Designers long have dreamed of buildings that behave like living things. Frank Lloyd Wright defined “organic architecture” as “building the way nature builds.” In 1963, Archigram envisioned a “Living City”—community as organism. And now the Cascadia Green Building Council has issued a Living Building Challenge as the next stage of evolution toward “true sustainability.” The challenge: “Imagine a building designed and constructed to operate as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.”
But how does a flower grow? It might be time to shift the conversation from product to process. What if buildings could be created in the same way a cell develops into a plant —from the bottom up instead of the top down? Technology may point the way. Automated processes are changing every aspect of design and construction, and it's only a matter of time before self-assembly completely takes over.
Already, automation has proven itself at the back end of production. Rapid prototyping and digital fabrication are liberating every design discipline at small scales. At larger scales, such as automobiles and airplanes, computerized production has lowered costs, saved time, increased quality and consistency, and significantly reduced waste and emissions. Applied to architecture, mechanical precision minimizes site disturbance and produces the most energy-efficient structures available. During an economic boom in the early '90s, Japan invested heavily in robotic construction technology and found it consistently cut construction time by a third and labor and waste by half. So why hasn't automation become more popular in the building trades worldwide?
“The only thing stopping architecture from picking up these techniques,” says A. Scott Howe, an architect and senior systems engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “is the added time it takes to create standard interfaces and rule-based design grammars.” He believes that eventually all the infrastructure for putting together a building will be absorbed by the building itself. “There will come a day,” says Howe, “when no human labor is present on any construction site.”
What Howe calls “rule-based design grammars” could transform the front end of the design process as well. Simulation techniques such as advanced thermal modeling and computational fluid dynamics have improved environmental performance by simulating the heat, air, water, stress, and strain in and around buildings. Typically such tools are used to evaluate design, but soon they will become common methods for creating design. Parametric modeling software such as CATIA, Rhino, and Bentley's new GenerativeComponents product already have the ability to update geometry automatically according to preset variables. Users can establish clear performance criteria and optimization routines for a building's systems, structure, and envelope, then generate forms that are highly responsive to context, climate, and materials. Is it such a leap to think that this could happen without a designer's hand?