In 2011, a handful of software engineers and architects working inside Google X, the software giant’s secretive “moonshot” lab, embarked on an ambitious challenge: figuring out how to help the world’s urban areas adjust to the fact that over 6 billion people will live in cities by 2045.
Working alongside other early projects, including Google Glass and self-driving cars, the team pursued its moonshot (the term Google parent company Alphabet uses for its shoot-for-the-moon projects) as Google X head Astro Teller roller-bladed through the halls.
“The charge was, ‘Population growth is a big problem. Go,'” says Jen Carlile, cofounder of Flux, the startup that eventually emerged from Google X (now known as X).
That broad challenge led the Flux team to look towards building design — specifically, ways to speed up the design process — as a solution for cities that quickly need to become more dense in order to accommodate an influx of new residents.
The Flux team first toyed with the idea of creating a singular design tool that would help architects more efficiently design buildings, but soon realised that every architecture firm has its own way of doing things. So the team shifted its focus, ultimately building a cloud-based collaborative tool that makes it easy to transfer data and files between commonly-used design programs like Excel and Autodesk Revit.
Architects often spend hours exchanging files between platforms, says Berdine Yuan, the head of business development at Flux . “With our platform, changes happen instantaneously. You can have the latest updates [for a project] in two design apps simultaneously,” she says. “If Jen is working in Revit, and I’m working in Excel, my changes will show up in Revit immediately. Previously, she’d have to go into her Revit model and make those changes.”
After spending a year working alongside other Google X projects, Flux spun out into its own company in 2012. “Everybody [at Google X] was a little bit mad scientist. Everyone was curious and creative,” says Carlile. “There was a lot of serendipitous communication [between projects]. You run into someone, talk about what you’re working on.”
Flux worked closely with Google while it was incubated at the company, and now maintains a friendly but more distant relationship.
Since leaving Google, Flux — which doesn’t yet have a revenue plan for its core product —
has rolled out a version of its platform that includes plugins for popular design tools Rhino/Grasshoper, Excel, and Revit/Dynamo. More plugins are on the way.
Flux’s platform could theoretically save architects weeks of work on a building project — even months, in some cases, according to Yuan. For cities dealing with rapid growth, that could be key to speeding up the building design process.
The company is already working with a number of major architecture and engineering firms, including Gensler, HOK, and Arup. But Flux has encountered some resistance, mainly from designers who fear that the platform will take away much of the work they do every day.
“The big challenge is we’re asking people to think about design a little bit differently,” says Carlile. “It’s a little bit scary to people — like, ‘Are you going to automate our job away?’ That’s not what we’re trying to do. It’s true computer-aided design. We want to give designers and architects superpowers.”
Determining what complex work to focus on that can’t be performed by software is likely to be a simpler quandary for fresh grads who have little work-related baggage than it is for people who have been working in design — with set routines —
In addition to its cloud-based platform, Flux is also working on an open database of health and environmental impact data for building products called the Quartz Project. The company is collaborating with Google on the project, though Carlile wouldn’t get into specifics.
“We’re still at the infancy of our journey,” she says.
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