Photo: Jan Windszus

Digital production and open source – the future of participative architecture

Architecture for all

Let’s start with the bad news: construction remains one of the world’s most significant producers of waste. In the EU alone, the industry accounts for approx. 25-30 % of all wasted materials with some EU countries recycling less than 10 % of their construction waste. Now for the good news: engineers, architects, and designers are already pursuing promising approaches for making the buildings around us not just eco-friendlier, but also more flexible and pleasant to live in.

Photo: Jan Windszus

Collaboration is key

Collaboration Is Key. Many of the proposed concepts centre around collaborations between man and machine, architect and algorithm. Their ‘secret weapon’ tends to be parametric or generative design, an approach that allows anyone with an eye for shapes to design their own architecture. While the software supplies the overall framework, we get to decide the final result.

Architect and Yale lecturer Phil Bernstein sees a lot of potential in this approach. In the future, “architects, engineers, designers, and builders will use computers not just to describe buildings, but to co-create them. The computers will help navigate the design and construction process, so they can focus on making successful projects and great buildings. In the design and construction industries, ‘making data’ (with tools like CAD and digital photos) is giving way to ‘using data’: using computers to generate, manipulate, and apply data to improve outcomes.”

Human meets machine

Generative design also drives two of the projects at the Futurium Lab. The Joyn Machine by Studio Milz invites visitors to design, mill, and assemble seats, benches, or entire pavilions from wood slats with little effort or design experience. A few steps away, the futuristic Printed Tower project also champions the close collaboration between people and machines. Here, visitors can guide a robot arm using a few, simple gestures to create tomorrow’s architecture from ceramic paste. “What makes this method so exciting is its scalability,” says Caroline Høgsbro of Printed Tower. “When you opt for such a 3-D printing approach, you’re only limited by the size and specifications of the machine. We want to encourage architects to move beyond the current construction-kit rationale of the DIN standards and standardized surfaces.”

According to Høgsbro’s colleague Sven Pfeiffer, the magic ingredient is the advanced robotics. “Commercial industrial robots usually carry out predefined, automated steps in closed environments. They are not designed to interact with humans.” The Printed Tower team wants to take such robots out of their comfort zone and turn them into equal partners. Once liberated from their confines, they can facilitate many key steps, from design to on-site production. Their CoBot was specifically designed for close collaboration with humans, hence the name. Pfeiffer says, “We really hope that robots will become established on building sites and that architects will design directly with the robot on site.”

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Photo: Jan Windszus

From do-it-yourself to do-it-together

Studio Milz also champions collaboration. “Our Joyn Machine allows people to build their own wooden structures without prior knowledge. Pretty much anything is possible, from decorative furniture to structural roofs and walls,” adds Architect Patrick Bedarf. “Since the machine takes many steps off our hands, we can really focus on the design and quickly try out our initial ideas.” At the same time, there’s nothing radically new about the Joyn Machine’s setup. It combines already existing technologies through a smart user interface. “This lets anyone build structures, architecture, and furniture that wouldn’t have been viable before. Economic reasons alone would have prevented a carpenter from even considering many of our designs since all these small connections and filigree structures would be too involved and elaborate to make using the conventional manual methods.”

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Photo: Futurium

Mass customisation, not mass production

Traditional craft meets high-tech? Digital devices help us make better and more efficient use of historically established materials, machines, and expertise. Wood, especially, benefits from this shift and is in the midst of a renaissance. “Wood has never been more contemporary. It is more environmentally friendly than steel, aluminium, or plastic since trees store CO2 through photosynthesis,” says Simon Deeg of Studio Milz. “Because modern, computer-aided CNC machines like our Joyn Machine facilitate mass customisation, it’s no longer a problem to make each part individually. This opens up new horizons: from small, every-day objects all the way up to commercial construction and even major infrastructure like bridges. Almost anything becomes possible.”

The best of both worlds

The Printed Tower team also takes inspiration and even raw materials from nature. “We use porcelain as a placeholder for any earth-based materials we could use in this printer. Clay is an incredibly old material that has been used for millennia and also has excellent properties in terms of reuse, sustainability, and climate control. Bringing these factors together is a thriving area of research,” states Sven Pfeiffer. He is especially impressed by the construction properties of this sustainable material. “We can use it to print porous parts that can breathe or retain moisture in order to regulate indoor climate. Clay is already used to manufacture cooling walls. Or we could use it to shape a building’s acoustics.” Caroline Høgsbro focuses on the bigger picture. “What really drives us is the chance to develop new spaces and geometries with little effort, a small environmental footprint, and a low-tech material like clay using high-tech methods. The result is an old-new architecture for the entire planet.”

