Essay Architecture Technology

The Case for Revolution

The New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger is among those encouraging technological and business revolution, suggesting that, due to a rise in visual literacy and an insatiable quest for status among consumers, the time is ripe for architects to better harvest consumer desires. At the Fixed Income Forum in 2004 he noted, “I have to admit that the guy who drives a BMW or an Audi (whose parents drove an Oldsmobile) is not doing that only because he knows the Audi looks better — he is also doing it because of the status that ascribes to that name, and now, that status is available to (and sought by) a far broader segment of the population than it once was.”5 Why don’t people lust after fine buildings to the extent that they do BMWs and Audis? The answer is simple—they can’t. Architecture is sold in units of one.

Architect-writers Dan Willis6 and Kieran Timberlake7 point toward technologies like BIM (building information modeling), mass customization, parametric design, and prefabrication as ways to pull architects out of their deepening ditch. To this list we should add rapid prototyping, digital fabrication, ubiquitous computing, and online web ordering that permits product customization. What follows is a kind of Rough Guide for the Intrepid Architect—an insider’s look at emerging technologies harboring both speculative possibilities and potential rocky shoals.

Tailor-Made: Lessons from the Past

The question of whether to continue making “one-off” products or to make multiple variations of a product is one architects need to address. The saturation of manufactured goods today has had a profound impact not only on consumers, but also on providers of custom-made goods. Consider the once flourishing tailoring trade, which, as a consequence of mass production, has shrunk to one sixteenth its size from 1920 to 1990.8 Today, industrialized societies have gleefully traded fit, finish, and durability in exchange for savings, variation, brand-name identity, transient fashions, and immediate gratification. To imagine that this trend has little meaning for architects today would be foolhardy: “Architecture, as an industry, broadly conceived, has become less and less able to deliver a superior evolving and popularly engaging product that can compete with other more successful products… . And the less successfully architecture has competed with these diverse ‘growth industries,’ the less architects have been entrusted with time and money to perform work on a scale and with a quality that could perhaps turn things around,” wrote Michael Benedikt in these pages.9

Today’s consumers fundamentally lack an understanding of the complexity of creating anything tailor-made, let alone a substantive (and emotionally complex) object like a new building. Architectural clients soon find themselves lost amid a bewildering world of possibilities and complications that they are unprepared for because of their customary reliance on mass-produced goods. Rather than being exhilarated by the process, they are often left with remorse, since they must eliminate countless desirable options along the way.10 While a few may enjoy the ambiguity, attention, cost, and complexity of the architectural process, many conditioned by the modern conveniences of ready-made products, web ordering, and overnight delivery are simply frustrated by it.

Rapid Prototyping Evolves to Rapid Fabrication

Would that client-related problems were architects’ sole challenge. Because few innovations are specifically geared toward the construction industry, Toshiko Mori urges architects toward a practice model invigorated by “creative appropriation of advances made in non-architectural areas.”11 One such advance unnoticed by most architects (but celebrated by industrial designers, engineers, and manufacturers) is rapid prototyping technology—exciting for what it already is but deliriously enabling for where it will go.

First introduced in 1986 by 3D Systems as stereolithography (SLA), this three-dimensional printer uses laser curing of resin, built one layer at a time, to create scale models.12 SLA still thrives and has been joined by a number of other rapid prototyping devices that now include printing in plaster, plastics, rubber, resins, and even powdered metal that can be fused into durable parts by companies like Extrude Hone.13 Once confined to volumes of less than 1,000 cubic inches, these machines have grown within twenty years into wizards capable of printing full-size human figures.14 Rapid prototyping—with weak modeling materials is evolving into rapid fabrication of high-quality components used directly in medical implants, machinery parts, and aerospace applications. The rapid prototyping industry is burgeoning, with both scale and quality predicted to increase, while price declines.15 In fact, the 3D printing craze is just beginning, with Professor Hod Lipson of Cornell University recently launching an open-source project at with instructions on how to build your own 3D printer for $2,400, which can print in a variety of materials, including chocolate.16

As this trend continues, 3D “printing” of full-scale building structures seems inevitable—especially considering that graduating digital designers are now creating 3D models by printing them and are eager to realize large-scale fabrication of complex forms that can’t readily be built by hand. Large 3D-printed structures (up to 14' x 20' x 8') can already be made in concrete using a prototype unit developed by University of Southern California industrial engineer Behrokh Khoshnevis. Khoshnevis can see no reason why rapid prototyping technology won’t eventually be scaled up, especially as material costs come down and funding increases.17 Architects using rapid fabrication technology at a building scale could economically create complex singular designs as well as customizable multiples. First these will appear as building components and later as full-scale structures. 

