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Refabricating Architecture

The use of digital design tools has the potential to position the architect in the centre of the construction process, controlling the flow of information and, critically, the generative geometry.

James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran in their book Refabricating Architecture (McGraw Hill,2004) contrast the current conventions of the construction industry and architectural practice (see diagram A , above left), with limited communication between architect and contractor, and typically no dialogue with manufacturers, material scientists and product engineers.Worse than this, there are many forces in contemporary society, including specialisation and fragmentation, that tend to marginalise the role of the architect.Contrast this with the potential of digital fabrication and electronic information management.

Diagram B shows a model of the construction process that is multi-disciplinary and highly interactive, yet it is the architect who provides and controls the vision and physical outcomes on site. To some this is a renaissance of the architect as master builder, to others it offers the architect the possibility of becoming a designer/maker.The architect no longer needs to be remote from the manufacturing process; the digital three-dimensional model can become the building and all of its component parts. This places a significant emphasis on the skills employed and the inter-relationship of 'global'and 'local'modelling techniques.

The terms standard and non-standard are becoming obsolete.The rhetoric of 20th-century architecture was dominated by calls for standardisation and the deployment of mass production. In essence, in the built environment mass production was never successfully mobilised. The manufacturers, almost always, manufactured batches or series.Thus the potential for mass customisation or personal production has been nascent in construction for the past 70 years. James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran credit the introduction of the 'concept' of mass customisation to Dell Computers in 1984, when it started shipping computers built to customers' specifications. The key territory today is not whether a component is standard or non-standard, but whether or not the part can be manufactured and whether it be manufactured affordably.

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