Monday, November 27, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 400 - Open Manufacturing

Industrialization altered the way everything was fabricated. Factories became the locus of commercializing everything from utensils to pharmaceuticals, building parts and automobiles. In generally closed loops, businesses safeguarded their commodities and methods through patents and protectionist attitudes underwritten by privatisation. Strategies were outlined to give each corporation a competitive edge over their peers. Design and manufacturing were trademarked, intraoperable and exclusive only to internal stakeholders. Methodological frameworks from Ford to Toyota envisioned their production secrets as their very ethos and core of their potential economic successes.  This closed manufacturing is the emblem of industrialization, and of the free market economy. 


Digital principles and societies’ crises are challenging these closed loops in favour of shared access to crowd iterations. Many have been inspired by the open-source revolution in software to apply the same interoperable freedom to hardware and to a diversity of manufacturing sectors. Known as open manufacturing or open factories, these attitudes harness the power of commonalities, democratized designs, innovative processes, and shared research infrastructure crosspollinated across customarily private lines. Trade associations can play an important role in the suggestion of normalized and acquiesced methods to elevate quality through industrial clusters. Collaboration or sharing hubs put forward innovation and expand peer production to explode closed ideological loops.  


This type of sector endorsed equity and normalization could offer opportunities in offsite construction, whether modular or panelized.  Currently, most manufacturers protect their production secrets even though most are building in a similar way. Timber based prefabrication for mobile homes, volumetric modular or open wall and floor panels use timber frame principles that are non-proprietary and used onsite to realize the same basic structures as their factory-built analogs; frame details and materials are common construction knowledge. Still, the industry remains very conservative about sharing. Mutual methodologies pushed by trade associations could be a way forward to increase capacity and develop process and design intelligence throughout the industry making it possible for many small companies to compete fairly against larger manufacturers. Even for larger manufacturers, open and peer production leads to knowledge accessibility, potential affordability for the consumer and possibilities for greater growth.



Automated wood panel production


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 399 - customize - 10 - Robots for production or design


Current and future digital modelling and fabrication methods advance opportunities for architects and designers to develop complex designs, organizations, and structures. While offering these shape-finding possibilities, design objectives are often conceptually distant from manufacturing targets. If singularity is a definitive objective of architectural design, repeating fundamental characteristics and criteria underwrites efficient production. Even with robotics slowly percolating the construction industry, the contrasting systemic postures of design and manufacturing still underscore certain fundamental snags between architecture and construction. 


With robots programmed to cut, lift, nail, screw, or to execute any other task, architects are envisioning and exploring forms and geometries that are only possible through this computerized precision. For both design and simulating fabrication, miniature cobots can be brought into any office to validate this bespoke file to making approach. This one-off methodology is in sharp contrasts to how robots are used to optimize off-site construction to efficiently reduce both costs and schedules. 


Autovol Volumetric Modular’s  use of automation in their factory symbolizes its potential to solve current labour shortages and construction’s lagging productivity. Once robots are programmed to perform a repetitive job, they can be part of a linear or cellular manufacturing process with people only keeping an eye on the machines and making sure materials, nails or screws are in position implementing their ordered tasks. Panelized elements like walls and floors can be fabricated on tables and then assembled into volumes or prisms that are easily stacked on site with robotic prompted precision. 


A streamlined mass-production process is based on strict, consistent, and precise automation and dependent on clear standards for construction with the repetition of common design dimensions, geometry and criteria from project to project. Modular automation certainly offers opportunities for major gains in time versus conventional construction. Improvements are made through process replication and optimized by a continuous production loop. These patterns of production are poles apart from the one-off prototypes architects sometimes conceive. Even as robots integrate the construction industry, the conceptual distance between both fields can be bridged or widened according to the same age-old debate between customization and normalization.  

