Sstudiomm, an Iranian architecture office founded by Hossein Naghavi, has developed a digital brick laying technique and an open-source DIY kit for architects interested in the system. The project, titled Negative Precision, is the outcome of Naghavi’s independent research into parametrically derived brick laying techniques. Using Kohler and Gramazio’s 2006 robotically programmed wall as a departure point, sstudiomm sought out alternative methods to reproduce the same effect with a limited budget, “in order to make the luxurious reachable for a greater group.”
Located in Iran’s historic city of Damavand (roughly 50 miles west of Tehran), the project pulls from traditional brick patterning in the city, most notably Shebeli Tower which dates back to the 10th century. The architects digitally modeled an “X” shaped form that references the decorative brick tower, then worked with Grasshopper to produce a script varying brick rotation.
The outcome of the script is essentially a stack bond brick veneer wall where bricks rotate within a calculated 18 degree range to register a patterned “X” form across the facade. Sstudiomm confidently calls this the “simplest grasshopper code ever.” From the digital model, a series of precise stencil templates are produced from lasercut stock aluminum plate. In the field, a plum string helps to establish a start point for each course of bricks. Theoretically by adjusting the reference surface in the script, a new textural patterning will be generated, offering a customizable visual identity for other architects.
Sstudiomm says the most significant challenge for the undulated brick veneer wall was the handling of gaps between bricks, which vary by almost an inch. As a brick rotates outward, a larger gap is produced between neighboring bricks. “The gaps are never seen from the front view and from almost all of the perspectives they are hidden by staggering bricks around them. These gaps are providing the financial possibility of having a parametric wall built without a robot.”
Another challenge for the project team was the dimensional stability of the brick units. For this facade, three different colors and dimensions (from 7.5 inches to 8 inches) are incorporated due to a handmade manufacturing process that yields variation based on heat exposure from location in the kiln. Naghavi says the brick laying method was able to accommodate this diversity by prioritizing a clean starting and ending point at the corners of the facade. “You need to align the outer corner of the brick with inside of the stencil, and that’s all that matters. This will result in a change in the width of the vertical bonds which does not matter because they already are a mess.”
Negative Precision challenges a “surplus precision” of digital fabrication, which typically drives up project cost. “A considerable part of building industry functions with lower precision, and uses production methods of the last century. In other words, digital technology is a luxury, though it may not be revealed in the first glance,” said Naghavi in an interview with AN. “Precision fetishism is generally interesting as it is a phenomenon everybody is struggling with in some level, whether in buildings or raising a kid. Apparently as a group of mammals we like organizing, and we are very capable of liking it too much.”
By allowing for some degree of error in the translation between his digital model and the built form, Naghavi has prioritized economy over precision, embracing a “lo-fi” approach to digital fabrication: “I avoided an accurate 3-D model, not only for my own laziness, but also for generalizing the design method and unbinding it from the 3-D model. The builder is left on site with a new tool.”
Naghavi said his work actually consists of three parallel projects: a building, a method, and a paper. “I think the more we move away from the matter [the built work] toward words, the result becomes more important as it will have a longer life.” Naghavi says the paper has taken more time than the building. “This brick project is a very small outcome of the strategies discussed in the paper.” To continue the discussion, another significant artifact of the project—the 17 lasercut aluminum stencils—are up for sale on sstudiomm’s website, which offers a DIY kit geared towards design professionals.