Digital Fabrication

Digital Fabrication in Tomorrow’s Architecture

Neils Martin, Larsen Og, Anne Mette Boye

Fondation Louis Vuitton 2015. Designed by Frank Gehry. The related company, Gehry Technologies developed their own software platform, Digital Project, allowing the realisation of projects that makes use of complex geometry.

Industrial production forms are currently undergoing a transition from being standardised to becoming customised. The change is evident for instance in architecture, arts and crafts, and industrial design. The use of robotics in the building industry allows new forms of variation and expression. Furthermore, the production can take place in Denmark.

Utzon40 pavilion assembled at University of Technology in Sydney.

Digital fabrication and digital form generation can change the way different professions interact in relation to the development and construction of architecture. The technologies can provide a more integrated design process and expand the architectural vocabulary. At Aarhus School of Architecture we investigate these possibilities in a series of research projects.

Timber Curtain installed in Gallery Undai, Ventura Lambrate 2015, Milan.

Digital design tools as well as digital fabrication facilities have already been around for decades. For these, architects have fully embraced computers as the primary working environment and manufacturers make use of robotic technologies in their production lines. However, these elements have in most cases merely been indirectly linked through information passed on in the form of traditional drawings from architects through engineers to the manufacturer.

Timber Curtain, joint detail ensuring precise angles between bent components.
Timber Curtain. Diagram showing how the slim bendable part of each component is formed according to its performance in the construction.

Feedback information about fabrication is often passed on as technical sheets or verbal communication between architect and contractor. To fully benefit from the technologies, for instance, in order to achieve a larger scope of architectural expression, it is necessary to integrate the different environments much more directly, and because much of the information exists numerically, this can be achieved through computation.

Centre Pompidou-Metz was designed by Shigeru Ban and opened in 2010. The roof construction consists of individually processed glued laminated timber beams that intersect in a hexagonal pattern.

Integrating fabrication constraints in the initial form generation means on one hand that the design can be synchronised to match with the actual fabrication and montage of building components. This can be utilised for achieving more variation in the architectural expression but also to minimise use of resources.

Complex branching mesh and the connections of the Ligna pavilion.

Computational design allows extreme complexity in architectural projects, which for instance is demonstrated in many of Frank Gehry’s designs. While, these projects clearly are realised through handling of massive digital information include fabrication processes and material properties as part of their logic, the initial designs are not computationally generated.

L-system was used to simulate the growth of trees.

What we pursue in our research is to use computation as part of the initial form-generation, and thereby achieve a higher level of integration. A concenquense of this could be that not only exclusive projects can demonstrate advanced amorph geometry or large differentation in building parts, thereby enriching our build environment.

The curved appearance of the Liminganlahti visitor centre’s exhibition pavilion is constructed using horizontal plywood strips.

Digital technologies allow architects to include a higher degree of complexity and variation in project development. Here it is particularly interesting to look at algorithmic form generation, compared to so-called explicit modelling, where a building is designed “manually” through drawing or modelling. With algorithmic design, a set of mathematical rules, defined by the designer, generates the geometry automatically.

This allows for a much higher level of complexity in the final design solution, since complex geometries are handled through computation as easily as more simple shapes. More important, the underlying computational logic makes it possible to expand the amount of information, linked to the individual component gradually through the design process, and finally extract this information for production and construction.

HILA is the synthesis of a three-dimensional wooden lattice structure and a rectangular form carved with a free-form void.

Besides keeping track of the underlying geometry in such complex designs, rule-based form-generation also opens for numerous negotiations of different parameters. For instance, irradiance on different parts of a building or structural analysis can directly influence the way individual components are expressed. The components can ’know’ about their neighbours, negotiate dimensions and ensure that they fit together.

The lattice structure creates a lace-like appearance.

With use of so-called self-organisation as part of the digital form-generation, it is even possible to transcend the need for an underlying grid. On a more practical level, this integrated negotiation can be directed towards fabrication and montage. For instance, limitations in size of elements that derive from a specific production facility, can be embedded in a script that ’decides’ the geometry of building components.

PolyShell exhibited in Amsterdam at IASS 2016.

In this sense, not only the final result is optimised towards certain criteria, but also the production and realisation processes can be more directly controlled through use of computation. The digital methods have the advantage that they can in many cases be translated directly to systems used by other professions. This goes particularly for the engineers, who, for instance, can use the digital models to calculate structural properties.

In more traditional workflows, the engineers would often have to produce separate models, and this is often inefficient, particularly in relation to complex geometry. It is also possible to incorporate methods from other disciplines, such as computer science, physics and biology, into the design methodology.

The Green House in the Botanical Garden.

The straightforward and obvious benefits of using digitally controlled robots in the production of architecture can be seen by everyone: the robots are fast, they don’t catch a flu or get their fingers “caught in the machine”, also they work night and day, and during weekends. Such things are undoubtedly good for the bottom line.

But there are other benefits, which surpass the pragmatic and rational. We can consequently welcome back the revival of craftsman-like virtues such as a high degree of individuality, albeit now in industrialised version. Similarly, improved possibilities for coherence between drawing and fabrication maximise the interaction between form and content in architecture.

Observation tower at Aarhus Harbour

The computer’s calculation skills can optimise the building process and the use of materials, which is beneficial to sustainability. All in all, the fact that the digital is being incorporated in the production of architecture provides architects with absolutely new and forward-looking architectural possibilities – and, so far, we have only seen the top of the iceberg.

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