Editor Isabel Allen talks to Associate Henry Louth with the Computation and Design Group (ZHACODE) about combining design and gaming engines to disrupt traditional models of design, procurement and planning.

In association with


Epic Games’ Unreal Engine software is playing a key role in the development of Zaha Hadid Architects’ innovative Beyabu residential development on Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

On 2 November Epic Games is hosting Build: Architecture 2021, a free two-hour online event designed to give an insight into the way developments in real-time technology are opening up new possibilities for architecture from design storytelling to complex digital twins and massive open worlds. Leading practices, including Zaha Hadid Architects, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), HOK and Foster + Partners will be presenting projects that revolutionise the way schemes are designed, procured, delivered and sold. A series of virtual development lounges will offer an opportunity to get advice from the presenters and Epic Games experts on all things real-time.

In the run-up to the event Architecture Today will be running a series of interviews with practitioners who will be presenting at the event. This week, Architecture Today Editor Isabel Allen talks to Henry Louth, Associate at Zaha Hadid Architects in the Computation and Design Group (ZHACODE) about Beyabu, a residential scheme off the coast of Honduras on the island of Roatan, where the practice has combined design and gaming engines to develop a photorealistic, real-time design configurator that demystifies and de-risks the process of building, selling and purchasing custom-build homes.

You’re part of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Computational And Design Group (ZHACODE). What is the group’s remit and how does it work?

Founded in 2007 by Patrik Schumacher, Nils Fischer and Shajay Bhooshan, we’re a practice-embedded research team focusing on computational geometry and building strategic partnerships to bridge with industry. It’s beneficial to think about both aspects of the acronym Computation And Design. While ZHACODE suggests our technical capacities in software development, which is part of the story, we’re also skilled in design and thinking about how we apply design concepts and making to a continuum of knowledge.

As a research group, we share several guiding principles. We are situating our work in a historic continuum, learning from past masters and asking how we contribute novelty to an existing domain of knowledge. We’re working across many languages and time zones, even more so now in the hybrid physical/virtual office environment, so geometry is the shared language we use to facilitate collaboration with one another. We’re looking at physical-based simulations resulting in geometries informed by physics, which exhibit inherent structural and fabrication advantages. This is both through physical model making and digital equivalents of physical-based behavior. The way that we explore design space is through sets of solutions resulting in design states, variations, or iterations. We don’t think in terms of a single design but rather a process driven universe of feasible solutions on the basis of the brief et cetera. Lastly, we aim to empower design processes, often through early stage design assist tools that facilitate and augment designer intelligence, to coauthor solutions with non-human participation embedded in the design process.

Within the firm, we are engaged in four levels of interaction. Sometimes we are exploring avenues without immediate application, somewhat open ended, but on specific research for instance robotic assisted design, or digital timber tech in Beyabu. Sometimes we’re developing toolkits­ – utilities or software that we need to develop for internal use within the group or within a specific team at the firm. Sometimes we’re doing pilot projects, which is where Beyabu comes in. This is developing as applied research through the lens of a use case driven sandbox. We might be trying to sort out a workflow, or we don’t yet have certain tools in place, or we are initially engaging collaborators. So these are highly agile projects that we need to be constantly assessing and looking at how we can deliver innovation. On the commercial project side, we take these tools and workflows we’re developing on the pilots and apply more mature and tested versions at a larger scale or industrialised applications.


Aerial view of the Beyabu development (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

Was that approach to iterative design and multiple solutions intrinsic to the inception of ZHA?

Yes. It dates back to how we link up in academia. In 1996 Patrik founded the Design Research Laboratory at the Architectural Association in London where he continues to teach. Similarly Shajay, who heads the research activities in ZHACODE, is also a studio master at the AADRL Master’s program. Each have been strong proponents of cultivating a culture of exploration and discovery, design through research, and how this situates in practice. Many of my colleagues are graduates from this programme, and that ethos persists in ZHACODE today. We’re exploring them very specifically with regard to things like residential communities, but also in more divergent territories of fabrication, commercialised construction that the Beyabu project specifically picks up on. So there are parallels between the academic explorations and the applied research we’re seeing within the group at Zaha Hadid Architects.

When and how did you come to be working with Epic Games?

These things always come down to individual people. So, this happenstance is because of our interest in the intersection of computer graphics and game technologies, geometry and robots and design and architecture. We met Ken Pimentel, Industry Manager from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine team, at an industry event through a mutual connection Greg Howes dealing with digital timber fabrication tech in North America. So we had a mutual value alignment in trying to work through how we can be more innovative with computer graphics and game technology.


Developed using Unreal Engine, the photo-realistic, real-time Beyabu design configurator enables developers and occupiers to configure properties to suit their own individual preferences (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

Can you tell us about the Beyabu project that you’re working on with Epic Games?

