LMN leveraged its in-house fabrication capabilities to show how stage lighting, house lighting, acoustics, AV, and fire protection could combine at the Voxman music building at the University of Iowa.
Tom Griffith LMN leveraged its in-house fabrication capabilities to show how stage lighting, house lighting, acoustics, AV, and fire protection could combine at the Voxman music building at the University of Iowa.

For Seattle’s LMN Architects, and many firms like it, in-house fabrication had humble beginnings: in principal Scott Crawford, Assoc. AIA's garage, where he and two other team members set up a CNC machine and tested how such tools could benefit the firm’s approach to design. A few years later, both team expertise and management buy-in grew, and the architecture firm now supports a full-fledged fabrication studio in the basement of its downtown office building, an operation that has become central to the firm’s design process.

Though some architects shy away from in-house fabrication—which may include using CNC machines, woodworking equipment, 3D printers, and other tools to create models, prototypes, and full-scale mock-ups—whether due to lack of knowledge, concerns about budgets, or fears of alienating contractors and fabricators, more and more are recognizing the possibilities that those capabilities can bring in the form of clearer communication and collaborative visualization.

“Having people in the office make things helps them understand how those things go together,” says LMN partner Sam Miller, FAIA. “Testing things at a larger scale changes the dialogue with fabricators and contractors. It’s no longer looking at a design idea; it’s looking at a fabricated object. That changes the dynamic of the conversation in a great way.”

Open Communications

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, having a physical mock-up can bring clarity to a designer’s vision for all parties, from contractors to project owners, as well as help ensure that vision properly comes to life.

“You’re having conversations about something real,” Miller says, noting that the two-way discussion provides real-time feedback on possible constraints and preferences, which they can then use to adapt the design to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to install. “It’s a dialogue between the people building and the people designing to optimize for all conditions.”

Fabrication helps everyone on the team understand the core design challenge and have a voice in its resolution, says Parke MacDowell, AIA, fabrication manager and associate at Payette in Boston. The firm’s operations include a model shop situated directly on the floor of its 175-person studio, as well as a satellite space with larger equipment such as a CNC machine and welding and woodworking tools.

“Making clarifies ideas. Clear ideas expedite decisions. Decisions move projects forward,” MacDowell notes.

He points to an owner/contractor/architect meeting where the team struggled to resolve the installation procedure for an unusual cove lighting detail. The Payette team left the meeting, headed to their shop, and returned the next day with a full-scale prototype that immediately resolved the impasse. “A physical object is something everyone can understand,” he says.

The impact is powerful for details both small or large, simple or elaborate.

LMN leveraged its capabilities to address extreme complexities in the design of the University of Iowa Voxman School of Music building, using 3D parametric modeling to develop the main performance hall’s suspended ceiling. The ceiling’s 900 panels, in which no two are alike, integrate five separate functions— stage lighting, house lighting, acoustics, audiovisual, and fire protection. LMN was able to provide the 3D model for the fabricator to build from, providing a walk-through of the fabrication logic and showing how the material could best be used while maximizing available sheet sizes.

Along with ensuring an accurate interpretation of the design vision, the process can help build trust with the fabricator, Crawford says, “by having a conversation around those built pieces rather than just renderings.”

Max Jarosz, formerly with Höweler + Yoon Architecture and now the manager of the Fabrication Lab and Model Shop at the University of Miami, agrees, noting that if firms have the same equipment as fabricators, they can use that expertise and language to show how certain tasks and design elements can be accomplished, particularly if the firm has a more advanced digital skill set.

Payette saw this firsthand when using inhouse fabrication to mock up a pedestrian bridge for Northeastern University. The weathering steel structure features vast overlapping plates that dissolve into a perforated pattern. The team’s in-house experience welding the mock-up gave them a unique perspective of the limitations of the fabrication process behind the finished product. “We can provide added value by recognizing both the constraints and opportunities known best by the builder and the aspirations and client needs best understood by the architect,” MacDowell says.

A hospital project in China challenged Payette to design patient rooms with ample gathering space for visitors and plenty of natural light while mitigating negative solar gain. The team designed the 2,500 patient rooms with “window boxes” that provide an alcove of seating along with solar shading. Payette fabricated a 12-foot-by-10-foot full-scale mock-up of the window box, and when the global design team assembled in Boston, they understood the concept immediately. “This is something that was really facilitated by having fabrication in-house,” MacDowell says, noting that the $25,000 cost to fabricate such a large piece was well worth the clear communication and assurances the process reaped.

The architects note that in-house fabrication often contributes to a project’s sustainability story by ensuring that designs are achievable, thereby reducing rework. Working through the manufacturing details also helps determine how best to maximize materials, such as sheet goods, to cut back on waste.

Maximizing Investment

Implementing a fabrication studio requires buy-in across the board, from leadership to associates, as well as an overall cultural shift that recognizes the value such efforts can bring to encourage use.

It’s important to consider the long-term return on investment. While there are upfront costs (as well as fabrication expenses that may or may not be passed along to the client), those outlays must be weighed against potential savings brought by potentially shaving weeks off the design process, avoiding mistakes, eliminating rework, and getting customer buy-in.

Don’t think about monetization, Miller notes; that’s not the primary goal. “The goal is to change how we work, and this is a part of that.”

To encourage adoption by associates, MacDowell recommends keeping things front and center. “Document it, share it, and put it in a place where people can see it,” he says.

Often, the efforts start with a core group of people who recognize the potential and get excited about it, creating a grassroots movement that hopefully builds into cultural change.

“Look at it less as a production space and more as a place to go explore our designs,” Crawford says. “You have to reconceptualize. It’s not just something overlaid onto the process. … The greatest benefit comes when design teams themselves are experiencing what happens in the shop and the making of these things; then they internalize things more readily.”

Management also should consider the recruitment benefits. Many students have access to CNC machines and digital fabrication technologies in school, but not at most firms, Jarosz says. For new grads, it can be intimidating to not be able to design the way they’re used to.

Keep in mind that you’re introducing giant machines and often dangerous specialty equipment. Just like a fabricator, contractor, or manufacturer, make safety a top priority. Implement a training curriculum and institute protocols for who can run the equipment, how that equipment can be used, and how it is locked away when not in use.

LMN, for example, has a day-to-day shop manager plus a crew of about a dozen staff members who are trained on all equipment in addition to their design work. They serve as ambassadors on their projects, noting when something can be mocked up in the shop. They then have the authority to make it happen.

It’s a fitting approach to a changing profession. “It’s not about tools and equipment, it’s about design culture,” MacDowell notes. “The hands-on exploration of shapes, textures, and details is a critical part of our process.”