In 1957, an MIT collective envisioned the plastic Monsanto House of the Future for Disneyland.18 If fifty years later Houses of the Future were envisioned as daringly, they would surely be the offspring of a union between digital design and automated rapid fabrication. Not limited to simplistic adobe-esque load-bearing styles, these homes would come in a variety of forms ranging from traditional to avant-garde and would be available in many durable colors, textures, materials, and translucencies. Complete with injury-free, pliable children’s rooms, these structures (likely constructed with five-axis extrusion heads and sonic welding already used for utility piping) will be capable of complex shapes that would make even Gaudí envious. A significant side effect will be that ornament will again proliferate, since complexity will no longer have a direct relationship to labor cost.

Such structures would replace traditional stick-framing and allow a variety of traditional forms and materials to continue, but could also be fully exploited by Modernists interested in displaying the intrinsic nature of these monolithic materials. Structures printed in multiple materials could integrate expensive  nuisance items like mechanical chases, extruded plumbing channels, and conduits complete with electricity-conductive slurries. Integrating features like showers, sinks, shelving, cabinets, furniture, and far more would eliminate much of the current time-consuming coordination between various trades. Electrical power could be fashioned like circuit boards with plug-and-play wiring harnesses like in computers or cars, serving as a nerve-like web running just below the building’s skin, eliminating traditional outlets and permitting power almost anywhere. 

Environmentalists will rejoice over printed buildings, since 92% of building waste is now the result of renovation and demolition.19 Dramatic reductions would be possible because “printed” structures would be almost entirely recyclable, since the diverse materials used would easily be disassembled and auto-sorted much the way trash is today. Additionally, designers will be able to easily perform analysis of finite structural elements, enabling a whole new level of structural comprehension and daring, and wresting a good deal of power from structural engineers. Best of all for consumers, the duration, amount of material, and cost of a project will be fairly precisely known in advance. Of course, the inevitable curve ball hurled at architects is if (read: when) people themselves design and build their “dream houses” using programs like Google’s free 3D modeler SketchUp in conjunction with intrepid 3D-printing contractors, thus ensuring lively design review hearings for some time to come. 

Parametric Design

Because parametric design is ideally suited to the mastery of rapid fabrication, John Nastasi of the Architectural Product Lab at Steven’s Institute believes that parametric design skills need to be among the dozen or so capabilities that define the digital toolboxes of forward-looking architects.20

Parametric design allows users to modify relationships between various features while tracking the history of those changes, thus updating all interrelationships performed after the modification. A very simple example of this might be a hole in a wall that will always be automatically placed at one half the height of the wall, regardless of the wall’s size.21 This is a common technique used in product fabrication, but the precision involved in manufacturing software (accurate to thousandths of an inch) can be limiting to free architectural design exploration.

Thus several architects like Greg Lynn, Office DA, and Penn’s Graduate Design Research Studio’s director Ali Rahim have instead adopted the animation program Maya because it permits more fluid design exploration with less emphasis on manufacturing tolerances. Maya has several beneficial attributes that aid in conceptual design studies: Manipulation of mathematical algorithms using Embedded Language scripting can autogenerate forms as complex as skyscrapers (commonly done by students of Kostas Terzidis at the GSD),22 ease rapid prototyping of study models, and create compelling and informative walk-through animations. The number of potential parametric relationships is limited only by the diversity of data and the imagination of the designer. The benefit for architects is that a fully developed singular parametric design project may be easily tweaked to create wildly dissimilar results for other projects. Complex results dazzle the uninitiated, but can be surprisingly simple to generate for those with an understanding of how parametric design works.


Parametric design goes well beyond mere formal pyrotechnics. Inherent to Building Information Management (BIM) is parametric design software tied to data contained in spreadsheets. Changes made to either the digital model or the database automatically update and coordinate throughout the model and spreadsheet.23 Due to the extent of the previsualization it allows prior to construction, BIM diminishes ambiguity, reduces errors, and generates savings for clients.24 The AIA, through its Technology and Architectural Practice committee, even has a new special awards program for BIM projects.25 In theory, since architects deal with ever-changing information, BIM sounds almost too good to be true. In practice, benefits will not be realized without some possibly serious drawbacks that I will soon discuss.

Vladimir Bazjanac, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, marvels at the uniqueness of the current architectural process, commenting that architecture, without sophisticated previsualization provided by BIM, is little more than a “convince-build-pray modus operandi.”26 Bazjanac sees BIM as a way for architects to emulate manufacturers’ efforts to imbue project delivery with greater certainty. He is partially right, but what he is perhaps missing is that, in the world of products, complete documentation of minutiae makes economic sense only because design is a very small fraction of the total cost of products. This is not the case with architecture.

