What’s your name?

Jan Dierckx

Describe yourself as an architect in one word.


Where did you study?

A bit everywhere. So I started in Gent Belgium, then in Aachen in Germany then at UCL in the United Kingdom.

What was your favourite subject?

Computer aided design.

What was your first job?

I was in the Specialist Modelling Group at Foster + Partners.

How do you start your day?

A coffee and some Reddit.

What’s your favourite time of the day?

Definitely the evening, I am a night owl.

Dream country to visit?

New Zealand.

Classic or contemporary?

Contemporary, but learning from the classics.

Inspirational architect?

Norman Foster.

Must have architecture tools everyone should have?

3D mouse.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

Use the right tool for the right purpose.

A book that everyone should read?

Shoedog, it’s about the founder of Nike and how he set up the company from zero.

How do you define a successful building?

A building which takes little from the environment, but gives back a lot to society.

Favourite colour?


Fineliner, pencil or computer?

Digital pencil.

Most gratifying thing about being an architect?

Looking at a completed building and being able to say you were part of designing and building that.

What colour clothing do you wear the most?

I rarely wear black.

Is architecture for everyone?

I don’t think it is, but I think it can inspire everyone.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “Big Data”?

When I first heard Big Data, I thought it meant a lot of data.

How would you, as an architect, define Big Data?

I think there are two aspects to Big Data. One is BIM, Building Information Management, which means you add data to all the parts of the building. The other one is the Analysis and Simulation Data, that you can have before you build a building, while you’re designing it, but also afterwards when the building is built. All the information you can get back from it.

How do you think Big Data will impact the future of architecture?

I think Big Data will help us understand better how well a building works. Data will show us if our design decisions were the right or wrong ones. But it will also help buildings adapt themselves better to its users, because it will understand how hot it is in a building, how much sun there is. Everyone is different and data will help us understand how we can adjust a building dynamically to its users needs.

Have you applied data before in one of your designs?

Yes, it was a big residential tower and all the balconies were oval shapes. When the architect had drawn this, all the radii of the balconies were different, which would be very expensive. I developed this tool which looked at all these radii and reduced them to a smaller number, turning them into families. This is called Post-Rationalisation and this greatly reduced the building cost without adjusting the design too much.

How do you think data and technology could aid the design process?

I have always been very interested in this topic. It was the subject of my Master’s Thesis, which was almost ten years ago, believe it or not. I wrote a tool in Revit, which would calculate the U-values, the heat transmission value, automatically when drawing walls of a building. It would tell you what the U-value was, while you were drawing. It would also colour the walls, whether it was an acceptable or unacceptable value. The premise of the thesis was; if an architect utilizes this tool, will it help the architect design a better building. The conclusion was that it is very helpful for the architect to know what the performance of the buildings is, while designing it.

Do you think data will make future designs homogeneous?

I think it will do the opposite. If you think about 3D printing; it gives people the opportunity to make every single design unique. With Big Data it will be the same situation. Big Data and Artificial Intelligence won’t ever replace an architect. It will make each building truly individual and each element of the building truly ideal for its purpose. Every location is different and every client is different, enabling a customized building for its exact use.

How do you think data will impact our definition of creativity?

Big Data will help us be creative in a more elevated way. We will never be able to replace creativity with Big Data. Artificial Intelligence can suggest designs, but the emphatic feeling that people have when they are in or outside a building is something that will always stay human.

Will the architect need to adjust its set of skills?

Yes, it is already happening now. Architects have no choice but to enter the digital world. Architects should embrace digital technologies, rather than shying away from it to create better and more informed designs.

Will the architect need to become a data scientist?

No, it is important that everyone works together in a team, where there are architects that focus on architecture and design, BIM managers that focus on the data side and design technologists that work on the more innovative aspects of the building.

Buildings produce data about its users, the indoor climate or its energy consumption. Should architects own this data?

This data should be owned by everyone. It should be anonymous, but architects and clients should work together in the future to generate an optimal experience for the buildings’ users. It could even become an extra business model for an architect by providing a service where the architect manages the data generated by a completed building to generate an optimal experience. So, anonymous data should be owned by everyone and individual data of each building should be shared between the client and the architect.

Do you think people should be scared of the influence or application of Big Data?

It is up to the people to look at the data with a critical eye and make their own decisions. A computer should never make decisions for us. A computer should help us make more informed decisions. With the right approach and mindset, Big Data is something that helps and not something to be scared of.

