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Experimental Design: Pushing the Boundaries of Convention

The Tower at PNC Plaza, which is the greenest highrise in the United States, exemplifies the business community's newfound emphasis on implementing environmentally responsible design. Image © Gensler

In the past few years, the world's attention has slowly and steadily turned to more responsible construction and design techniques. The high financial and environmental cost of energy, coupled with rising social awareness and concerns over public health, has pushed clients and designers alike to prioritize smarter building processes. Once a trend, this interest and awareness of ethical and sustainable product manufacturing and sourcing is growing into a more sincere social and cultural movement, with measurable political and economic impact. The ideas and philosophies driving this attitude of ethical consumption and social stewardship are intrinsic to the “local food” movement and have spread throughout the design and construction sectors as well. Fortunately, the rapid evolution of technology has provided explosive potential for innovative, responsible design techniques. As we bridge this gap between the digital and physical world, we increase our efficiency and are capable of more mindful and sensitive designs.

MOMA's PS 1 program is an excellent example of an organized push to test established design and construction limits. Each year, young architects are challenged to create a structure within a designated space, and winning installations are typically chosen for cutting edge sustainability and innovative use of technology. In 2014, The Living created an exhibition that pushed the limits of sustainable design. Using locally-sourced agricultural waste, 3D modeling programs and no energy, they created structural building bricks out of fungus. With sustainability in mind, the firm planned to compost the bricks at local farms and community gardens at the end of the exhibition, returning them from where they originated.

This cutting-edge project could not have been realized without the help of advanced 3D modeling software, a rapid feedback loop and advanced building materials.

Image © David lam

3D Modeling Software

The line between 3D modeling and computer programing is blurring. Software once capable of basic geometric shapes now translates ever-changing algorithms into extremely complex forms creating buildings and building systems with unprecedented ease—if one has a keen understanding of computer programing. Designers now have the ability to shorten the feedback loop by creating quick iterations of drastically different form while still keeping within the bounds set forth by the client. Rapid iterations are incredibly valuable in filtering out problems that may otherwise persist undetected before occurring in the final design. The ability to foresee and eliminate potential problems will help designers efficiently create cutting-edge products, streamline building techniques and minimize waste.

Currently most advanced 3D modeling techniques require a relatively in-depth knowledge of computer programing languages and logic. As software continues to evolve, it will become more accessible to a wider range of users. Examples of intuitive software interfaces are everywhere and have changed the way we interact with everyday electronic devices. In many instances, instead of directly entering a command into a computer, a simple gesture or hand movement deletes an email, changes a song or takes a picture. Just as we’ve seen the evolution of software in our everyday devices, we will see the same changes in the software used by designers. Grasshopper for Rhino, for example, provides an intuitive user interface that allows those without a strong knowledge of a computer language to create complex parametric designs. With time, a wider range of designers will be able to take advantage of even more powerful software.

As we see in hand drawings, each designer has a particular drawing style. This “presence of the hand,” or individualized style, is less apparent in computer generated designs. In the future, the translation of a design from the analog to digital world will be so minute that these subtle details will be recognized by the computer. Instead of sketching on paper, we will collaborate and sketch digitally.

Rapid Prototyping

3D modeling software is a crucial nexus between digital and physical realms. With laser cutters, and various types of 3D printers and CNC machines, designs are able to come to fruition before requiring a final decision. These cheap and relatively quick prototyping techniques have become increasingly more valuable in the design iteration process. What if we could create ideas just as swiftly as we think of them? We could dissect and analyze each idea for further development and better understand the pros and cons of each concept. This will also let us experiment with more risky design ideas without fully committing to a final design. The rapid prototyping process not only allows us to filter out successful elements, but also allows designers to pursue more experimental designs.

Some design studios, such as Synthesis DNA, sometimes focus solely on experimental architecture. Drawing inspiration from natural phenomena and geometric logic, they utilize rapid prototyping to test out the efficacy of their projects at an accelerated pace. In one project, they used 3D printed models to analyze the amount of solar energy a pavilion they created could generate. Rapid prototyping also helped them make this pavilion collapsible and transportable without having to commit to creating a full size mock-up. Explorations in experimental architecture can lead to valuable breakthroughs and continue to push the bounds of conventional design practices. With rapid prototyping, filtering ideas at a cheap and rapid rate with a relatively low impact on expenses or materials encourages designers to continue asking questions and exploring the unknown.

Often, the most challenging part of the design process is self-editing our ideas and clearly communicating our intentions. With rapid prototyping, avenues of communication offer greater clarity. Increasing productivity and clarity helps us fulfill our potential as designers and allows us to continue pushing the boundaries of design and architecture.

Will the use of industrial-strength fungus bricks become widespread?

Advanced Materials

Advanced materials like thermo-bimetals and industrial-strength fungus bricks have incredible potential in the design world and can be applied to many fields within and outside of architecture. From compostable packaging to full scale building modules, the creators of these materials are developing a more ecologically conscious infrastructure, which buildings and other products can be composed of.

Designers at Utrecht University have developed a way to create furniture by growing fungus within a porous 3D printed object, and then baking the fungus to inhibit growth. The resulting artifact can support the full weight of a person. Material science company Ecovative is using fungus to replace Styrofoam and plastic packaging. The end result is a biodegradable product that uses less energy and resources than oil-based plastics to manufacture. As competition for limited resources continues, there is sure to be further developments in advanced materials that are ultimately more sustainable. Biomimicry may also play a huge role in how we produce our building modules, construct our buildings and even plan our cities.

Ultimately, the future of design will be a seamless process between the analog and digital world that will create clearer ways to communicate and produce ideas. Through our rapid ability to digitally mock up, and then physically test our ideas, we will be able to make more informed and better executed design decisions. As we develop smarter, more intelligent software that can understand the physical world, creating sustainable and efficient buildings becomes surprisingly easy. These advanced technologies will provide designers with greater opportunities to continue push the bounds of conventional design.

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