Every company is a tech company. Although seemingly corny, this idea surfaced continuously in popular media throughout 2016. TechCrunch even went further to say that all companies are learning to be tech businesses today. The field of architecture is no exception. Technological innovation continuously opens new forms of artistic and functional expression.
Studio RAP (Robotics, Architecture, Production) recently received the ARC 16 award for innovation in architecture. I’m glad to have an opportunity to be a part of the trip that this young start-up is taking. In this article, I’ll try to shed some light on what it means to innovate the business of architecture today and how this architectural office is growing to become a tech company.
Skilledin office interior
So, why do architects collaborate with programmers? What does programming have to do with architecture? Why is it so fun to code geometry? How all these things lead to innovation?
It’s no secret that computers changed the way in which architects’ design buildings. In the last decades drawing boards were replaced by rows of monitors, Oculus Rift’s and HoloLenses, but the underlying economic process remained almost intact. During the last centuries, though, a bigger transition was happening and architects went from being master builders to draftsmen, having extensive knowledge of catalogues containing prefabricated building components from various manufacturers. Even though assembling such “Lego” parts requires creativity and ingenuity, freedom of designer to go around standards deteriorated or to put it differently - grew to be very expensive. Imagining new ways of building became very difficult. Rules were set and everyone became accustomed to the separation of designing and building. Architects were making drawings, engineers were solving the math and fabrication was left to companies that own heavy machinery. Increased segregation made collaboration very difficult. Pressured by limited budgets and time, engineers were involved only at the end of design process to make sure that buildings will stand. Architects lost understanding on how machines work and what are the real possibilities of manufacturing. Producers became too big to listen to requirements of relatively small architectural or engineering offices and went further to use old methods of manufacturing as it involved smaller risks. Companies specialized and communication failed. The central economic position and craftsmanship of the master builder was lost in multiple translations and communication problems. Standardization delivered efficiency in the short term but led to detachment between design, manufacturing and engineering in the long run, negatively affecting the pace of innovation in the entire building industry.
Innovation of presentation, not the industry
Ecological, functional and performance demands of the present are pushing new businesses in the building industry to rethink their position in the economy and to get out of the previously described loophole. The automotive industry suggests an alternative way. Even though stagnating with its combustion engines, the communication lines between design and manufacturing teams were kept short. In car producing companies, bottom up iterative design processes were developed. They were based on close collaboration between all those involved. Manufacturing was pushed to use automation in new and innovative ways. And although industry was using machines to make millions of “standard” cars, they succeeded in developing general purpose reprogrammable robotic arms which, by design and on demand, could do different tasks continuously. To architects, such general-purpose machinery opens up huge possibilities.
Studio RAP is one of the first offices to implement the automotive’s model of integrated design and fabrication in an architectural company. The goal is to take back control by resurrecting idea of the master builder. Positioning a new generation of computational architects, programmers and engineers together with robots at the epicentre of the building process could remove those failing communication protocols described previously. It means though, that such a start-up needs to do everything itself - design, engineer and manufacture. This, of course, is no simple task…
In order to achieve all this, one has to understand the computational nature of geometry, physical properties of materials, intricacies, possibilities and limitations of manufacturing machines and more. CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, used by almost all architectural offices nowadays allows designers to make virtual geometries, but these programs, designed through expert system methodologies are quite limiting. Developed 3D models are mostly used to produce visualizations of virtual environments for clients and to derive architectural drawings for builders. But computers are able to do much more than that. New generation of CAD software opens up its API’s (Application Programming Interfaces) to more advanced use cases. Algorithmic thinking becomes crucial there. These entry points liberate users from the restrictions of enclosed interface possibilities and allow new kinds of creative parametric scenarios that can integrate materiality and production process into one synchronized design environment.
Back to the core
Furthermore, manufacturing machines are driven by programs. Robots do not understand designer’s intent, section blueprints or even CAD geometry until someone feeds them code, which represents movement instructions. The mentioned API’s become crucial when one wants to do non-standard things with their software packages and open communication streams from CAD software to robot controllers. Through programming Studio RAP is able to translate the design intent to the language that the machines can understand. From the beginning of design, computational architects and programmers are aware of the processes that will be involved in manufacturing and assembly of building components. The team prepares projects in a way so that computed geometries can be directly processed into robot movement instructions. This requires close and immediate collaboration between many specialists. And programmers are very welcome in this picture. Such work involves deep understanding of procedural solvers that take structures of geometry as an input and compute various optimized paths for machines to cut. This work is fun and emotionally rewarding as code is being outputted in a form of produced geometry or a building. Bugs also acquire a very different meaning here. But let’s leave this theme for some other time.
Assembling Skilledin Office
The ARC16 Innovation Award was awarded to Studio RAP for their Skilledin office in the RDM Innovation Dock in Rotterdam. This parametrically designed object embodies ideas I talked about in this article. The jury found the direction appealing and I couldn’t agree more. Studio RAP took a big risk in making something so complex and by realizing it within the budget constraints of the client as their first project. The team used refurbished second hand robots and experimented a lot to design all those unique panels that fit together perfectly in forming an optimized vault structure. The journey did not end there of course. The studio is developing software that drives industrial robots. It recently released the first version of RAPCAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software that helps other designers to get started using robots more easily. Through software, the studio transforms the research into more abstract and reusable workflows and general algorithms. You can find more information on http://rapcam.eu. Studio RAP currently experiments with many different techniques of manufacturing. This will allow the office to create even more amazing projects. Being probably the first architectural office having programmers in the team, Studio RAP is moving fast to become a tech company. I am very happy to witness such a transition and to have the opportunity to collaborate with this young start-up. I hope that bringing professional knowledge of software development to the field of architecture will give a positive effect to our built environment. This, in return is a very enlightening process, which improves me personally. I am thus very thankful to QDelft for its flexibility and openness. To conclude, I hope I managed to explain what it means to innovate in architectural sector nowadays. If you want to learn more about this, you can find me on twitter as @matas_u. Also, check out the videos afterwards to get more insight on what we do and visit http://studiorap.nl or follow Studio RAP on Facebook or Instagram for updates!