2015 - Current | Doctoral Research
German Research Foundation, EFRE / BW

A Systematic Approach for Developing Agent-based Architectural Design Models of Segmented Shells

Tobias Schwinn

A selection of slides from the PhD presentation

A Systematic Approach for Developing Agent-based Architectural Design Models of Segmented Shells

Towards Autonomously Learned Goal-oriented Agent Behaviors

Segmented shell design constitutes a novel and promising research area in shell design that has emerged in the last 10 years. The prospect of dividing a continuous shell surface into segments is to resolve some of the constraints of continuous shells that have limited their application in building practice. As part of large-span surface structures, segmented shells have shown to possess similar desirable features, such as low material usage, the ability to cover large areas column-free, and lightweight aesthetics, while allowing for a high degree of prefabrication. The geometry of individual building elements and global form are, however, complex, which poses a challenge to designing and building segmented shells.

One of the challenges of segmented shell design in particular is meeting multiple interrelated, sometimes conflicting, evaluation criteria: geometric validity, structural stability, and producibility. In segmented shell design geometric validity and producibility are aspects that can be considered locally, meaning on the level of the individual building element, while structural stability needs to be evaluated globally and can be conceived of as the global effect of the properties and interactions of all segments in the shell.

A microscopic modeling perspective has therefore been proposed in previous work that bridges the gap between local characteristics and global performance: agent-based modeling and simulation (ABMS). By focusing on the detailed description of the individual building elements and their interactions and by conceiving of the global form as the result of a myriad of local interactions of virtual agents representing building elements, the global design problem can be solved in parallel on the level of the individual building elements. In particular, the Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall project, completed in 2014, has shown the viability of the agent-based modeling approach for segmented shells. 

While ABMS is an established method in simulation-based research fields, such as ecology and robotics, the method needs to be considered far from established in the area of architectural design despite early adoption. This is visible in the lack of a common methodology (and even the discussion thereof) and of software frameworks geared towards Computer-Aided Geometric Design (CAGD). To address the latter issue, the development of an ABMS software framework for CAGD was started at the Institute of Computational Design and Construction (ICD) in 2016 in order to provide a shared platform for experimentation with agent-based systems. The former issue, the question of a common methodology, is the subject of this dissertation.

The aim is to propose a methodology for developing agent-based models of buildings where agents constitute building elements. With the special focus on plate shells (segmented shells with planar elements) the research pursues and synthesizes two investigative strands: on the one hand, generalizing findings from previously built plate shells as part of a case study-based, inductive research approach, which is geared towards building a catalog of validated design principles for plate shells; on the other hand, systematizing the agent-based modeling approach for architectural design-oriented applications in general, and plate shell design in particular.

This dissertation is organized into three parts: The first part introduces motivation, aim, relevance, and scope of the dissertation as well as the related work in the fields of architectural shell design and agent-based modeling and simulation. It also situates the topic within the historical context of the two fields.

The second part presents the case study-based approach for abstracting validated design principles from previously built segmented shells. Through analysis and abstraction, functional principles are distilled from the basic case data, followed by the transfer from functional principles to design principles and their mapping to constructs of the agent-based modeling paradigm. 

The third part focuses on the implementation of selected design principles as the final step in the proposed methodology for developing agent-based models of segmented shells. The proof-of-concept takes the form of a problem-oriented case study. The study is conceived of as a series of experiments with increasing complexity that not only addresses previously identified challenges of agent-based models (ABM) of segmented shells, such as the need for defining a 'hand-designed' reference surface, but also presents novel findings with respect to 1) parameter optimization of ABMs of segmented shells and 2) autonomous learning of agent behaviors using Reinforcement Learning.

In summary, part II, with its analysis, abstraction, and transfer of design principles, presents the first three steps and part III the last step of the proposed methodology. The main contributions of this work are thus seen in generalizing knowledge from specific cases of plate shells as part of a catalog of validated design principles (part II) and in proposing a systematic approach for developing agent-based models of buildings (parts II and III combined).

  • The dissertation will be linked here once it is published.


Scientific Development

Tobias Schwinn

Supervisor and first examiner

Prof. Achim Menges, Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD)

Second examiner

Prof. Jan Knippers, Institute for Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE)


German Research Foundation



Schwinn, T., Sonntag, D., Grun, T., Nebelsick, J. H., Knippers, J., & Menges, A. (2019). Potential applications of segmented shells in architecture. In J. Knippers, U. Schmid, & T. Speck (Eds.), Biomimetics for Architecture (pp. 116–125). Berlin, Basel: Birkhäuser. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783035617917-015

Groenewolt, A., Schwinn, T., Nguyen, L., & Menges, A. (2018). An interactive agent-based framework for materialization-informed architectural design. Swarm Intelligence, 12(2), 155–186. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11721-017-0151-8

Schwinn, T., & Menges, A.: 2015, Fabrication Agency: Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall. In Architectural Design, 85(5), 92–99. doi:10.1002/ad.1960

Schwinn, T., Krieg, O.D., Menges, A.: 2014, Behavioral Strategies: Synthesizing design computation and robotic fabrication of lightweight timber plate structures. In Design Agency [Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA)], Los Angeles, pp. 177–188. (ISBN 9781926724478)

Schwinn, T., Krieg, O., Menges, A.: 2012, Robotically Fabricated Wood Plate Morphologies – Robotic Prefabrication of a Biomimetic, Geometrically Differentiated Lightweight Finger Joint Timber Plate Structure, in Brell Cokcan, S., Braumann, J. (eds.), Proceedings of the Robots in Architecture Conference 2012, TU Vienna, Springer, Vienna, pp. 28-47. (ISBN 978-3709114643)

Schwinn, T., Krieg, O., Menges, A., Mihaylov, B., Reichert, S.: 2012, Machinic Morphospaces: Biomimetic Design Strategies for the Computational Exploration of Robot Constraint Spaces for Wood Fabrication, in Cabrinha, M., Johnson, J., Steinfeld, K. (eds.), Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), San Francisco, pp. 157-168. (ISBN 978-1-62407-267-3)

Contact Information

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Dipl.-Ing., LEED AP

Tobias Schwinn

Head of Research and Research Infrastructure

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