Photo from the Autovol website

Monday, November 13, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 398 - customize - 09 - Stackable micro apartments


The pressure of providing affordable housing in cities is driving an era of renewed interest in the «minimum dwelling». First articulated in 1932 by Karel Teige, the approach argued for inhabitable private cells and shared services to reduce redundant spaces. The inhabitable cell inspired the plugged-in unit on a common core prototypes of postwar Japan’s Metabolist movement. The minimum dwelling, a type of machine for living, was one of modern architecture’s obsessions: fabricating a dwelling from the conceptualizations of the industrial age, mechanization, mass production and Frederick W. Taylor's task separation; The efficient dwelling was a theme for architects to explore and illustrate potential well-run living environments complete with technological devices and built-in furnishings masterfully managing every square cm. 


Today's equivalent capsules or tiny houses are suggested not only to be tuned to contemporary living conditions but also to increase density and more critically to decrease building costs. Made offsite and transported to urban building sites, manufactured micro-lodgings can reduce construction time and site disturbance. Further, commonized flats can be stacked, maximize production, and harmonize design with procurement criteria to foster cost effective multi-unit buildings.  


MyMicroNY at Carmel Place, in Manhattan, opened in 2016. A series of stacked micro-apartments designed by nArchitects, the proposal outlines the possibilities provided by this budding micro-unit typology for urban housing. The nine-story building is organized by 55 units varying in size from 260-360 square feet (24-28 square meters). Each is a dimensionally coordinated container-like module serially produced in a factory setting. The apartments are a straightforward enfilade of bath, kitchen and living space. Built-in murphy beds convert day spaces into night spaces or provide flexibility for receiving guests. Made from a cold rolled steel framed chassis, the stackable boxes are completely fitted-out for delivery and to be set in place. The steel chassis outlines a precise construction system with a 3mm tolerance making a case for modular construction's stable processes that save time as well as increase construction quality. 


Produced by New York City company Capsys corp at the company's Brooklyn naval yard plant, the building was developed from a competition proposal as a pattern for increasing supply of affordable living spaces in cities at the front line of housing crises.

Setting a stackable unit in place from architects'

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 397 - customize - 08 - Cosmic Buildings


The future of construction is being guided and informed by the assimilation of digital technologies in the design and building processes. As climate change imposes reductions in resource consumption as well as adapting new energies, calculating carbon emissions, and reforming present take-make-dispose approaches, policy makers and project stakeholders are investigating parallel industries to generate innovative production ideas for breeding economies, efficiencies, and greater productivity. Streamlining supply chains and harmonizing design with offsite production are key ideas being touted as a path forward. Deploying modular, normalized, reproducible, intelligent and factory optimized assemblies that can be leveraged toward assorted designs is the basis of an industrial product platform ideology percolating from automobile and kit furniture sectors to architecture. While still marginal in construction, innovative start-ups are illustrating the potential for product platform theory to help increase output while making the whole industry more prolific. 


Sasha Jokic, a construction innovator well-versed in robotics and their application in construction, is the founder of Cosmic, a company that is proposing a building system to plan and create affordable, efficient, and low-carbon housing prototypes. Jokic’s scheme elucidates an open «product platform» imagined for ease of assembly and standardized component production. The basic volume is outlined by a steel and timber chassis, a modular volume that could be aggregated to produce innumerable patterns. The company is marketing a no-frills Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) that could be added to any backyard on simple tripod, strip or granular foundations. 


Cellular web, cold-formed, sheet metal joists are connected to columns to fashion a post and girder framework braced by plywood panels. The open joist floor plates are panelized as a type of cartridge that can be flatpacked to facilitate its bundling and delivery. Mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems can also be modularized into the floor cores.  All elements are ordered and repeated over multiple units to distribute design and production costs, a basic principle of industrialized production. The first ADU also includes solar panels for energy production conserved in lithium-ion batteries that provide enough energy to run all systems including heating, cooling and ventilation making the unit completely self-sufficient. 