Scrap the scrap

Their concepts for new, sustainable architecture are encouraging. But what do we do with the old once it has outlived its usefulness? What can we do to avoid the staggering amount of construction waste? This is where CloudFill by Certain Measures comes into its own. Their lofty aim is to give ‘discarded’ architecture a new lease on life. “We don’t consider buildings scheduled for demolition as waste, but a valuable resource for new buildings or other construction,” explains Tobias Nolte of Certain Measures. His colleague Andrew Witt explains the process behind their idea. “We scan waste materials from construction, from old, disused, or demolished buildings and use them as raw materials to create new ones.” The CloudFill software also analyses and categorises properties such as shape, colour, and material characteristics. Nothing goes to waste and everything can be fit into brand new shapes and buildings, depending on the user’s preferences. To Tobias Nolte, this is the future of sustainable architecture: “With our CloudFill, we want to replace recycling with a digital process of redistribution and reuse.”

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Less is more

A further advantage of automated architecture is its efficient use of resources, whether in new production, 3-D printing, or smart reuse concepts. Here, some architects have started to look for inspiration in nature, since evolution and natural selection have created many of their own resource and energy-efficient processes over the course of millions of years. The architect and artist Philip Beesley takes inspiration from bionics, copying successful concepts from nature. Whether cell division or hollow bird bones, the results are most likely better, stronger, and more resilient than anything engineers have come up with. “When you combine many, many porous layers, for example, you can build a very, very solid structure, which is highly efficient and uses far less energy than the kinds we see around us.”

Open to anything

All of these new architectures also thrive in the open exchange of data, idea, and materials. Take CloudFill’s notion of the “database of things” where unused resources – from discarded electronic devices down to the last plank, cable or screw – can find a new lease on life. Access to precious resources and knowledge could benefit the world. To encourage this exchange, Printed Tower and Joyn Machine focus on open source concepts. “With the Joyn Machine, we give people a tool to design their own environment and change their own future. If we had several machines around the world, local production would be an option. In other words, we wouldn’t need to send materials from A to B any longer, but could simply send the required expertise. The resulting local production of furniture and architecture would make the whole setup even more democratic and sustainable.” This, however, also requires a new approach to designing since materials and requirements differ from place to place. Does the local clay have the same chemical composition and 3D printing properties? Do buildings need different weather proofing in hot and cold climates? The more people around the world contribute their own, local expertise, the better and more varied the bespoke results. This smart localisation process can even initiate a new type of global economy.

An interesting example of “design global, produce local” is emergency relief of disaster areas. Here, the above-mentioned low-tech-meets-high-tech approach could make essential aid much faster, cheaper, and easier to set up via the ‘disaster design’ concepts. In order to help, more and more architects are making their designs freely available or using generative design principles to put their talents where they are needed the most.

Sense the world

Around YouThe real benefits of openness and sharing become especially obvious in scaling. If you’d like to contribute, one of Thomas Bartoscheck’s connected environmental monitoring stations might be worth a look. These senseBoxes are easy to assemble and install at home and help “close gaps in environmental monitoring and improve observing the changes in climate or particulate levels. Those who get involved also gain a much better grasp of environmental issues and IT, learning a lot about both areas.” Such a citizen science scheme not only encourages us to play a part in shaping our own future, but also benefits society at large by making the measured data freely available to researchers, urban planners, and journalists.

Design with and for people

Whether printed mural, software-designed holiday home, or sustainable made-to-measure sculpture, just how much or how little we rely on computers and machines remains our own choice. “In the future, architecture will be much more of an open process with increasingly blurred boundaries between users, architects, engineers, contractors, and anyone else involved in this complex process. We are likely to see a far more decentralised approach where everything happens on site and architects work on location without the kind of barriers we know and see today,” Sven Pfeiffer adds. “By 2025, this process will hopefully be in full swing, letting us build unique individual homes no longer constrained by given norms or forms. That would be our ultimate goal: more freedom.” The freedom to design our own future with sustainable methods and materials that encourage us all to join the fun.

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Photo: Daniel Fuentes on Unsplash