MASS Design experiments with “lo-fab” structure for Boston Design Biennial

Categories: Architecture

The MASS Lo-Fab Pavilion, constructed on Rose Kennedy Greenway as a collaboration between MASS Design Group, Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research (CDR), Autodesk and Rudabega, signals a new possible future for making things.

We sat down for a Q&A with Nathan King, who represents both MASS Design and the Virginia Tech teams, to learn more about the motivation and driving factors behind their first US-based project.

1Photo credit: Mark Pasnik

Q: Why did you choose to participate in the Biennial challenge?

A: This project was a test bed for MASS Design’s “Lo-Fab” (locally fabricated) approach to the design and building process. Lo-Fab is the “slow food movement” of fabrication and represents MASS Design’s commitment to understanding the people, processes and products that go into fabricated building components. This installation embodies our commitment to social equity and the use of local labor (students, engineers and community organizations) coupled with advanced fabrication techniques. Because it is composed of many small elements, this approach enabled the Boston community—including volunteers and students—to participate in the on-site assembly. Unlike conventional installations, which are discarded after their initial use, the bolted connections of this pavilion allow for it to be disassembled and rebuilt for enduring use.

This is the first US project for MASS Design. We incorporated lessons learned from the “global south” into this project and, ideally, will take lessons learned and ideas tested on this project and apply them to our international work.  The pavilion, a grid-shell structure made of a series of struts and nodes, offers a demonstration for a method of conserving materials by utilizing what would conventionally be considered “scrap” material.

  2 Photo credit: Fusion 360 student expert Cole Smith

Q: How are you working with Autodesk on this project?

A: Autodesk is the lead sponsor for the design and build of the MASS Design Biennial project. Autodesk provided grants of the software being used on the project, including Fusion 360 and Dynamo, among others. In addition, The MASS Design Biennial project is the first Autodesk BUILD Grant project selected for its innovative use of digital fabrication in the built environment.

The Autodesk BUILD Grant (for Building, Innovation, Learning and Design) program supports research by students, faculty, practitioners, and others advancing the state of practice in the building industry, particularly in the areas of digital fabrication, design robotics, material systems and automation in construction.

Beyond sponsorship the MASS and Virginia Tech teams have worked directly with software teams within Autodesk on the development of new software tools that were used in this project, including contributions to the emerging Dynamo-to-Robot workflow developed in part, and tested in the Virginia Tech Center for Design Research Robotics Studio, with a team of collaborators from the Autodesk BUILD Space and Dynamo teams.

Q: What does the project represent? How does it align to Boston’s biennial?

A: The Biennial highlights emerging designers who reflect the diversity and vitality of Boston’s academic and professional architectural scenes. MASS Design’s award-winning work designing and building hospitals and schools in remote locations around the world represents aligns well with the Biennial’s goals. Specifically, this installation embodies MASS Design’s commitment to social equity and the use of local labor (students, engineers and community organizations) coupled with advanced fabrication techniques. Because it is composed of many small elements, this approach will enable the Boston community—including volunteers and students—to participate in the on-site assembly.

3Photo credit: Ed Coe

Q: Will you take any lessons learned from this project back to your work in other countries?

A: Yes. The pavilion offers a demonstration for a method of conserving materials by utilizing what would conventionally be considered “scrap” material. MASS is also testing A360 Team as a long-term cloud platform to be used across all its projects as it will enable their disparate teams to stay up-to-date on model edits. In addition, this project will be a first example of MASS Design working collaboratively though the cloud using BIM, digital fabrication and associative modeling. This, combined with our emerging research on BIM for resource-limited settings, will help direct all future MASS work toward cloud-based collaboration.

Q: How were Autodesk products used?

A: Integrating Fusion 360 allowed us to decrease time to fabrication and enhance collaboration via a cloud-based model.  We utilized the cloud capabilities of Fusion 360 to collaborate with the student experts from the Virginia Tech Industrial Design program on the development of the Fusion aspects of the project. Cloud computing was also leveraged for the creation of visualizations and animations that allowed us to train volunteers in the assembly process before jumping into the construction site.

Q: How long did this project take to design and make?

A: The design of the project from initial student workshop and early conceptual ideas to fabrication took 12 weeks, but the bulk of the labor occurred in the last 4 weeks of the project where we went from model to component fabrication and ultimately assembly on site.

Q: What did you learn by using Autodesk software for this project?

A: Autodesk software is increasingly integrated. In a single design environment one can script, automate, visualize, and control manufacturing equipment. Competing software requires multiple platforms to do this. From a purely visualization standpoint, Fusion 360’s rendering is unprecedented; it’s simple and provides compelling stills and video with a single software solution. Furthermore, this does not bog down an in-house system as renderings are produced on a cloud system.

Finally, for low volume production of architectural elements, the provision of HSM and the link to manufacturing – also integrated into a single platform- are an incredible add and ultimately will reduce costs, enhance constructability analyses, and speed up the workflow.

Q: How have you partnered with Virginia Tech Center for Design Research?

A: Students and faculty at Virginia Tech, in direct collaboration with designers at MASS Design Group, developed the structure as part of an ongoing founding partnership in the Commonwealth Consortium for Design and Healtha collaboration that allows multiple universities, design practices, and industry partners to collaborate in the development of innovative design technologies, evaluation methods, and medical devices for use in resource-limited settings. This collaboration resulted in the technology transfer of an advanced façade systems developed for the centers’ LumenHAUSTM into application in the recently completed Cholera Treatment Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti by MASS Design Group.

The MASS Lo-Fab Pavilion at the Design Boston Biennial represents the second such opportunity to explore the translation of advanced design and fabrication techniques to the design and construction process in resource limited settings.

The pavilion speaks to MASS Design Group’s approach to the design and building process. One of MASS’ co-founders, Michael Murphy, describes the approach as such: On every project, we highlight and scale local innovation and ideas, hire local labor, and use local materials. This kind of architecture is making human lives better, and this is how we evaluate design integrity and the success of our projects. From our ethos, we draw a core set of principles that ensures we deliver sustainable and beautiful buildings, but also that we spread this ethos by training a growing generation of designers and architects.”

In the spring of 2015 a series of design charrettes were held between MASS, the Center for Design Research, students from Virginia Tech’s architecture and industrial design programs, and the computational design consultants The United Nathans. The experimental gridshell structure of the pavilion is a result of an earlier collaboration between MASS and the Center for Design research. It was fabricated using state-of-the-art collaborative robotic fabrication techniques and a merger of traditional craftsmanship and computationally driven manufacturing processes. In order to move from the computational design environment to one of material, the team worked in collaboration with Autodesk to develop a novel design-to-robotic fabrication workflow using the emerging visual scripting interface Dynamo.

In the weeks leading up to the installation, students from the School of Architecture + Design produced building components at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ Research and Demonstration Facility in Blacksburg. Students and faculty travelled to Boston to erect the pavilion on the greenway, working long hours hand in hand with designers from MASS Design and design firm Rudabega to deploy the experimental structure. The construction, a performance in and of itself, is intended to reconnect the process of making with the value afforded by a considerate merger of labor, material, and technology, thus reestablishing the connection between the built environment, its users, and those who make it.

Beyond the artifact, this project is about process…one that enables students, practitioners, industry specialists, and community members to come together and teach each other through making…the act of making, at this scale and complexity, requires collaboration — this is why it is valuable, why we work in this manner, and how the learning of a single project will propagate.