Where Do We Go and How Far Can We Go

A few years ago, digital fabrication began to emerge as one of the big news on the architecture scene, promising to forever transform our discipline and the way we build our buildings. Although this architectural revolution in fact has not yet definitively materialized, infinite new possibilities seem to emerge with each passing year, mainly as a result of the hard work of researchers and professionals dedicated to the development of new technologies aimed at the practice of architecture and construction.

So right now, it seems opportune for us to take a little time to map out these advances, giving our readers a broader perspective on how technology is effectively transforming the practice of architecture day by day. This article seeks to cover some of the main approaches that are already starting to generate very concrete results, transforming the design and construction processes and definitively contributing to the redefinition of the potential of architecture,

Main Modalities of Digital Construction Processes

Construction, or digital fabrication, refers to any production process of integral components or structures controlled by one or more computers. Although these technologies are in full development and constantly expanding, they operate through at least one of the following methods: addition fabrication, subtraction fabrication, and robotic manipulation of any order.

Additive Manufacturing

Addition manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, is a process of adding materials in layers. The technology emerged there in 1983, when researchers invented a process called stereolithography or SLA, a method that uses the heat of a kind of laser to deposit a mass of photopolymer, which turns into solid plastic in the next instant. 3D printing technologies have evolved over the years and no longer use only plastic compounds, printing structures in metal, glass, clay, nanocomposites and even human tissue. Researchers have been working for some time to develop multi-material printers.

Manufacturing by Subtraction

Subtractive manufacturing processes are those that produce, or sculpt, objects from a solid block, CNC milling being the most common process. The introduction of robotic arms has enormously expanded the possibilities of CNC systems, as the greater the number of movement axes, the greater the possibilities and complexity of the parts produced. Laser cutting, and more traditionally hot wire, are other conventional subtraction fabrication techniques and fall into this category as well.

Robotic Manipulation

The third category, robotic manipulation, encompasses any other form or process of manufacturing or handling materials that is autonomously operated by a computer, such as expanding and retracting parts, folding and sewing. This technology has a great advantage over others, because, when equipped with the right tools, the same robots can be used to fulfill a number of different tasks, resulting in a multitude of possibilities. An example of this is the Fiberbots project developed at MIT, a cooperative robotic fabrication process designed for the digital fabrication of large-scale objects and elements and structures, which combines weaving and 3D printing. Fiberbots is the result of a quest to expand the possibilities of 3D printing, moving away from uniaxial fabrication to create replicable structures at all scales.

Architectural Applications

In practice, architecture took a while to incorporate new digital fabrication technologies, even though the first initiatives have appeared a few years ago, such as the first 3D-printed house in China (2014) or the first 3D-printed steel bridge (2018). However, more and more, digital construction processes are gradually being incorporated into architectural practice, causing a slow––but continuous–– paradigm shift in our discipline.

Below, we have compiled a list of which technologies of the future are already a very concrete reality in architectural practice:

Automation of Construction Processes

Automated construction is already a very real reality in the construction world, a technology with enormous potential to gain even more space over the next few years, such as the recently published example of SAM, a construction robot that lays bricks three times faster that a person. An even more sophisticated foray took place over two years ago, when researchers at ETH Zurich began using robots and digital programming to build structural wooden modules of up to three floors.

robotic architecture

Developing New Materials

Another work front that will likely undergo huge changes in a very brief period of time is the development of new building materials. MIT’s new materials research group, the Mediated Matter Group, is one of the leading experimental laboratories on this front. Research into new materials is extremely important for the future of architecture, mainly because most materials used today in the construction industry have a very high carbon footprint, such as concrete and steel. A great example of this is the research work spearheaded by Neri Oxman at MIT. The Aguahoja developed in the laboratory of the Institute of Technology Massachusetts, is a project that employs cellulose, chitosan, pectin and water––all organic and naturally occurring elements and therefore biodegradable and ecologically sound––to create materials with specific mechanical and optical properties.

Optimization of Forms and Use of Materials

In addition to the development of new materials, research in the field of digital fabrication is also leveraging a more efficient use of conventional and market-available materials. The Smart Slab system developed by ETH Zurich is a radically optimized and highly accurate intelligent construction process. Through this innovative 3D-printed formwork method, it is possible to reduce the amount of concrete to the minimum necessary, making the structure more efficient, lighter and cheaper. The Smart Slab project is part of a broader research developed by Swiss researchers, an initiative called the DFAB House, which has as its main objective to explore new forms of digital fabrication and how these can transform architecture.

The Search for a New Aesthetic In Architecture

Like any technological innovation, digital fabrication will also allow the genesis of a new aesthetic expression in architecture. In most cases, the geometric complexity of a component does not have the slightest impact on its manufacturing process, not implying additional costs or a considerable increase in manufacturing time, while allowing designs to be made more specific and original.

Greg Lynnis one of the pioneers of digital fabrication in architecture, and a staunch advocate of a new expression in architecture connected to new technologies. Lynn has explored all the possibilities provided by new tools to shape a new form of architecture. Another example of the versatility and aesthetic potential offered by the new automated construction processes is the Concrete Choreography project, a new 3D printing method used to manufacture concrete columns, enabling the creation of the most varied drawings and textures.

Paving the Way Through Open-Source Projects

Although open logic architecture projects still seem a long way off for most people, the popularization – and universalization – of new automated construction technologies will allow the creation of an ideal environment for initiatives like this to take off for good. A few years ago, Space 10 launched the Growroom, a spherical garden structure, making all the technical drawings of the project freely available online through its open-source platform. In the same vein, another initiative that leverages the ubiquity of digital manufacturing tools is WikiHouse, an open-source platform focused on the construction of houses through systems of cutting wood sheets using a CNC milling machine.

Even though the automated processes of construction and fabrication of components and structures are just in their infancy, they have drawn the attention of architects around the world, whether in academia or the professional field, and therefore, it will probably not be long before this trend takes hold. become a more than essential tool in both the design and construction processes of architecture in the near future. The incorporation of digital and autonomous tools into architectural construction processes is just one more, and the most recent, phenomenon that promises to transform the way we design and build our buildings.