Digital matters

Professor Mette Ramsgard Thomsen at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, introduces five new technologies that are changing the way we design, build and even think about our environment

4 min read

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Computer numeric controlled fabrication. CNC and the digital control of tools for fabrication have been evolving since the arrival of computation. Today the idea of factories full of autonomous robots building our everyday objects has become reality. However, in architecture and the built environment this kind of building optimisation is still in its early stages. Only very few and very prestigious buildings make real use of digital fabrication. Challenging the industrialist paradigm of mass production through practices such as file-to-factory, in which architects directly produce the shop drawing that drive the CNC machines, and mass-customisation, in which repeatable elements with the same base morphology are differentiated, allow architects to optimise material use and realise complex structural solutions.

Dermoid Project Martin Tamke

Dermoid Project Martin Tamke

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Designing site and use-specific materials. As CNC matures, we gain an unprecedented control over the materials we build with. This is radically challenging the way we think about material practice in architecture. The idea of the hyper-specified materials developed in direct response to site and use enables architects to be designers of artifacts as well as of materials. Hyper-specified materials are complex composites that can be structurally differentiated, designed in response to different loads or materially graded responding to changes in programme.

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Steered materials. Equally, with advances in material science, a new generation of steered materials is emerging allowing us to think of materials not as static, but as actively engaged with their environment. The desire to integrate sensors into the built environment has led to the concept of smart composites in which the sensor component is embedded directly into the material of the architectural membrane. Rather than thinking of the sensors as a trigger for predefined systems, such as lighting, heating, ventilation or air conditioning, these technologies are creating evermore sophisticated ways of understanding how self-quantification and self-regulation can inform the built environment. Here, the differentiation between building – as an object of control – and sensor – as a means of control – is replaced by performative hybrid materials that combine multiple material properties, both active and passive, into one engineered composite.

Steered Materials

Steered Materials

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3D printing. A new generation of 3D printers is equally changing the way we think of construction. A large series of research efforts are trying to find methods by which we print our buildings directly on site and with materials that allow for different structural, insulatory or weather-based needs. On a small scale, new tools for multi-material printing are allowing new generations of composites to emerge. Rather than fabricating composites as bonded layers of differentiated materials, 3D printing allows a much more detailed distribution of material. Operating at scales that previously seemed beyond architectural scope, the idea of printed materials allows the design of material structures that deform under load and to control this process.

3D printed Norbert Palz

3D printed Norbert Palz

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The information model. At the basis of all these developments lies a new generation of information models. Rather than passively annotating information, the contemporary design model actively calibrates and calculates the information that they embed. Assembling design, analysis, simulation, communication, specification and fabrication in a new integrated sequence, this digital chain promises the potential of stronger feedback, better collaboration and, therefore, better, more innovative and creative design solutions. As architecture ventures into a new territory of conceptual thinking, in which the design of building includes the design of its material, we need new tools that can combine, and make sense of, the embedded inter-scalar relationships. New concepts of multi-scalar material modelling are allowing architects to question the foundations of structural thinking, creating new structural concepts that can change the way we understand the material performance of our buildings.

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