Assembling the floor plate cartridge onto the posts - from Cosmic Buildings

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 396 - customize - 07 - MAAP House panelized construction


Prefabrication and customized design have rarely converged. Effective production requires cultivating replicable patterns and designs to guarantee streamlined manufacturing. Personalization challenges are further enhanced when building systems are integrated or fitted out in a factory setting. Modular volumetric is an excellent case and point as big boxes are outfitted up to 70%. While advantageous for planning and climate-controlled task completion, it can certainly limit design freedom. Architects and industrialists have tried to address this difficulty through open systems. 


Design limitations, project pipeline forecasting, upfront factory investments, along with greater transport and site staging constraints have produced contrasting results and have even sometimes led to superior overall costs.  In opposition to building with big chunks, panelized surface elements equipped to various degrees, flat-packed and sequenced for onsite construction can provide more design freedom. Panels do require more intensive site work, however, this can be compensated by easy-to-assemble features. Fabricating modular, versatile, and complete panels can vary according to designs and are dimensionally less restrictive. 


The MAAP House Company from Australia promotes this type of panelized construction as a way of simplifying transport and project completion. Panels can be used for floors, walls, and roofs in a type of planar shell kit strategy. MAAP panels remain fully demountable after assembly which makes the building envelope 100% relocatable and reusable.  The stressed-skin, lightweight partitions are composed of a cold formed steel skeletal core lined with magnesium oxide board making the system fireproof and mold resistant. Each panel is created in line with the company’s preset dimensional standards, and they can be put together by one or two people in any geographical context. 


Like many other panel-based systems, the MAAP house components are delivered to fit seamlessly and form a weatherproof building skin. Limitations include site intensive furnishing of all other building systems.  To commercialize complete kits, MAAP has developed wet rooms, kitchens and bathrooms, as completed volumes, pods or brought to site as cartridge-like mechanical elements. This hybrid approach is promoted by the company as resolving transport issues. The flat pack and pods approach also makes their system adaptable to any architectural design.



Flat-packed panels from 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 395 - customize - 06 - Volumetric Adaptability

Flexibility, adaptability, and malleability are all required in some form in architecture and construction. The built form undergoes alterations, from minor to major, over its service life. A capacity to adapt to these changes mitigates waste resulting from renovations. Prefabrication, specifically with modular volumetric subassemblies, chunks or pods, is not really recognized for its capacity to evolve over time as proprietary, production and assembly constraints have created fixed, regulated, and sometimes overly static load-bearing compositions. 


Japanese groundbreaking manufacturing methods in the 1950s and 1960s introduced novel ways of looking at changeability by projecting and producing integrated capsule dwelling units that could simply be bolted to a structural hub and replaced, moved or rearranged as needed. This architectural conceptualization ended with the recent demolition of Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower. Still, the idea of a building that could be built with large factory-built boxes and with reversible connections to allow for its systemic deconstruction still inspires.


Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation’s Innocell Tower is a recent adaptation of a type of megastructure by engineers Hip Hing and architects  Leigh & Orange Ltd. The MiC process «Modular integrated Construction», precast and prefinished modular units, is put forward as quicker, more efficient, and better quality. The 17-story building is composed of steel skeletal boxes bolted together and supported by a superstructure to create a multi-use dynamic and open system. The boxes are juxtaposed, fastened, and braced laterally by an onsite poured concrete core and horizontal floor slabs. The hybrid construction system distances itself from Metabolist megastructure aesthetics but remains conceptually similar to ideas advanced more than a half century ago. 


Is developing a systemic flexibility in modular architecture a recurring pipe dream or has its day finally come? Programming an edifice for change is challenging as technologies, material conditions, standards, building codes, lifestyles and stylistic choices evolve unpredictably. Imagining simply exchanging old modules for new ones has proven impracticable. A building's obsolescence has less to do with its demountability than its potential to be reimagined and refitted without taking it apart. 

Modular boxes integrated into a collective framework

Friday, October 13, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 394 - customize - 05 - Framing possibilities


Light timber balloon frame and subsequently platform framing revolutionized building culture in North America and then all over the industrialized world. Milled abundant softwood, «2 by» stock, enabled anyone to nail together and erect these simplified posts, beams and joists into load-bearing walls, floors, and roofs. Lightweight timber construction became synonymous with low-density housing and continues to be the go-to system for small buildings. Although rudimentary, it proved affordable and arguably the most adaptable form of construction.


