Jeremy Ficca: Digital Fabrication and Architectural Robotics in the Design Studio
Jeremy Ficca is an Associate Professor of Architecture, track chair of the Master of Advanced Architectural Design program, and founding director of the Design Fabrication Laboratory [dFAB] in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. Jeremy’s award winning teaching, research, and practice focuses on the convergence of tectonics, materiality, and digital technologies and their relationship to contemporary culture. Of particular interest is the transformative potential of everyday materials through computational means. Jeremy's professional practice and research operates across multiple scales, from object to building, and utilizes emergent digital workflows to explore opportunities for a reinvigorated understanding of architecture’s material and cultural potential.
Jeremy, you have an interesting background in both architecture and fabrication, please tell us about your journey to where you are today and what gets you fired up about fabrication.
My undergraduate academic journey began at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture in the early 1990’s. At the time Virginia Tech’s program highly valued making processes as a central tenant of one’s education. The pedagogy supported projects that fostered connections between hand and mind. This way of thinking, seeing and working engenders a sensibility that forges connections between design intent and physical instantiation.
Following a few years in professional practice, I pursued a Master of Architecture from Harvard University. At that time, computation was widely utilized in the profession as a tool of representation and communication. Digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3d printers and cnc routers were slowly making their way into the academy and were primarily utilized to support design communication in the form of model-making. While CAD / CAM and CnC and industrial robotics were widely utilized in other industries such as automotive and aerospace, these methods were quite new to architecture.
So while I utilized methods of fabrication in my graduate studies, it was not a primary motivator for my work, but rather an instrument. I was quite interested in the potential for materials to generate certain affects within the built environment. Upon graduation I joined a smaller office that did have a specific material and tectonic agenda that was very interested in the crafting of a piece of architecture. We worked closely with fabricators who brought a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge to the project, ultimately allowing the work to be developed at an extremely high level.
I was teaching on the side at this time and made the decision to pursue an academic career by joining the School of Architecture at North Carolina State University. It was at this moment that fabrication became more of a driving force within my creative work, research and teaching. At the onset, I was interested in the use of standardized, everyday materials such as plywood. The work explored how computational methods of fabrication could transform those materials to rethink how we interact with interior spaces.
Since 2007 I have been teaching in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. There are a couple of different ways with which I explore fabrication with my students. In the upper level design studios that I teach fabrication facilitates prototyping. Students develop their projects through a feedback loop in which materials and processes refine design intent. We also relate fabrication to industrial robotics to explore what this may offer to the built environment and how it informs the translation from design to construction.
I originally became interested in fabrication as a means to address Architectural concerns and then through robotics, became interested in rethinking the techniques themselves. When working in the space of fabrication, it’s important to not lose sight of the opportunities for architecture. To ask “How is it relevant?” and, “How can I leverage this as an architect?”
At Carnegie Mellon we have a range of tools such as laser cutters, CnC routers, 3d Printers and industrial robots. It is a pretty wide range of technologies, some of which are quite established and others that are more novel. The learning curve is very different across that spectrum. We encourage engagement of these toolsets very early on in our students’ education and carefully coordinate design projects to introduce students to the processes.
We have recently rebranded the Digital Fabrication Lab to be the Design Fabrication Lab. It is a subtle change, but we believe more accurately reflects our desire for these to be instruments of design, not merely production tools. Furthermore, it moves fabrication outside a purely digital realm to include analog techniques to elevate an opportunistic utilization of a range of techniques. Students should feel empowered to use a hybrid of both methods. There can be an unproductive distinction and hierarchy between digital vs. analog. This is a tired cliché that we want to move beyond. On one hand many of our resources are reliant upon computation, but we see them as supplemental to the other resources we have in our metal and wood shops. Ultimately, we aim to engender a sensibility amongst our students that leads to good decision making on which tool to use.
How is the design fabrication lab used within the School of Architecture? What types of courses and applications utilize the fabrication lab?
In our Bachelor of Architecture program, students are introduced to computational methods of design and fabrication in their first year through a tight integration with the design studio. This helps our students learn how the technologies can support a design process and not just become output facilities at the very end of a project. For example, students will create small-scale physical prototypes that utilize fabrication tools to perhaps test out geometry or explore formal morphology, or perhaps to consider assembly sequences.
At the graduate level we offer a range of Master and PhD programs. The recently launched Master of Advanced Architectural Design program focuses heavily upon fabrication and architectural robotics. We are also pursing sponsored coursework with partners such as Centria and the Alcoa Foundation. These relationships bring external experts into our studios and labs and allow our students to use design as a means to explore a range of topics that resonate beyond the campus.
Students in the Alcoa sponsored studio have been focusing on the architectural envelope and building skin to develop proposals that are performative and poetic. They rely upon a range of fabrication techniques to make initial models, mockups and prototypes of assemblies. Students enrolled in the Centria sponsored course are exploring robotic metal forming and the translations from flat sheet to 3 dimensional form. Centria is very interested in engaging our school to experiment in the emerging space of design, architecture, and robotics.
Fabrication has broad implications professionally, and is changing the way architects operate and collaborate and what they ‘produce’. Fabrication is a very broad and rich area for investigation with an expanding impact upon our built environment and our modes of practice. Our pedagogy seeks to foreground these considerations.
What I find most fascinating about Carnegie Mellon University’s approach to fabrication in curriculum is how it’s embedded within the context of a design studio across both undergraduate and graduate studies in Architecture.
This question reminds me of a quote by Bernard Tschumi, who was the Dean of Architecture at Columbia University at the time. He said something to the effect of “there will always be others that are better makers than us”. The point I think he was trying to make is that architects provide a lot a value at the core of what they do and we should be careful to not lose sight of that. An Architect’s ability to work with a range of complex issues and through the design process to synthesize these concerns into a resolved proposal is truly an asset.
