Monday 10 June 2013

Bespoke Components, Makers, Tinkerers and WikiHouse

Many of the posts on this blog site examine the difference between the Building Industry (BI) and other industrial sectors, and ask what lessons can be learnt to make us a bit more dynamic, especially when it comes to developments in materials.  But, it is also important to acknowledge that the structure of the building industry allows for dynamism and invention which is not really seen in other industrial sectors.  In the BI there are large and small manufacturers and suppliers, and all are subject to the revolution in digital technology.  Many large companies produce standardised components.  Many smaller companies purchase standardised components to work further to 'add value' as bespoke items, to sell on.  More and more, technology lowers the bar for entry, and this plays to the advantage of the BI more than any other because its supply structures are set up to produce one-off products (e.g. office buildings, cultural centres etc.) or short run products (e.g. housing).

The BI champions the bespoke.  In our 21st century post modem society (a Neil Spiller term) the BI can demonstrate more industrial agility than the car industry, for example (to which it is often compared in Modernist literature).  When choosing a new car, the options are not all that great (make, model, colour and accessories), whereas for a new building, pretty much everything is up for grabs.  Is the production line system, once the hero of industry, now restricting the further innovation of the car industry?  Our digital technology revolution is allowing the BI to produce more and more one-off creative products in a variety of areas with a variety of materials.

More and more companies are now able to print images on glass to order.  One larger company Okalux have a large ink-jet printer which they can send large sheets of glass through.  They also experiment with ways of encapsulating other materials in to glass units.  Products made to order.

Examples of encapsulation and printing with glass at Okalux

Milliken Carpets are one of several companies which can print the design you want to a carpet layout.  The carpet is fed through a huge industrial machine, to make the order, but other smaller companies have caught on to this and smaller scale carpet printing machines are available for smaller orders.

Digitally printed carpet

Cowley timber works is well known because of their willingness and ability to take on projects of geometric complexity, and make them work. They have a great team of designers and timber engineers, supported by some high end software and manufacturing capabilities, including a 5 axis CNC machine.  They have an apetite to trial, test and play with materials and components to see how they work, or at what point they don't.

Cowley's meeting room pods at Peckham Library

Even other, more low profile timber companies like CandM Joinery in Tamworth, have machinery set up to receive a 3D stair drawing, then process it in to components, 'eat' timber and 'spit' out the parts at the end of the process line, all millimeter perfect.

Perhaps the rise in information led technology, and its ability to expand the possibilities in architecture and building are described with the growing use of the CNC machine and the 3D printer.  3D printing was the subject of a previous post.  One fun company to look at for CNC work (in addition to Cowley's) is the CNC Workshop in Hackney, London.  It all starts to look so straight forward and accessible.

Bench for John Lewis by Foreign Office Architects

This is to add to the list of manufacturing and engineering companies which have always supplied the BI with purpose-made specialist components.

It's not surprising with technology lowering the bar for entry that there has been an increase of work taken on by makers and tinkerers.  The talks on TED show some great projects and adventures when experimenting with materials and components.  Some talks to watch are Gever Tulley's and Dan Phillips, who challenges our preconceptions related to buildings as commodities with his analysis of apollonian and dionysian perspectives and the 'divided self'.  Well worth a watch.

Another is Alastair Parvin's work on WikiHouse, directed to revolutionise housing for the lowest paid people (which is approximately 98% of the world's population).  Very cleverly he combines the accessibility of digital technology with open source software and hardware to allow flexibility in design, by anyone who wants to access it.  Even the shanty-towns in Cape Town, South Africa have a market value, so why not make them better?  With this system, anyone with an inclination can.  But, as they say, time is money, so I bet that before this system takes off on a large scale to better the lives of people in developing countries, we might see its presence first prototyping low cost housing in places like the UK.  There is a lot of milage in system approaches like this.

WikiHouse prototype and trials...