You are on page 1of 8

A Meta-Cognitive Inquiry into Digital Fabrication

Exploring the Activity of Designing and Making of a Wall Screen

Asl Arpak1, Larry Sass2, Terry Knight3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Planning, USA

Abstract: The design process is observed in self-reflection by an experiment

including visual computing, structure design, joint design, and assembly design.
The experiment is defined as the making of a self-supporting timber wall screen,
which includes laser-cutting and rapid-prototyping. The reciprocal action
between the visual and physical realms is observed through the design activity.
Keywords: Fabrication; meta-cognition; self-reflection; visual; physical.

Introduction response is observed in a design process including

both manual tasks (hand-based) and tasks which
In design thinking, a procedural parallelism can be include computer-aided manufacturing (machine-
drawn between how physical models and knowl- based). Fabrication forces designers to take into
edge are built. Today, knowledge building in ar- consideration various questions regarding materials
chitecture has been experiencing a major shift by and production methods. This is realized by bring-
means of its media. For centuries, architecture has ing forward the processes of making and assembly
long based its inquiry on vision, therefore em- of the object into the process of design. Contrary to
braced visuality as its major tool. This has been an their traditional associations with the later stages of
approach where designers focus on visual evalua- design, these decisions are incorporated earlier into
tion in architectural production, both in 2-dimen- design by prototyping.
sional and 3-dimensional representations. Today,
visuality has been increasingly engaged with the Research question
physical aspects of architecture. In this approach,
the concern is on integrating the tangible substance The goal of this paper is to ask whether it is possible
of architecture to visual evaluation, by contemplat- to observe designers design activity and self-reflec-
ing other references, such as architectural materials, tion in a partially defined problem setting (Schn,
unit production, and building assembly. Inherently, 1983). This problem setting involves the making of
architectural practice is seen to adopt digital fabri- physical objects. Therefore, the reciprocal activity
cation in a wide range of building tasks, from scale between the visual and the physical is emphasized
models to full-scale constructions. in terms of design decisions and outcomes. For this
Considering these changes, the purpose of this purpose, an experiment is designed to study this ac-
paper is to investigate how designers are respond- tivity between different modalities of thinking. The
ing cognitively to the physicality of fabrication. This aim is to examine the situations in which designers

Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes - eCAADe 27 475

shift to a meta-cognitive stage where they gain the intersections. The second major questioning was on
distance to reinterpret and debug their processes the method used for fabricating the concrete bricks.
(Kafai, 2006). This paper attempts to observe this me- The solution was innovative building molds, the
ta-cognitive act and how it follows a design process. geometry of which was created by layered rubber
sheets (Griffith and Kamath, 2009). The geometry
Background for the experiment of the rubber sheets was formed by horizontal slic-
ing of the initial block shape according to the sheet
The paper evaluates how designers work with the thickness, translating them into drawings and cut-
physical aspects of architecture and novel manufac- ting them with the CNC machine. This project clearly
turing techniques in the theoretical frameworks de- reflects that digital fabrication requires a continual
veloped by other current research. These researches thinking and shifting between design ideation and
in digital fabrication and design production (Sass, construction. It also shows that making use of shape
2006; Knight, 2008; Cardoso, 2007; Griffith and grammars as a generative tool helps designers in
Kamath, 2009; Kieran and Timberlake, 2003) have fo- systematizing and explicating their processes.
cused on the problematic collision between design
and construction. The Digital Design Fabrication The experiment
Group (DDFG) at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology (MIT) has been pursuing many experimental The experiment described here makes use of the
projects. One of the major concentrations is on the methods from previous fabrication research. The
fabrication of 3-dimensional prototypes or full-scale task is to design and build prototypes of a wall
constructions utilizing 2-dimensional cutting meth- screen in various scales, the geometry of which is
ods, such as laser cutting, CNC milling, or water-jet tested through plaster and cardboard models. The
cutting. In this approach, the construction data is experiment hopes to illuminate how the reconcili-
embedded in design by modifying the building ele- ation between design and construction feeds the
ments so that they would fit in each other without design product. In terms of the design process, the
the use of other joining members. In other words, experiment aims for the self-reflection during the
the joining members are superimposed with the design and prototyping. In other words, the obser-
construction elements, and the system is based on vation is done by one of the authors (Arpak) on her
friction and gravity. Some advantages of this meth- design actions keeping focused on reflecting and
od are decreased material costs, rapidity in produc- learning. The experiment is composed of four de-
tion, and assembly. sign stages in which the weight has been on a cer-
The experiment described in this paper is based tain aspect of the design product. However, these
on one of the previous research projects of the DDFG stages are not necessarily distinctive and linear,
at MIT, which was supervised by professors Terry rather more continuous and overlapping. The phas-
Knight and Larry Sass (Knight, 2008). This proj- ing of the experiments process in the scope of this
ect involved the design and building of a wall sec- paper is moderately retrospective for the purpose of
tion. The starting pattern for its tile set was chosen documentation.
to be a meander pattern and the brick system was
systematized by utilizing shape-grammars. The first Phase one: Pattern selection, visual
challenge in the project was solving the interlocking decomposition, and recompositions
geometry of the bricks, creating mortar-less con- Phase one involved the research of a particular style
nections, and meeting various wall conditions, such of pattern from which visual information can be ex-
as corners, openings, ground intersections or roof tracted. After research into Islamic patterns, three

