In the context of a semester-long design project, students were asked to engage a design problem involving an environmental construct emphasizing the digital feedback loop as discussed above. The construct, at the schematic level, was intended to have some sort of internally directed, computational logic but was also intended to respond to a specific environmental condition and function. Over the course of the design exercise, it was this conceptual relationship within the feedback loop – between environmental effects and computational logic – that was a primary challenge in communicating ideas, designing analytically, and developing concept-integrated fabrication strategies.
In this sense, fabrication is not simply a hermetic process, but an ecology that rewrites our assumptions of what to do with materials, information, and the ability to both control complexity and generate from computation. Constructing Information was a design course in which architecture students examined an environmental design problem by way of the digital feedback loop, where their efforts in applying digital design and fabrication methods were driven explicitly by material and site realities and where their work was executed, installed, and critically explored in situ. Their work raised important questions about how information and context overlay and merge, and the critical potential of visual, material, and spatial effects as part of a fabrication-oriented design problem.The implication of ‘fabrication’ has rapidly expanded for architects, architectural researchers, and students engaging the latest digital tools: fabrication is both material and immaterial, pushing the limits of experimentation while working against the imperatives of real technology and construction imperatives as articulated by other scholars. Computer-aided design and manufacturing, once discreet applications of technology, are now part of a fluid process of designing, modeling, simulating, making, and re-making. This process is characterized as a “feedback loop”, where digital information meets critical decision-making and the design process plays out in the service of production, assembly, construction, and critical interpretation.
Projects at the beginning of the course were authored by the seven individual students. The students were assigned on the first day of class the problem of creating a particular environmental construct, selected from the following list: wall cladding, curtain wall interior shading, suspended ceiling, privacy partition, interior passage point , skylight interior shading, overhead light diffusing screen, interior furnishing. Students were asked, in parallel with their initial schematic concept, to define the conditions of the design problem in terms of environmental effect: that is, what their object or system responded to (sunlight, artificial lighting, acoustics, ergonomics, experience, media, movement, touch, climate, or a combination). Throughout the first part of the course, computational design methods were introduced in a set of workshops, followed by a workshop presenting methods for environmental simulation related to the set of criteria mentioned above. Sites for the projects remained intentionally abstract, to allow students to narrow their conceptual focus on particular effects and relationships.
Throughout the first half of the semester, students continued to work individually through the following stages of the feedback loop, introducing their own imperatives and objectives as projects evolved. In parallel, topics and workshops were explored ranging in subjects such as visualization, rules-based and parametric design, environmental analysis, and fabrication. In the final stage of project development students assembled in two teams and were assigned to select a site, within or around the college’s building, in which to interrogate and install their designs. In the final stages of project development, project commonalities, strengths, and weaknesses became clear and the introduction of the projects to real-world fabrication constraints and sites made design revisions inevitable. In the spirit of the feedback loop and process-based working model, the students transitioned from seven individual projects to two project hybrids, where students collaborated in teams.
Perhaps a consequence of this collaboration based on process, the students elected to form a single ‘super team’ in the final weeks of the process. An important contributor to this decision was the availability of a large amount of usable material scraps from a previous project, which had resulted in each team working towards adopting similar material strategies. Weeks of looking at each other’s projects seemed to attract the students towards a common conclusion, with individual students in the end citing particular interests (scripting, solving construction details, studying material strategies) in contributing to the final process. This underscores the emphasis of the course towards design and fabrication process over a premeditated ‘object’; by way of the feedback loop, the focus on iterative development over end product encouraged integrative, collaborative problem solving over homogenized, individual expression.
The final project occupies a small section of curtain wall windows in an elevated but public section of the architecture building. Overall, the students were able to identify many opportunities for experiencing the site from inside and outside, understanding its potential to shift with the movement of viewers through the space and their movement relative to the time of day. Relative to shifting times of day, solar geometry and daylighting could relate to project geometry as perceived during the daytime, while a projection system installed on the interior could illuminate the project after dusk. The geometry of the sun, sky, and projected light allows the project to respond to light and the movement of viewers continuously throughout the day.
An array of variably extruded and trimmed polygons establishes the project geometry, generated from a script that, provided with a simple volumetric boundary, first divides this volume into variegated cells. Through the script, each horizontal row of cells is extruded in response to a particular solar orientation, allowing the clear admittance of sunlight on key days and mixing sun and shadow while transitioning between these days. The randomized distortion of each cell, also part of the script, related to project’s intended effects relative to light and material.
The students intended to create ‘distortion’ of light and thus spatial effect, and early in the project it was recognized that neither flat planes of material or a regularized grill of cells could provide this distortion – in each case light was either washing the material surface completely or passing through the cells too completely. This reality was discovered when the chosen material – ‘milky’ white acrylic – was examined in projected light. This particular material reacted to light most intensely when its orientation was shifting – at the corners of geometries, and when the incidence of light could change (i.e. from grazing to direct) among adjacent surfaces. Distorting the cells through randomization and shifting their orientation within the array exposed more corners and surface variation to view, and could increase the spatial effect of the project. Scripting allowed the students to easily experiment with scaling cells, varying the orientation and extent of the cell array without rebuilding digital models and revising the intricate geometric relationships between site, solar geometry, and structure.
The acrylic used in the project was part of a usable volume of scrap material that the students found could be processed into smaller plates for in-house laser cutting. The production method for each cell involved unfolding from the model, nesting in cut sheets, and labeling. Finished parts were then organized and bent using printed templates and a single-element plastic heater. Scoring the acrylic involved creating a rasterized gradient at each seam, which could be processed by the laser cutter as a pattern of pulses which, in turn, could cut a precise, three-dimensional groove in the acrylic. The mounting detail used silicon rubber suction cups and clear acrylic tabs which snapped into each cell: a system which could be manufactured using the laser cutters, easily optimized with slight modifications to snap ‘teeth’, and allowed a loose fit when attached to glass to absorb remaining geometric discrepancies.
Working with real prototypes, understanding the capabilities for forming the material, and organizing the project around site conditions enabled these realizations in the design process – a direct manifestation of the feedback loop from design to fabrication.