Most of the materials used for constructing buildings today are centuries if not millennia old: from brick and plaster to timber and stone. But a growing number of architects have seized upon digital fabrication as a chance to shift the paradigm. Although digitally fabricated products are typically limited in size and scale—and restricted to using cutable, printable materials such as cardstock, foam, or nylon for interior surfaces—this quartet of architects is exploring how the future may see printers and computers replace hammers and nails.

Peter Arkle

Jeremy Ficca, Ficca Architecture

For Jeremy Ficca, AIA, head of the Pittsburgh firm Ficca Architecture and a professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Melon University, robots are at the frontier of digital fabrication.

“Historically, robots have been quite expensive and generally confined to large-scale automotive and aerospace industries,” Ficca says. “But they are getting cheaper, and how you control them is becoming more accessible. It opens the possibility for fabrication to potentially move beyond the limitations we’ve seen with cutting and carving of things.”

For one class project, Ficca asked students to use robots to form rubber castings. Another robot task involved metal bending. “Is digital just skin game and surfaces?” he says. “A lot of folks now are trying to look at ways to get it ingrained into the bones and body of architecture. Some interesting work has been done with casting. We’re doing some work with different ways of making molds that use less material and can open up new ways of dealing with precast concrete.”

Peter Arkle

Lisa Iwamoto, IwamotoScott Architecture

Although Lisa Iwamoto literally wrote the book on digital fabrication (Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), the San Francisco architect says her challenge is not one of technology so much as human collaboration.

“I don’t think many architecture firms own the machinery,” says Iwamoto, co-founder of IwamotoScott Architecture and associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “To me, the challenging part has been working with fabricators who might have that equipment but are used to still doing the same thing. There’s a gap between what the instrumentation can do and what the machinist wants to do.”

Iwamoto seeks a simple resource guide for fabricators willing to collaborate with architects on digital fabrication. “You call 12 people and the first 11 think you’re crazy. Whenever you’re trying to do something outside of the norm for any particular industry, it’s difficult,” she says. “That said, I think there are some people filling in the gap.”

Peter Arkle

Andre Caradec, S/U/M

At the Oakland, Calif., firm S/U/M, owner Andre Caradec is interested not in how digital fabrication can become self-contained architecture, but how to best use ubiquitous tools to foster ease of communication between a building team’s many parties. “You’re trying to insert a very high-performance vehicle into a non-high-performance bus,” he says and laughs. “You come into a very sort of conventional system where everyone’s tuned, and you throw a wrench in it.”

Although the process for Caradec’s firm begins with 3D modeling software such as Rhino and its Grasshopper plug-in, his preferred tool is the common Computer Numeric Control (CNC) milling machine.

“You’re trying to weave analog output with digital input,” he explains. “The CNC router is now embedded in the sense that any cabinets shop or Ikea online, the factories are all using the machine. It’s our job to reinvent it and find ways to use it. Ours is larger, 5 by 10 [feet], so we can use industry-standard, 4-by-8[-foot] panels and cut standard construction material. The trick is always designing with the tools you have. This particular machine can only cut so thick of a material. You have to take the limitations of the machine and apply it.”

Peter Arkle

Lawrence Sass, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“It’s a huge challenge going from what you see on the screen to something machines can read and make, and people can put together,” says Lawrence Sass, AIA, an associate professor at MIT. “When you scale an object to 20 times its size, you have to deal with loads, gravity, wind, earthquakes, and human loads.”

An expert in rapid prototyping, Sass has been researching the idea of integrated digital fabrication: not just using a tool to cut materials, but also embedding other materials and systems. “You can imagine 3D printing a trailer, like a FEMA trailer,” he explains. “Or lighting fixtures that are printed in one slab with the ceiling. There could be flooring systems where instead of having heating and cooling separate, they’re printed into the floor. You’re talking about a complex system.”

Sass believes that the advances necessary to see these ideas become reality may ultimately be bridged outside of the profession. “I feel confident these issues will be solved, but not in the field of architecture. Our revenue stream’s not enough,” he says. “The first CAD tools in the 1980s were for people to design circuits. That’s a multibillion-dollar industry now. And computer graphics were originally intended for the movie industry.”