476 eCAADe 27 - Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes

Figure 1
(a) The pattern of the marble
screen in the mausoleum
of Humayun, Delhi, India
(1565); (b) the pattern of the
marble screen in the tomb
of Salim Chisti at Fatehpur
Sikri, Rajastan, India (late
sixteenth century); (c) the
window grill of the mau-
soleum of Shams-i Tabrizi,
Multan, Pakistan (1329)
(Clevenot 2000; 217, 163.)

Figure 2
The decomposed patterns
are 3Dprinted as blocks in
order to observe the physical

patterns were chosen for further studies (Figure 1). multiple ways of seeing (Stiny, 2006). It has been
In the selection of patterns, the focus was on com- observed that when the complexity of the pattern
positional qualities, such as proportions, symmetry, is higher, the visual analysis takes a longer period;
formal adaptability, or level of intricacy. The patterns on the other hand the systems generative potential
provided the initial visual and compositional layout greatly increases. The factors that contribute to this
for the designs. In other words, the aim was to link increase include seeing different shapes and decom-
the physical objects to visual information. posing into different representations, such as planes,
The analysis of the patterns included two-dimen- lines, or points. The implicit information regarding
sional decompositions into units followed by the the making of the artifact seems to alter this phase
rapid-prototyping of blocks to observe the physical of design. It has been interesting to see that the
results of the visual decompositions (Figures 2 and presupposition of future fabrication highly affects
3). The pattern composition is rationalized as a unit- the way designers visually think. In other words,
based system considering unit complexity, propor- the visual and the physical start to feed each other
tions, and unit variability. The decomposition pro- at very early stages in design; the mode of thinking
cess involved visual computing, which introduced for designers is altered accordingly. A second set
Figure 3
The visual decompositions
provided relatively successful
structural outcomes where
the blocks are simply held in
place by gravity.

Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes - eCAADe 27 477

Figure 4
(a) Studies of corner and
border conditions result in the
sudden increase of tile vari-
ety. (b) The system is rela-
tively optimized to produce
multiple results with limited

Figure 5
(a) The structural input
rapidly alters the visual de-
composition and produces un-
expected results. (b) Multiple
ways of seeing the units. (c)
The two layers incorporate
two different decompositions.
The system is refined by fram-
ing. (d) Two layered masonite

of prototypes was produced to test a more refined more complex geometries. In particular, the idea of
solution regarding the border conditions for a wall structurally interlocking the units brought visually
screen (Figure 4). novel and unexpected results (Figure 5). It also of-
fered the idea of layering. The layering idea was test-
Phase two: materializing design through ed in two-layered and three-layered structures with
visual and structural input laser-cut masonite models and 3Dprinted blocks
Decomposing with structural concerns brought on (Figures 6 and 7).
Figure 6
The laser-cut masonite pro-
totype displays the units and
order of assembly.

478 eCAADe 27 - Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes

Figure 7
The two layered brick shows
a visual complexity which
would not be achieved unless
structure was incorporated.

Figure 8
(a) Conceptual model
displaying layers. (b)
Additional inspirations from
nature. Layering provides
dynamism with additive vari-
ability and growth.

Phase three: Materials, optimization, and The system was tested with a 4 tall prototype
refinement built with laser-cut cardboard pieces (Figure 9). It
The third phase included material choices, specific revealed that high complexity could be achieved
structural decisions, and joint design. The idea of a rapidly and small manipulations can be easily in-
self-supporting timber wall brought in the design corporated during assembly. The initial purpose of
of friction-fit joints in a layered structure. Additional layering has been to liberate the growth of the ex-
inspiration for layering came from nature (Figure 8). ternal layers. Moreover, it introduced a novel result
The idea of layering evolved into a three-layered by providing freedom in the treatment of border and
system: a structural, tessellated layer sandwiched opening conditions. The external layers and structur-
in-between standardized units. Units snap onto the al layers are relatively liberated from each other by
front and back of the structural layer. Depending the placement of joints. Freeing the pattern from the
on the desired complexity, compositional or func- frame has allowed new approaches on the edges.
tional variations, the external layers can be altered.
This property of the system provides growth and Final prototypes
complexity regarding form. The logic of the faade The final prototypes are 12 high assemblies of laser-
composition can be random or it can respond to a cut cardboard (Figure 9). During the construction of
function. Geometrically the tiles can be customized, the final prototypes, many structural decisions have
or the underlying tessellation can be manipulated. been refined and optimized (Figure 10 and 11). The
Utilization of different materials i.e. glass would order of assembly has been designed at this phase.
enhance complexity. The system has been satisfactory in providing high

Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes - eCAADe 27 479

Figure 9
(a) First small prototype was
produced with laser-cut card-
board pieces. (b) The models
demonstrate the decision of
geometrically de-framing
the structure on the edges.


variability both structurally and visually. Obtaining Prototyping has introduced four aspects that force
this variability was important as a design decision, designers towards productive conflicts in their de-
but it was also critical in terms of this experiment: a sign processes: material choices, structural deci-
generative system with various possibilities would sions, order of assembly, and production techniques.
yield more about designer activity and decision- The integration of construction and assembly sig-
making, the observation of which was also one of nificantly alters the way designers produce. As ob-
the main goals. served, the visual analyses of the patterns helped to
Different compositions exhibited a requirement define new structural components and assembly.
for local and unique solutions. The final composition Meanwhile, the structural considerations produced
with openings would require a number of custom visually complex and counter-intuitive decomposi-
pieces regarding the structure (Figure 12). However, tions. The design process involved a reciprocal ac-
the production of these pieces is straightforward tion between the visual and physical realms which
both due to the tessellation, and the rapidness of continuously fed each other, were highly productive,
fabrication tools. Prototyping allows designers to and led to creative novel results. The experiment illu-
craft these unique solutions into their artifacts. minated that many design ideas and intentions from
the early to the late phases overlap. In this sense,
designers are increasingly producing in a non-linear
Figure 10
(a) Final wall assembly of the
artifact with custom openings.
(b) The order of assembly:
1) The vertical pieces are in-
serted in the structural units.
2) Structural units are locked
with the external unit. 3) The
external units are adjusted. 4)
Many layers can be defined.

480 eCAADe 27 - Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes

Figure 11
Various structural gestures
are redefined during the as-
sembly of a prototype. The
structure can be decomposed
or recomposed into different

Figure 12
(a) The opening detail shows
the structural custom piece.
(b) A gradient overlay is de-
fined in the background layer.

fashion. However, fabrication aids in revealing a Acknowledgements

great deal of future problems and allow for planning
in advance. It offers a more explicit design medium We would like to thank Steffen H. Reichert for the
in which designers more easily self-reflect. This syn- photography.
chronous meta-cognitive process offers faster learn-
ing. The experiment is composed as a self-reflection; References
therefore observations can be biased. However, the
biased behaviors of designers also reflect the effects Cardoso, D.: 2007, A Generative Grammar for 2D Manu-
of their design intentions, conditioned design be- facturing of 3D Objects, Master Thesis, Department
havior, previous training, or knowledge about the of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technol-
dealt subject. These studies would help us further ogy, Cambridge.
understand how designers learn and work in the Clvenot, D.: 2000, Ornament and Decoration in Islamic
physical medium, where the experience of the hand Architecture, (Photographs by Grhard Degorge)
and the tactility of objects introduce a different di- Thames&Hudson, U.K.
mension in the perception of making and evaluation Griffith, K. and A. Kamath: 2009, Reversed Layered
of the architectural object. These new dimensions Manufacturing for Moldable Composites Using
would aid designers in grasping the materiality of CAD/CAM Technologies, Computer-Aided Design
architecture and reconcile making with the creative and Applications, Vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 8190.
aspects of design. Kafai, Y. B.: 2006, Constructionism, in K. Sawyer (ed.) The
Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences,

Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes - eCAADe 27 481

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 3546.
Kieran S. and Timberlake J.: 2004, Refabricating Archi-
tecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies are
Poised to Tranform Building Construction, McGraw-
Hill Professional.
Knight, T. Sass, L. Griffith, K. Kamath, A. Visual Physi-
cal Grammars, Proceedings from the XII Iberoameri-
can Society of Computer Graphics Conference (SIG-
RADI), December, 2008, Havana, Cuba.
Lu, Peter J. and Paul J. Steinhardt, Decagonal and Quasi-
crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic Architecture,
Science 315, 1106 (2007.)
Rigby, J., and B. Wichmann, 2006, Some Patterns Using
Specific Tiles,
wichmann/joint3.html. (Accessed on 20.05.2009.)
Sass, L.: Descriptions for Integrated Digital Fabrication,
Automation in Construction, Vol. 16, no.3 (2006.)
Schn, D. A.: 1983, The Reflective Practitioner: How Pro-
fessionals Think in Action, Basic Books, New York.
Shelden, Dennis R.: 1997, Communications Technolo-
gies in Collaborative Design, Master Thesis, Depart-
ment of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mas-
sachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
Stiny, G.: 2006, Shape, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

482 eCAADe 27 - Session 14: Precedence and Prototypes