Timer framing has few constraints; the structural redundancy of closely positioned nailed studs and joists makes any structure possible. It’s no surprise that this flexibility has provided little need for innovation since its early mass adoption, its accurate normalisation and democratisation through the baby boom of the 1950s and 60s. Prefabrication of wall and floor panels has added some value in terms of saving time and reducing onsite waste, but novelty in framing is limited. 


As the mechanized sawmill was the basis for the invention and knowledge spread of stick framing, computerized cutters are influencing and inspiring a new generation to look at framing with state-of-the-art manufacturing methodologies. Wiki-houseU-build, and Xframe are three open systems articulated to new digital fabrication possibilities.  Xframe posits a complete change of construction strategy. The x-braced frame trellis proposes bolted joinery along with dry wood on wood assemblies to keep elements together while ensuring ease of disassembly at the end of the frames’ service life. A plurality of organisations is possible from this cross braced plywood panelized structure including any finishing materials from interior partitions to complete insulated exterior walls.   


The structural web is defined by vertical, horizontal, and diagonal plywood elements attached with wooden gusset plates. The pattern, a type of bailey bridge truss, defines a robust and modular repeatable thickness arranged from a 1200mm x 2700mm grid. The plywood strips are placed to structure a surface akin to a vertical waffle or ribbed slab. 


The mass cultural acceptance of the light wood frame has impeded the market penetration of any other strategies. Proposals like the X-frame, however pertinent, require such profound reforming of cultural habits and supply chain harmonies that their long-term commercial applicability is difficult to realize and reason. 

Xframe structure see

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 393 - customize - 04 - Expandability and Adaptability

In the vast spectrum of ideas connecting architecture to its potential flexibility or its capacity to change over time, expandability has been a topic of much exploration. From the experimental suitcase house explored by Gary Chang in 2009 to Villa Verde (Chile, 2010) and other incremental open-source housing projects by Elemental architects, the ability for a structure to grow and be redefined according to changing requirements posits a design process coupled with lifecycle evolutions. 


One of the dominant spatial concepts of adaptability, a fixed core (service spaces) and flexible periphery (served spaces), outlines the basic elements of the core house archetype; the rational arrangement of all required technical elements in a dimensionally regulated volume leaving the adjacent spaces free from any mechanical constraints. The core is often discussed as a modular capsule or pod, a type of battery pack, that powers dwelling functions. Non-technical spaces can branch out from this hub growing in an organic and informal manner. The core house symbolizes a user-focused approach to dwelling provision and community development.  


The Expandable House proposed in 2018 by architecture firm Urban Rural Systems articulates its changeability to an infrastructure service hub, including walls, roof, and foundations to build up a one-story brutalist box with a three-story structural capacity. The spaces adjacent to the core-wall can be used for living or working. More than just a dwelling, the urban patchwork quilt of cores speculates a dynamic horizontal and vertical framework reflecting inhabitants’ and neighborhood evolutions. 


The core is structured by a concrete post and beam skeleton with cinder block infill. Other spaces and systems are added as they become economically feasible. The basic enfilade of spaces includes a kitchen, toilet, bath, and rainwater collecting elements in a tightly organized wall. Identified as dynamic urbanism, the architects envisioned their core house as the seed of affordable growth. A steel roof covering is designed to be hoisted like a telescopic umbrella to varying heights to accommodate a plurality of dwelling compositions and elevations.  


An alignment of sustainable and affordable dwelling criteria, core house principles can be achieved with local building materials and traditions bridging complex infrastructure distribution with open user-defined planning.