Beyabu is in Honduras on the island of Roatán, which has a different way of thinking about governance. It’s in what’s called a Zede, which is a short for zonas de empleo y dessarollo economicos (employment and economic development zones). It’s a new kind of privately-managed city state with its own laws and governance which sets out to create the conditions to encourage entrepreneurship, economic growth and innovation. That, in itself, is unique, and allowed us to explore some these ideas with Prospera using a technology platform to disrupt how we would conventionally design, procure and deliver architecture in the region

The Beyabu residential configurator is the latest build in a lineage of residential platforms that we’ve been developing at Zaha Hadid Architects with Epic in Unreal Engine, offering investors and occupiers and developers ways to configure properties to suit very individual preferences. And this offers the ability to position units, to configure add-ons or to develop and customise interior space layouts through a web-based application.


Double-height library space (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

How does the real-time design configurator work?

The configurator leverages a digital kit of parts, a set of digital components that can be reconfigured in a number of ways. So if you look at the visualisations of Beyabu you can see configurations ranging from 35 square meters all the way up to about 180 square meters with varied proportions of public and private space, space plan organisations, and furnishings. What becomes useful here is that we’re starting to think about this as product delivery or building component delivery and how this can be configured at the end user side. You can buy add-ons and track your choices in the same way you would buy a laptop or a car, and can see how decisions relate comparatively to one another as you change your choices. It’s very powerful to be able to see in real-time the results of your decision and get feedback to be able to see very early on things which are conventionally much later stage decisions.

This digital approach gives us ways to engage with users in ways we are just beginning to understand and that show just how powerful a tool real-time immersive technologies can become. If you were to view a house or flat conventionally you might rely upon only one or two metrics to evaluate it through your eyes or a sell sheet. However, the technology platform in Beyabu allows us to communicate other attributes – other ways of evaluating suitability – in real-time concurrently. In the same way that flight seat maps indicate leg room, or theater seat maps indicate view obstruction, we can start to approximate value variations based on very specific attributes through heads up displays and augmented reality. These become things we can key in as data to help with how we look at the downstream procurement and operations costs.


View looking down apartment spiral staircase. The Unreal Engine design configurator facilitates a set of digital components that can be reconfigured in multiple ways (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects) (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

How does this open-ended design process work in terms of the planning process?

It was possible in this scenario because of Prospera’s entrepreneurial spirit and the governance system which is being put in place. There was a willingness and buy-in to digitally empowered processes to deliver a sustainable residential development model that empowered supply chain economic prosperity. In terms of the regulatory implications of the digital platform utilisation, that is a shift in how we think about design: that it’s process driven and not solution driven; that the end result could be many, and therefore the compliance is examining the decision-making process, as well as the iteration or instance that results from the platform.

Presumably there are all sorts of potential clashes and overlaps between individual residents’ aspirations especially with regard to issues such as daylight and views. How do you manage the process of mediation and coordination (aesthetic, structural, regulatory and legal) between individual purchasers and dwellings?

This is being done in a few different ways. In the configurator we’ve developed for Beyabu working with Epic Games, the system design behind it is set up as a series of five-metre spatial cubits that become saleable volumes. That digital volume became the way that we developed all of the residential typologies, spaces and components, so that as they were selected, they could be digitally coordinated to neighbors. This allows us to maintain at least geospatial coordination.

On the procurement coordination side of things, we are working with Circular Factory, a startup specialist in digital timber robotic fabrication, which will situate on the island to provide supply chain support and training to develop and realise some of the bespoke digital timber components for the structure, claddings, and interiors. This procurement approach might not have been possible in a different governance – there was a lot of opportunity for us to look at this collectively at the governance level, at the design level, at the procurement level, and look at ways to disrupt the linear process and reevaluate not just how to expedite it, but to provide client value and a long-term regional growth model.


Bathroom design (image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects)

What’s the relationship between the digital systems employed and local suppliers, craftsmen, tradesmen and construction teams?

Right now there’s a lot of timber regionally, but supply chains for industrialised manufacture are used more for furniture or cabinetry. And so there’s a lot of artisanal knowledge in wood craft and a lot of willingness in that industry to develop that further in terms of scale. So Circular Factory is basically setting up a fabrication centre on the island to empower training and development of digital robotic processes in an industrialized building component context. So the facades, the structural framing cassettes, and interior fittings are being digitally procured and digitally manufactured with the assistance of industrialized robotics using regional timber. So the ability to develop that supply chain capacity in Honduras will supplant a bit of digital robotic fabrication into the region. This is a way to enable digital processes in industrialized construction, while using energy and craft from the region.

How does digital information support your environmental ambitions?

Being able to rely on a digitally enabled supply chain – meaning the digital design model is immediately and directly usable information – in this case for the robotics, is a huge advantage in terms of time savings on site and reducing waste. Likewise we are folding local suppliers into the circular economy from the design onset using the configurator platform to offer bespoke artisan fittings and regional add-ons fit for place. Circular Factory are working with us on digital robotics and fabrication of the bespoke facade elements, which immediately cuts down on on-site waste and improves precision with offsite prefabricated elements. This process is moving closer to industrialised construction using building components, pushing complexities to the factory via digital processes, and simplifying some of the onsite construction processes.

Contact Details
Zaha Hadid Architects will be presenting its work at Beyabu at Build: Architecture 2021, a free virtual event taking place on 2 November. Click here to register.