How would you describe your job at the moment?

I am a design technologist. That basically means that I am an architect, an engineer and a data scientist in one. I have always been intrigued by how to make things beautiful, but also how to make things work and perform. In my job I do two things: first of all I sit at the table, where architects, engineers, clients and construction companies sit. I take very specific elements of a building that are very complicated or that architects want to design in a specific way, but are not very buildable. The advantage of me sitting at the table is that I speak the languages of the architect, engineer and manufacturing company. So I primarily guard the design, but also make it manufacturable. The second part is more research related. So by looking at parametric tools and custom design tools, which can help architects build and design in the best possible way, while simultaneously looking at new materials and constructions techniques. For example, by applying robotics to aid the design and construction process.

As a design technologist, what digital tools do you use?

90% of the work I do is in Rhino and Grasshopper. I am an advanced Grasshopper user, applying the visual and textual coding side and writing my own Grasshopper tools. For example, I wrote a Grasshopper tool for a robotic arm or a tool for clustering buildings in certain groups looking at solar analysis. Recently, I have gotten more into Revit and Dynamo. But I think it is very important to use the right tool for the right purpose. For the design stages that I am more involved in, Rhino and Grasshopper are more efficient. I also spend a lot of time working on the integration of different softwares and how they work together.

What are the positive and the negative sides of BIM?

BIM is a very powerful tool to deliver a building. Everything designed is already in this digital twin; the 3D model. However, it is a dangerous tool to design a building, especially in the concept stage. BIM requires a lot of work to add all this data and attributes to each building element. I still believe that pen and paper are the best tools for concept design, because it is so fast.

Can you name an example where digital design tools maximized the design?

During my time at Foster + Partners, I was involved in the Bloomberg Headquarters. There is this beautiful entrance, called the Vortex. In the design stage, it consisted of a lot of panels. The client was worried that the timber perforated panels would cause colour variations, emphasized by the dramatic lighting of the space. So we used digital tools to randomly generate patterns and subdivide the panels in twenty different colour variations. Then we randomly distributed those colour variations onto these internal façades to understand what kind of design options we have and what this would look like. The digital tools helped us understand what the impact of the design decisions would be.

How have these tools been applied at, for example, The Antwerp Havenhuis designed by Zaha Hadid Architects?

There was a Belgium company, called Bureau Bouwtechniek, who looked at optimizing the facade. The facade consisted of a lot of triangles. When the building was designed, they didn’t look at grouping these triangles. So Bureau Bouwtechniek researched how they could optimize the design and change it as little as possible, but reduce the number of unique triangles from a few hundred to tens. The fewer categories of unique triangles they had the more efficient and the more cost effective the building would be. This greatly reduced the building cost, but did not impact the design.

You are also doing lots of research on robotics and innovative materials. Do you think the building of the future is still built by human hands?

I think that in the future the building industry will be more like the car industry. There will be a lot of human/robot collaboration. It is, again, important to determine who is best to do what. Humans are not very strong and not very precise, but humans are great at adapting to the environment and assessing a problem and making an informed decision. Robots are very strong, they don’t get tired and make mistakes. But robots are actually very dumb, because they will only do what you tell them to do. So if a robot is attaching a door to a car, but if the car door is 5cm misaligned, the robot will just smash the door into the car. Of course there are ways to use computer vision to help robots understand what’s happening, but I think it will always be a collaboration between humans and robots. Where the precise complex tasks are executed by humans and the laborious tasks that require a lot of strength will be executed by robots. It is also important to understand that humans and robots don’t need to look the same. The robots won’t be humanoid robots that are carrying bricks like we would carry bricks. A brick has its size, because it is easy to grasp with a human hand. Perhaps when buildings are built by robots bricks will be 5 times as big.

What do you think the best option for students is when stepping in the professional world?

When you are a student and you are thinking about what to do in the future, it is most important to look around and try to understand what you are really interested in and what it is that you are really passionate about. Then you use these skills to find a job that you love. I believe that if you do a job that you like, you will excel at it. Architecture is a brilliant field to do this in. I like to call it the Built Environment, not Architecture, because right now there is so much you can do in architecture. You can work in architecture when you’re interested in construction, in building detailing, in new materials, in advanced parametrics, in digital design, in computational design, in data. Architecture has a big advantage, because it is such a broad and collaborative field. This means you can combine your strengths with the strengths of others to create a better world.