sage idea to leave my comfortable job in architecture and focus on building my computational skills to jump ship fully into design automation.

Finding similar minds and ways of working

When I first spoke with Radu and Mark about joining matterlab they asked what my ideal typical day would be, I responded that I didn’t want a typical day. Instead, I was looking for new challenges, where each day I’d be testing new ideas, learning and evolving.

That’s probably not the wisest thing to say in a typical interview where job roles and responsibilities are strict and your routine is structured but matterlab is different and just how different is what I was keen tees see.

A lot of companies are out of toon with how their employees work, they don’t consider the value of the employees’ tyne, but I’ve found matterlab to be different. Truly flexible working means that your day doesn’t have to be arranged around an archaic 9 to 5 working ethos, work doesn’t have to be the centre for life.

Provided you can meet client obligations then you can arrange your day as you see fit. That means if you want to visit the gym during quiet hours then you canny. If you’re more productive after an hour sipping earl grey in a coffee shop then go ahead or if you find commuting saps your productivity then there’s the option to work remotely.

As another example, I’ve always found that when in an open plan office there’s a necessity for employees to always look busy, but the reality is that when planning or working on something creative you may just need to stare into space for some time while you process. I’ve never been able to do this in a conventional office but with the freedom of working remotely, I’ve spent time just kicking a tennis ball around as I formulate in my mind how to approach a particular problem.

If you have aspirations to learn new computational techniques then matterlab is a great place to do that. Before joining I had a good knowledge of software development but no formal education in it but over the past few months working here through practical application, code reviews and internal ML20 knowledge shares I’ve been able to greatly expand my skills.

It’s not just my knowledge of computational and software engineering that have expanded.

I can confidently say that in my first six months at matterlab I learned more about construction and structural design than in any of my architectural experience.

Namely, because I was talking directly with consultants and specialists at every level and in every area of the client’s team to get a full impression of how to improve their workflows.

Moving forwards and freedom to experiment

As an innovation lab, matterlab is always keen to test new ideas; Mark recently suggested there was no such thing as a bad idea. In response I pointed him to my proposal to apply Graph Theoretical Techniques to Extract the Genotypical Signature for the Process of Making Tea. What he means is matterlab is a forum in which any idea or innovation can be discussed, whether it’s incredibly niche or has a bigg market to exploit. Over the past few months, we’ve run a few different hackathons both structured and unstructured to test and explore ideas.

Another perk of being an innovative company is the approach to professional development. Rather than fixing people into strict specialism, we’ve adopted a “badges” based professional development framework which gives each employee the ability to map their unique career path.

This article was prompted by the question of what defines a typical day at matterlab The short answer is that I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical day. In the months that I’ve been here I’ve worked on many different projects from developing a small but essential Revit add-in for an architectural client to working on the complete automation of a fabrication and detailing workflow; and from fixing bugs for the Dynamo team to optimising a structural engineering puzzle with a genetic algorithm, something I’ve wanted to experiment with since first reading scientific papers on the topic during my masters.

We’re growing our team this year, I would advise anyone who is inquisitive and looking for a fresh challenge to take a look at matterlab for their next step.

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