Pimp my design?
On Visualization, Digital Prototyping and Fabrication
by Architect Dennis Karanja
The use of digital technologies has assimilated itself exponentially in the AEC professions. Often, engineering and construction professionals have embraced software in mid and end processes of project delivery. Architects and Landscapers engage these processes as extensions of sketching, modelling and documentation from concept to project delivery.
We pride ourselves in turning the intangible dreams of our clients to reality. Yet often these dreams are captured in terse meetings with clients. Prevalent technology has come in to augment the traditional methods of representation and communication of these dreams, from inception to post contract management. The proliferation of affordable computers and powerful software have enabled professionals to extend the boundaries of what can be conceived and constructed. The advanced software allows us to visualise, model and test complex parametric and organic geometries. This has huge implications for both tectonics and material use in contemporary architecture.
Granted, the architectural visualizations have their portent potential, an impact not just felt as a new genre of expression but an entire territorial scope. It is therefore of paramount importance that the architectural industry advance such techniques and craft them to the advantage of the profession and its diverse clientele.
Still herein, it is important to note that visualisation bears with it a persuasive role in selling ideas. This is where the good, the bad and the ugly call home and they all converge into an element of wonder, mystery and still within harm. The good has its place, yet still the bad face of visualization resides within.
Misrepresentation of facts as brought forwards by stunning images and documentation form BIM opens up uncharted paths of litigation. In a related instance, a subcontractor in Nevada, USA, sued an engineer for misrepresentation. The contractor’s claim was that the engineer had negligently misrepresented their design as constructible. The contrasting argument here would be that, we now have BIM throughout design and construction phases augmented with conflict checking software, therefore, such litigation need not arise.
Granted -a different approach is to build on ethics of visualisation within the profession. A code of conduct would establish quality standards and in turn build trust and respect from the consumers of the visualisation output. When a friend approaches you with a sales catalogue seeking advice on a house they would like to purchase, and you have the unfortunate role of pointing out to the various misrepresentations, they end up thinking one architect is as bad as the next. If a room is three metres by three metres, do not throw in a double bed and a seat to confuse a client. To remedy this smoke and mirrors approach in our profession, four key ideals should guide our visualization. These are accuracy, representativeness, clarity and legitimacy. While the first three are things we do, the last one is an outcome of the first three.
However convenient the contrary might be, endeavour for accuracy and truth by using visualisations to simulate the actual or expected appearance of the design intent without distortion. There should be appropriate levels of realism for the intended purpose. Often you will not find a sales document depicting the real site. It usually is a concocted, innocent and pristine neighbourhood far from the real situation on the ground. On the other hand depicting a Boeing 777 in your visualisation for a villa in Nairobi’s up-market Runda is not a sign of sophistication but professional immaturity. Further, our visualizations should be representative in depicting typical or essential views of our design intents and the landscape. Visual clarity involves a clear communication of the details, components and overall content. These contribute to legitimacy of the visualization making our intents demonstrable and defensible.
It is hoped that when we reach out for our visualization gadgets we shall have this in mind. Now raise your mouse and repeat after me; I acknowledge and respect the power of visualization to mislead the uninformed. Therefore I shall not visualise with intention to hide or confuse the truth.
The beauty of following the above prescription is that it makes it easier to build what we have designed. This is the fabrication stage. The fabrication process is meant to test both the virtual model and the physical output at different scales. These could be rapid prototyping and digital fabrication. These two techniques are not new but the approaches can be aligned to those of the manufacturing industry. When we make a card model, we are prototyping. When we ask a contractor to build a sample wall on site, we are fabricating. This works like a dream for traditional architectural materials but might be a nightmare when the genres of expression change. What are the solutions?
At a small office scale, a 3D printer will work well. Although expensive, they are worth the investment especially if you are moving away from traditional architectural approaches to construction and materials. 3-D printing can be used to test new designs, materials and building techniques. Indeed there are open source 3D printer D-I-Y kits at the price of a medium sized plotter. Besides, 3D printers work with most parametric modelling software, including Adobe Photoshop. 3D printing and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling are ‘reversible’ processes. The artefact produced can be scanned using a 3-D scanner or digitizer and the parameters input back for further design. The possibilities suddenly become limitless.
Of course you will not ‘print’ your dream house in the office-not yet, but with a bit of patience and the right materials you will with time. The next option would be to fabricate either your entire design intent or component in a factory of lab setting. A few manufacturers locally have the capacity to fabricate most of what is demanded in the new expression. The only problem is the numbers do not make economic sense as almost everyone will not be looking at the expressive building you have in mind but the return on investment on their CNC mills.
What implications do robotics such as 3D printing and CNC milling have for architecture? First would be precision in building lifecycle- no need for snagging and protracted arguments with contractors on site, conducting destructive tests and so on. It also means you spend more time on the design end with better outcomes. Secondly, you can expend more creative juices in experimenting – you actually learn by doing-in your office, not on site at the cost of your client. Thirdly, this means the architect will be a ‘master-builder’ again; an architect’s office will again be a workshop of creation, and no longer look like a sterile recruitment agency.