Evidence of Process: Craft within Digital Fabrication

September 03, 2014

© Snohetta

I had a studio professor at the University of Washington who was obsessed with chisels. To paraphrase his meaning, he felt that chisels, "were the foundation of all traditional cutting and milling tools. A craftsman can build a house with nothing more than a chisel." I have found that if you test this theory it is more or less sound. A chisel is in essence a blade sharpened on a bevel. A drill bit is nothing more than a chisel turned around itself, a saw blade consists of many chisel shaped teeth, a plane is a chisel fixed at an angle, and a file is series of very fine chisels. While the design of these tools is elegant and beautiful traditional cutting tools are, in essence, dumb. Sharpened steel designed to remove material.

© Snohetta

What gives these tools life is the intellect, experience and hand of the craftsperson. As soon as steel touches wood the user immediately begins to understand the grain, density, strength, and limitations of the material. Traditional notions of craft rely on the mastery of the physical engagement of the hand, tool and the material. It is a physical process of discovery and adaptation that is central to craft and making. Although architecture ultimately is a material process, this physical connection to making, like that of a craftsperson, has long since been stressed.

Currently, designers are turning more frequently to digital fabrication tools and techniques, where tool paths are dictated by computer numerical control (CNC), to empower themselves to physically re-engage with the material process of making and building. There is an initial tendency to see computer controlled tools as smart and not part of a lineage of craft. In reality, designers have appropriated another set of tools that are not unlike the hand tools of a traditional craftsperson. They are also dumb tools. They directly convert digital inputs from the designer into speed, power, and gridded movements to remove, build up or cut a material. The precision of the step motors and servos within digital fabrication tools should not be mistaken for intelligence. Understanding the material and the forces being applied to it is just as primary to digital fabrication as it is to traditional hand crafts. The tool marks, grooves and layers of CNC milling and 3D printing become evidence of process. In order to make an object full of intention and richness the fabricator must tune and understand the tools and materials as a traditional craftsperson would. By automating the process these tools allow architects to be the craftsperson and to design with a higher degree of specificity and efficiency.

© Snohetta

During a lecture at the University of Washington, Gregg Pasquarelli, owning principal of New York based SHoP Architects, challenged the students to think critically about contemporary fabrication and delivery methods, He cited SHoP's 'Porter House' as an example. As early as 2003 SHoP worked with a fabricator to understand their software, tools and process. From this they developed drawings for thousands of custom zinc facade panels in the software used by the fabricator so they could directly relay their designs to machines that would be doing the cutting. The process of the architect speaking directly with the fabrication tools allowed SHoP a more efficient and cost effective process. Had they not, the client would not have been able to afford the facade as they had designed it.

As building systems and assemblies have become more complex, architects have forfeited part of their position to engineers, contractors, and manufacturers. Digital fabrication tools empower an architect to take back some responsibility and broaden the role of the profession. Rather than specifying an assembly of manufactured products designers can rapidly prototype, make, test and fabricate without shop drawings or an intermediate contractor. Understanding digital fabrication as a process and method of project delivery can re-engage designers with the material process of making while respecting the efficiency required for contemporary construction.