Chris Kasabach, director of product marketing for BodyMedia (Cooper Hewitt’s biomedical darling),27 indicates that because of digital design models, industrial designers are changing their processes and teaming up with fabricators early in the design phase. The result is that during the prototyping phase an increasing amount of digital redesign is being done remotely by fabricators. When asked who pays for this redesign, Kasabach enthusiastically responds, “The prototyping companies do. Essentially, they consider ‘design’ an insignificant and necessary cost of manufacturing.”28 

Despite the disparity between products and architecture, the General Services Administration (GSA) has required architects to perform full BIM modeling on selected projects since 2003 and is now requiring partial BIM models on all federally funded projects, and is considering full BIM for all future projects.29 Their experience is a reduction in change orders saving the GSA up to 10% of total construction costs.30

Clearly clients are benefiting, but what about architects? When I questioned Luciana Burdi, head of Capital Asset Management for the State of Massachusetts, on the lack of increased architectural fees for BIM projects, she replied, “Architects are paid to provide buildings without errors, why should they be paid more to do this?” For clients, BIM infatuation is easy to understand—they want savings, and the rigorous BIM process complies. Unfortunately, this magic elixir has one possibly terminal side effect for architects—clients are developing an insatiable expectation for perfection from uniquely made buildings. While BIM possesses fairly powerful tools for error reduction, it is simply incapable of error elimination. Burdi went on to express frustration over an expensive error in a recent BIM project—one that she felt should have been caught by the architect prior to construction—thus underscoring that for architects there is a distinct danger that BIM will result in a triple-whammy: more work, less profit, and increased liability. 

Despite these challenges, 34% of architects are using some form of BIM modeling. But for most this is only during conceptual stages to generate rudimentary cost data and quantity takeoffs helpful in evaluating the expense impacts of various schematic designs—not for full BIM production.31 Profitable implementation of full BIM seems to require at least one of two components. The first is for architects to retain ownership of BIM data so that they may use that data in future projects of similar typologies to amortize the first use-costs of development. However, the GSA prohibits this and wants sole ownership of the data. The second, using the industrial design model, is for architects to bring fabricators with BIM skills into the design process early for assistance in the development of the digital BIM model. This, too, is prohibited by the GSA since they require traditional design-bid-build process. 

Ostensibly the group with the most lobbying power for beneficial BIM conditions for architects is the AIA TAP committee. Stephen Hagan, Director of the GSA’s Project Knowledge Center, has served on this committee for the past four years and was Chair last year.32 When I asked Douglas Paul, AIA Director of Professional Practice, whether this relationship might not be an overly cozy one for the GSA at the possible expense of architects’ well-being, Paul indicated that this concern had never been raised before.33 Hagan seems a good fellow and has earned FAIA wings, but if I’m the first to question—make that be astounded by—this relationship, one can only wonder who is spiking the AIA’s water cooler. 

The power of BIM is well documented, and its software will continue to improve. However, full BIM modeling for singular enterprises is ultimately not beneficial for architects, since the time (and thus, cost) of such a complex endeavor is much higher than normal one-off design services. Development of a full BIM model is almost as complex as physically making the actual object and one that makes economic sense only in a mass-production / customization context. Alternatively, one could also be paid very handsomely for singular full BIM modeling—but this seems unlikely. 

An imperfect but illustrative parallel in manufacturing would be if Boeing were contacted to digitally design and construct a one-of-a-kind “blue-sky” airplane. The client is interested in exclusive rights to Boeing’s five years worth of design data,34 prohibits Boeing from making more than one plane, will only pay for error-free parts, and expects to pay little (or no) more than the cost of a standard plane of similar size. Boeing wouldn’t even bother to return the call, yet architects are competing for design opportunities where the conditions aren’t that much different.

The Digital Master Builder

Lacking at the start of the twentieth century was the information needed to effect real change in the way we build. Tools to represent and transfer information instantly and completely are with us today. They allow connections among research, design, depiction, and making that have not existed since specialization began during the Renaissance. 

