Fab Labs

Fab Labs

“About four or five years ago, we really started noticing fabrication across every program,” said Anne Rieselbach, program director at the Architectural League of New York, summing up the machine-shop mode that has taken architects’ studios by storm. “From Young Architects Forum to Emerging Voices, everything was about CNC milling, routing, bending, laser- and water jet-cutting, and on and on. It was crazy. But now we’re seeing more architects going beyond that kind of fetishization. It’s second nature to them now.”

For those who understand it, fabrication technology offers a breathtaking sense of potential, along with an insider lingo that sounds like speaking in tongues to the uninitiated and tools that take up a vast amount of space—physically, financially, and even psychically in terms of how architects identify with what it means to be both designer and maker. While this movement has obvious parallels to design-build, whose roots go back to the return-to-basics 1960s and earlier, architects of the latter movement tended to yield to the role of builders. Not so with the newer generation of fab-focused designers.

“Fabrication comes out of technology rather than construction, like design-build,” said Ben Pell, who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture and is the author of the fabrication manifesto The Articulate Surface (Birkhauser, 2010). “Fabrication represents more direct control over production amid a lot of talk about the return of the master builder and eliminating the middle person.” Ironically, this rally to increased power and the ability to directly control the building process belongs to younger architects, particularly those recently out of schools where a growing number of programs have given them access not only to the computers and the machinery with which to refine their skills, but also to professors like Pell who are preaching it as gospel.


A sampling of fabricators, both at small design studios with in-house shops and at larger custom manufacturers, shows that the evolving field is already changing how architecture is practiced. That was the case for architects Stephen Lynch and Jonathan Taylor, who in 2003 founded Caliper Studio in Brooklyn with metal worker/sculptor Michael Conlon as two separate businesses. Their plan was to use metal fabrication as a way to support design work. In a 7,000-square-foot “old-school shop,” as Lynch recently described it, they were soon making things with laser cutting and bending that had never before been possible. “We started doing very complicated pieces simply because we could,” the architect said, while their clients were drawn to the 3D parametric drawings “because they loved to see that level of detail.” A stainless-steel stair connecting two floors in a Manhattan apartment turned out to be both intellectual exercise and tour-de-force fabrication. Using 3D modeling wedded to structural design software, the designers generated a succession of stair designs to arrive at the most structurally sound. Lynch described this experiment in automated evolution as the sweet spot of fabrication “between exuberance and rationality.” Installed, the glass-and-steel stair rises through three 90-degree turns with no intermediary supports.

While delighted with the control made possible by sending design coordinates straight to machines, the architects realized that the challenge was going to be handling all that data. It was now possible and even tempting to design a structure with “a thousand unique parts,” recalled Lynch, “but not many operations are set up to deal with that in terms of responsibility down the line.” Making complex, self-determining components can be easy, many architecture fabricators have found, but it’s not so easy to convince general contractors to also go with the flow. Currently, the Caliper partners are exploring going into production with a sustainable window-wall product. The idea of small-scale manufacturing of their own designs is appealing, but the distraction from design work is a concern.


For Point B in Philadelphia, reconciling design and production has led to a number of new opportunities. The firm started out custom-building doors, cabinets, and furnishings using a table saw, and graduated to full-fledged separate laboratories for design, digital work, and fabrication. All architects work in the shop, and every fabrication is assembled by a designer on equipment that includes a digital mill, though precision cutting is outsourced. When the design lab was commissioned to work on D. Gallery in Philadelphia, the b.Fab (as that portion of the firm is called) was able to provide building-scale components completely in sync with the design, and on budget. The success of the project was less about creative production, according to firm co-founder John Shields, and more about the efficiencies of integrated teamwork. “In the 1980s, I saw how the beeper affected construction and then the fax machine and then cell phones,” Shields said. “It’s really all about communication and seamless information management.”

At the other end of the spectrum, family-run Zahner in Kansas City has been fabricating metal works for over 100 years. The business has witnessed and appreciated a steady increase in the sophistication of architects’ knowledge and skill at using the new fabrication tools of their trade. For instance, rain screens, now being developed with much expressive innovation thanks to digital fabrication, were a mystery to architects just ten years ago, according to Zahner spokesman Gary Davis. “They understood there was a massing wall and this air pocket,” he said, “but now they have made the leap and they are pushing us further to make that screen intrinsically much more interesting. It’s great.”


At Zahner, however, architects and their computers are not connecting directly to the fabricator’s machinery. The old divisions between designer and maker have shrunk, but not entirely disappeared. “We get a lot of 3D drawings from architects,” Davis said, “but we don’t use them to guide our drawings. We do our own Catia directly over the model.” Still, there is a strong connection between production advances and architectural inspiration. For instance, the metal rain screen designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which was executed by Zahner to create impressions of dappled light, led the company to develop the ZIRA Visualizer, a new technology that can translate any image, photograph, or drawing directly onto metal with a combination of pixilated bumps and perforations.

Davis said the next step is for more architects to become bolder with digital fabrication experiments. “The easy part is to get what it can do conceptually; the hard part is to understand the total freedom it offers,” he said, adding that architects need to push Zahner to discover for themselves what fabrication can really do. “When they come here, we tell them to design something, not pick it out from a catalog.”

Ruben Suare, architect and business development director at another fabricator, 3Form, believes that it is the manufacturers—long working with the most advanced machinery—who must be aggressive in showing architects what is possible. “There is an unbelievable focus on fabrication,” Suare said. “Everyone is turning into a fabricator when they should be concentrating on what it means to be a collaborator.” And collaboration, he contends, is the key to combining aesthetic quality and efficiency with reasonable cost.

While both Zahner and 3Form feel only a slight pinch from architects doing it themselves, all share the realization that it is the construction site that will change the most as a result of off-site fabrication. Increasingly, construction is giving way to manufacturing with larger components being not only fabricated but also assembled in the factory or shop rather than on site.


The future is coming fastest to facade fabrication. Consider the Liquid Wall, winner of AIANY’s Open Call for Curtain Wall Design in 2010, designed by RFR Peter Arbour. This ultra-high performance concrete cast wall system, constructed by direct-transfer 3D modeling to CNC-milled molds, is integrated with photovoltaic spandrel “cassettes” that channel liquids (thus, in part, the name) deployable for radiant heating, hot-water production, and dehumidifying ventilating systems. A 19-foot, six-panel prototype of the assembly is on display through January 15 at the Center for Architecture, showing off the Ductal concrete’s flexible detailing and expandability that Arbour equates with a potential not seen since the days of cast iron and cast terra cotta facades.

“Facades are at the forefront of total integration,” Arbour said from his office in Paris. “By using a cast material, we can manipulate fabrication for custom form-making within a unitized system. The idea is to provide something that others can also use, not just a one-off museum piece.” In product development phase, with a patent pending for the Liquid Wall, Arbour is now looking to collaborate with a facade contractor.

Whether it’s small firms with a shop intent on controlling production or experimental studios eager to collaborate by outsourcing, the excitement around fabrication only continues to mount. Rieselbach at the Architectural League attributes it to a reconnection with the “sheer joy of making,” along with the spread of a radical craft aesthetic where components are computer-driven in the first phase and then completed by hand. Others might simply see it as the thrill of building the bridge that will carry the profession into the future.