Expandable Core House by Urban Rural Systems (2018)

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 392 - customize - 03 - Plug-in dwellings


When it comes to prefabrication and industrialized building systems, it seems everything old becomes new again. Ideas from the past get fresh imagery and are wrapped up in an era’s vocabulary to argue for innovation in architecture and construction. Adaptability is one of these reemerging concepts that entices architects to envision ways of making edifices flexible enough to respond to both minor organizational changes and major modifications required for retrofitting according to evolving requirements. The plug-in rhetoric of Metabolist architects in post war Japan posited capsule living as the future of adaptability. Inhabitable manufactured pods would simply be attached or plugged into a collective infrastructure. These functional commodities could either be moved, replaced, or altered over time. Architecture was viewed as peripatetic.


Kisho Kurokwa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower epitomized this concept for generations of architects. Ultimately, it proved marginal and ephemeral with the building coming down in April of 2022. Still, the plug-in concept captivates architectural education and design strategies. Peoples Architecture Office of China has renewed these strategies on recent projects including their plug-in school and plug-in tower. The Plug-in Tower closely mimics the systemic separation of support services from their appended mass-produced dwelling pods. The mega spaceframe structure, an oversized version of the famous MeroTM space frame node, is intended as an adaptable framework espousing any site; the office’s proprietary plug-in panelized sub-assemblies compose prismatic inhabitable spaces within the steel web. The factory-made panel is described as including all mechanical necessities along with interior and exterior finished surfaces. Other functional systems and circulation elements are added-on to create a total comprehensive building.  


The prototype is represented as a single-family dwelling without permanent foundations as the steel trellis structure can be anchored to any site; the plug-in dwellers could disassemble the house and take it with them wherever they decide to live. Further, the space frame structure can grow vertically and horizontally adapting to suit changing requirements. A contemporary version of ideas explored during the latter half of the twentieth century, the romanticized mobility and architectural interchangeability reveal more about the theoretical artefacts produced by the profession than it does about tangible applicable adaptability for housing. 

Plug-in prototype from Peoples Architecture Office

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Prefabrication experiments - 391 - customize - 02 - Assembly OSM


Founded in 2019 by brothers William and Chris Sharples of SHoP architects, Assembly OSM is a start-up intended to revolutionize the way buildings are put together. The architects’ digital design practise, established in 1996, inspired the firm’s founders through several large-scale urban prototypes to expand their digital principles to the entire construction process. Like the now defunct Katerra before it and a growing list of other ventures into digitally propelled industrialization that would bring manufacturing methodologies to streamlined construction, will Assembly OSM finally bridge the enduring gap between architecture and industrialization? The team is certainly accomplished and leveraging what they’ve learned on several modular projects, Barclay tower in New York is the most famous, may qualify them to achieve what so many others have only proposed. 


Automobile production has long been a reference to modernize building and improve stagnating construction productivity. Kieran and Timberlake’s manifesto (Refabricating Architecture) in 2004 shifted the narrative to include airplane production and shipbuilding with complexities which more adequately reflect the systemic organisation of buildings. Assembly OSM’s discourse parallels these ideas and platform theory proposed in 2017 by Bryden Wood. These theoretical outlooks point to a type of mega kit method for making multiple bespoke buildings from the same basic parts.  This is not necessarily a new idea; buildings are always made from the same components from doors to windows and a multitude of other industrialized components.  Endeavours like Assembly OSM strive to streamline design with production through the normalization of parts in matters of dimensions, characteristics, and performance, to address the entangled mess of a highly fragmented building construction sector. 


Creating a harmonized procurement, planning and coordination process replicated from project to project is the way forward for Assembly OSM inspired by an integrated design and production process that exists in industrial fabrication. In construction, the IPD integrated project delivery method invokes a similar framework for sharing responsibility among stakeholders and laying out every part of the process before it is undertaken. Groups like Assembly OSM, Bryden Wood, Factory OS are promoting this approach, and while digital innovations hold new potentials, the question of - will this be the one ? -  persists.

Left: 290 Mulberry Street (2008); Center: Barclay's B2 Tower (2016); Right: Assembly OSM value proposition