— Kieran Timberlake35

Once, as “master builders,” architects both designed and built structures. However, architects relinquished their direct role in the building process centuries ago and have instead relied on 2D drawings to describe their visions to specialized builders. Today this communication process is rapidly changing as a direct result of digital fabrication introduced in 1971 by technology developed at the French automotive company, Renault.36 Drawings are being augmented—if not entirely replaced—by processes that permit 3D fabrication of complex forms directly from architects’ data. In this context, the much-vaunted 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao, celebrated for its convoluted artful forms, is far more groundbreaking for its use of innovative digital construction processes in which Gehry’s office assumed responsibility for the accuracy of fabrication.37 

Although this is not in itself news, direct digital communication has reinvigorated the concept of master builder for a few architects. Repopularized some thirty years ago by the radical Jersey Devil architectural group, the design-build method means the responsibility for design and production are provided by the same party. Pedagogically significant since it opens up a fertile dialectic between design and tectonics, there is again tremendous interest in this model in academia—most notably in the revered Rural Studio, initiated in 1993 at Auburn University by the late Samuel Mockbee. Many other schools have adopted design-build in their curriculum, often relying on digital fabrication for components in such things as Solar Decathlon projects,38 material research, formal investigations, and community-based initiatives. The upshot of this is that more emerging practitioners are once again enthusiastic about possibilities inherent in varying levels of participation in the actual making of design.

Design-build today has two distinctly different branches—the decidedly larger one (dominated by contractors) deals primarily with profit optimization, while the smaller (but more interesting tectonically) deals with product optimization. A few architectural firms have thrown themselves into the opportunities presented by this latter area by exploring the union of 3D design with 3D fabrication, creating works that range from sculptural objects and surfaces to full-sized buildings. These provocative offerings (often exploiting the possibilities of parametric design) are from the likes of Bill Massie, Thom Faulders, Forsythe + MacAllen, Evan Douglis, SHoP, John Nastasi, Byoung-Soo Cho, and many others.39 The attention that these efforts are receiving suggests that design-build innovation can readily yield increased stature for talented newcomers.

Further reason that architects should pay more attention to this area is that at the current rate of change in the building industry, design-build project delivery is expected to surpass traditional design-bid-build methods by 2010.40 For architects with the courage to branch out from their well-entrenched methodologies, tremendous opportunities for increased complexity, control, and economies of scale through digital fabrication lie ahead. Such endeavors permit industrious architects to focus design efforts and material explorations on specific areas of architectural significance (regardless of scale) and thus reassert themselves as master builders. 

Coming Up With Interesting Essay Topics For Architecture Students

Architecture is often defined as both the process and the product of conceiving a plan, then designing and ultimately constructing buildings. Buildings, especially by famous architects such as Zaha Hadid, are widely regarded as works of art that define the civilizations that built them. If you are a budding architect, looking to follow in the footsteps of giants, we have some great topics below for you to write your papers on:

  • Explore the relationship between architecture and environment. Think about how buildings exist within a space, climate, and culture. How does architecture contribute or distract from its environment?
  • Compare and contrast the design of a work of Modern architecture to that of a Gothic cathedral.
  • Write about how Architecture is art in itself. Present alternative views that consider it a science only and debunk those theories.
  • Discuss a theory about why the Pyramids were built in the scale and shape that they were. Were the reasons religious, political, mythical or social?
  • Argue for or against the Art deco style having been an influence on Modern architecture.
  • Discuss how the Industrial Revolution changed the way architecture was studied and viewed.
  • Explore how the availability of different types of materials led to the many structures found in the ancient world (You may cover any before 500 A.D.). Compare with modern architecture.
  • Compare and contrast Ancient Roman architecture to Ancient Greek architecture.
  • Explore how certain lifestyles influenced particular types of architecture. For example, some Native Americans led a nomadic lifestyle and their homes were easily constructed and broken down with each move.
  • Compare and contrast skylines across major cities in the world and describe how they reflect that city’s culture.
  • What is Architecture? Explore this question artistically, philosophically, and scientifically.
  • What is the relationship between technology and architecture?
  • Which is more important in architecture: functionality of a building and space, or the form and beauty of a structure?
  • Should we strive for creating sustainable architecture, or restoring currently existing structures?
  • Compare and contrast Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture to that of Mies Van Der Rohe.
  • Why has humanity been so fixated on creating structures on a massive scale?
  • Explore how architecture has influenced different fields: philosophy, art, technology, psychology, etc.
  • Discuss lifestyle differences between living in a single-family home to living in a multi-storied apartment complex.
  • Compare and contrast the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France to the Empire State building in New York City.
  • Explore what you believe architecture will look like in 100 years.
  • Has digital rendering improved architecture as a practice or has it taken something away from this field?
  • Discuss how architecture has changed in the past 20 years in comparison to the last 200 years.
  • Discuss the pros and cons of using concrete in architecture.
  • How is Romanesque architecture similar to Baroque? How do they differ?

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