In his classic paper on architecture, Vitruvius wrote that the founding principles for any building were firmitas, utilitas, and venustas.

This can be interpreted as performance, usefulness, and inspiration. Historically it can be observed that, depending on the nature of the dominant stakeholder in the building process, one of the principles is prioritized over the other two. Gothic cathedrals for example put beauty first as their cathedrals literally rose to the heavens. In the last two centuries, following the industrial revolution, investors were the most important stakeholder, leading to Sullivan's ‘form follows function’ as the dominant paradigm in architecture.

However, times are changing. The limits of exponential economic growth in a linear economy have been reached and our planetary boundaries are becoming more and more visible. Climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse are increasingly putting constraints on anything we do. Sustainability is becoming the master virtue for our industry. Our planet and its long-term interests are a more important ‘stakeholder’ than short term capital revenue, gained at the expense of the planet. This calls for a new paradigm in architecture: ‘form follows sustainability’.

Designing with our planet as the main stakeholder requires an increased and vigilant focus particularly on the performance of any asset. Assets have the potential to capture water and store carbon, generate energy and provide ample space for biodiversity. Off course they have to remain being useful and inspiring. However, in the 21st century, and given the state of the environment, an asset that is not sustainable can neither be useful, nor inspiring.

Unpacking the mantra

If form should be driven by the sustainability outcomes we desire, then we clearly need a new approach to engineering. Given the complexity of sustainability goals, and how hard it is to truly remove embodied and operational emissions from building designs, we will need to grapple with a far wider range of factors, goals, and other considerations.

Also, we can no longer afford to be reactive and apply engineering in a response to an already set brief or defined architectural vision. We must be proactive and provide our clients and collaborators with a validated framework of sustainable options from which they can choose. These should set the brief.


If we do all of our exploring within our heads, we tend to be limited by what we already know.

Tristram Carfrae

Former Deputy Chair, Arup

Fortunately, the 21st century provides us with the computing power that will be needed to bring together the many strands of this new way of designing. This enables us to develop multi-disciplinary design platforms from where we can generate options, perform analysis, employ best fit solution algorithms, extract and store the relevant data, and visualize the results in a compelling, informative, and convincing way. This is the domain of computational design and it’s already having a profound effect on the way we design and the quality of outcomes we can produce.

Exploring reality inside the machine

Let’s take a typical design project: a mixed use residential and commercial development in a big city. Using a computational design platform like our own Arup inForm, we can go beyond the core client concerns of value per square metre, energy use and materials costs. Arup inForm allows us to add in additional criteria for comfort (wind, daylight, acoustics), quality (views, social safety) or sustainability (embodied carbon, biodiversity improvements) and many others, to round out a truly sustainable design definition that client, investors, planning department and the local community can agree on. The tool can generate many options that meet our requirements and this will then enable architectural development that is grounded in achievable sustainability goals for the project as a whole.

Computer generated design image video cover
Arup’s Mathew Vola talks about how computational design drives a more enlightened design outcome

In a sense, computational design both keeps us honest about the true implications of design, while unleashing our creativity. It allows us to move beyond traditional assumptions about design and materials, form and function – assumptions that might have not troubled us in the decades before climate science, but that surely do today.

Beyond its core outputs and project level performance, computational design has the potential to bring back a much needed radicalism to design. It enables every engineer, designer, architect and client to bring a boldness to their decision making. It can help our industry become a leader in sustainability at last.