So, one of the reasons why we bring this back to the question of design is that we feel that this process, this way of seeing the world and thinking through a problem is one of the central values of the architect. We want to be careful to not assume that in the span of time we have with our students that we are going to be able to produce complete experts in fabrication. What we are trying to do is help students understand new ways of communicating, thinking about a design process that leverages these tools. Yes, there is a knowledge base and skill set that is learned. Hopefully this leads to a sophisticated process, but this is not something one does alone.
How does fabrication increase design thinking skills and design collaboration?
For quite some time we understood the responsibility and the primary work of an architect as developing a design proposal and communicating that design intent through a set of architectural conventions such as construction documents. The architect was generally charged with communicating intent, not means and methods. This split between design and construction has been a challenge and problem for quite some time. In essence, there is a “firewall” between those collaborating on the design and those constructing it. This is largely a product of liability concerns. The profession has been very reluctant to assume responsibility for how something is built. One could argue this distinction has hurt the profession and led to poorer architecture.
As new models of project delivery such as design-build and greater collaborations with fabricators become more mainstream, one must rethink the status quo. This is happening with a growing number of innovative practices. There are many motivators behind the profession’s engagement of fabrication. This may include a desire for higher quality, a level of customization, a novel use of materials, etc.
Digital fabrication provides an opportunity for designers to project themselves deeper into the construction process through access to a different type of control than they previously had. So, on the one hand there is a promise to elevate the position of the architect through meaningful collaboration. This can offer the architect greater relevancy within the broader design and construction process. As it relates more directly to the design process itself, it may allow for a greater amount of iteration and prototyping by moving the design data out of the virtual model.
We also see the number of tools and the range of scales of fabrication are becoming more accessible to more designers through links within design software. Design can now develop through computationally produced objects as well as virtual models, and the transformations from virtual to physical can be productive by allowing one to see and understand information differently by virtue of the type of instantiation. This process enables designers to understand the implications of materiality with a physical artifact to inform the design in a more meaningful way.
How do you see Digital Fabrication Labs in schools and the Maker Movement changing education overall?
When I was a kid in the early 80’s, the personal computer emerged as a productivity tool and, of course, as a gaming system. One could write some simple BASIC programs. There was a degree of experimentation by kids and schools but information exchange was difficult. Experimenting with the tools was a challenge. Within the past five to ten years computation and fabrication in particular has become increasingly democratized. It is allowing a whole generation of people to better understand what the connections are between the processes that happen in that black box that is the computer and the physical world around them. Accessible programming, hacking, and of course the maker movement, are empowering children and adults alike.
As we are seeing already, these cultural shifts are changing the way our students approach the use of software and hardware in the design process. Exposure to this range of tools provides people with new opportunities to experience the built environment in very different ways and to perhaps reconnect with how things are designed and built.
How does the combination of modeling tools, material used, scale of fabrication, and the fabrication methods shape the design process?
Most design software ignores the laws of physics. At times this is an asset, at times it’s a crutch. An architect that has built a brick wall or framed a house out of wood understands very quickly that while you can computationally draw or model to ultimate precision, there are real material limitations. The mortar bed holds the brick together and provides a margin of error for bricks of slightly different sizes. There is a wonderful elegance in this simple system. Understanding tolerances of material and construction systems is important and has real design implications.
Studying fabrication provides us with an opportunity to engage materiality beyond appearance to promote an understanding of geometric logic, form, and tectonics. One of the things we try to do with the fabrication tools is inject some of these “resistances” into the process to make life a bit harder for our students by helping them come to terms with how to reconcile a designed condition that perhaps has no tolerance when modeled in 3D, but is intended to be built of natural materials that weather and expand and contract. The sensibility to reconcile these ‘worlds’ makes one a better architect.
How is the use of robotics in fabrication a game changer?
Many of the fabrication tools to date, outside of robotics, do one thing really well. For example, a 3D printer is an additive tool, and a CnC router or laser-cutter is a subtractive tool. Generally these are not conflated. Industrial robots are quite different in that they don’t typically have a tool on them when they come from the factory. Industrial robots are very good at going to a particular point in space and following a set of program instructions, over and over. This allows one a broad range of possibilities depending upon the tool placed on it and the processes executed.
This provides the designer with greater opportunity to design the process and the tool, to consider fabrication at larger scales. Traditional fabrication tools work on a particular piece of material, or in the case of 3D printers, produce an object out of a material. Industrial robots offer us opportunities to explore assembly in ways that other fabrication tools cannot. For example, if we place a gripper on a robot, we could assemble a series of pieces of wood or stack bricks or form metal by pushing, stretching, or bending it. The ability to control the act of placing things together through computational means is significant.
We have been using robots here for the past six years and within the past three years have expanded our robot lab to pursue this area more substantially and to explore things at a scale that robots can provide. Many fabrication tools have a certain limit to the size of thing they can work on, whereas robots provide the opportunity to work at full scale.
If you could speak to every architecture professor on making changes in the design studio as it relates to Digital Fabrication, what would you recommend?
I use the post-World War II example of socially minded architect / fabricators with my students. That was a moment within design and architecture that was very optimistic about the possibility of advancements in manufacturing to make progressive architecture more accessible, affordable and expressive of its techniques. There was some wonderful work done by Jean Prouve and the Eames that was looking at how standardized manufacturing assembly lines could transform the ways we thought about making architecture, and how it resonated with a broader cultural shift. There was a social agenda to that work. It was not just technological. It wasn’t just about making things look cool or making things different for the sake of being different.
If I could humbly make a recommendation, it would be one of relevancy of the technology. Architecture is a mode of cultural production that has the potential to make significant contributions to our societies. Reflecting upon on how these techniques bolster a broader agenda is critical.