Published July 25, 2017
With help from the School of Architecture and Planning, Boston Valley Terra Cotta, a leading manufacturer of architectural terra cotta, has deployed an arsenal of digital tools to streamline the age-old process of terra cotta restoration. The multi-year effort has engaged faculty and students in the Department of Architecture, as well as the school’s own digital design and fabrication resources, to push the limits of the technologies without sacrificing the company’s distinctive hand craftsmanship.
Peter Schmidt, a student in the 2-year Master of Architecture program, has played a central role in easing the company’s transition into a 3-D modeling and digital fabrication environment. As an intern embedded with the company since August 2012, Schmidt has worked side by side with model-makers, sculptors and draftsmen to refine and implement tools including the largest 5-axis CNC machine in operation in the United Sates. Schmidt recently discussed his experience at Boston Valley Terra Cotta and how it has pushed his research in digital fabrication.
RT / Tell us about your engagement with Boston Valley Terra Cotta?
PS / I am a paid intern at Boston Valley Terra Cotta, having started there in August 2012. Also, as part of the Department of Architecture’s Material Culture Research Group in spring 2013, I participated in the Variable Volume seminar with Visiting Assistant Professor Maciej Kazinski, and studio with Associate Professor Jean Lamarche. Both courses centered on exploring new ways of working with architectural terra cotta in concert with Boston Valley.
Read the full feature story on the Department of Architecture's research partnership with Boston Valley Terra Cotta
See what projects Peter and his colleagues in Boston Valley Terra Cotta's ARCH Design Lab are working on
Read about the fall 2013 material culture studio with Boston Valley Terra Cotta
RT / How has the experience furthered your research and academic experience?
PS / My work with Boston Valley Terra Cotta has provided valuable real world experiences, allowing me to collaborate with expert craftsmen and hone my design skills for the field of fabrication. My work with Boston Valley has also given me a unique opportunity in thesis study. I am currently designing and building a CNC wire cutter to enable custom modifications for extruded terra cotta panels. The combination of practical knowledge on the construction limitations of terra cotta with my time in the Situated Technologies and Material Culture graduate research groups has provided me with the skills necessary to build and program a CNC machine from the ground up.
RT / You spend a majority of your time at Boston Valley Terra Cotta working out of its ARCH Design Lab, the operations center for the company’s new digital design and fabrication enterprise. Tell us what that’s like.
PS / Typically my day involves discussions with the sculptors and CNC operators. Together we decide what bottlenecks we are running into with the current workflow and what could be improved upon. After we arrive at a consensus, I work to implement a solution with a variety of software tools - for instance, using 3rd party plugins, creating dot net graphic user interfaces, or writing python scripts (a programming language for 3-D modeling programs like Rhino or Grasshopper). With every new implementation, we then have a discussion improve/change/bugfix until the workflow is functioning as intended, at which point we find a new issue to tackle.
By working closely we are able to test and implement new design concepts very quickly and drastically alter the way we design for fabrication. We often collaborate with other members Boston Valley – from mold makers and drafters to the CFO and plant manager – all of whom bring us new ideas on how to push BVTC’s fabrication capabilities.
Another great aspect of working in the ARCH Design Lab is the wide array of issues I get to tackle. On any given day, I can be working on issues of machine calibration, exporting data from 3-D modeling environments to SQL databases, or designing custom scripts to expedite the process of preparing a model for CNC fabrication. During the fall of 2013, I developed a set of mesh analysis scripts to increase the accuracy and speed with which Boston Valley can process 3-D scanned objects. To accomplish this, I taught myself differential equations and devised ways to apply complex kernel-smoothing algorithms to scan data.
We are always trying to push our capabilities of what we can accomplish in the ARCH Design Lab and that culture of research has enabled me to vastly expand my knowledge of programming, fabrication, modeling and many other fabrication-related fields.
RT / Taking a step back, tell us why you chose to pursue your graduate studies in architecture at UB, and what the overall experience has offered?
PS / I came to the School of Architecture and Planning with some knowledge of its fabrication capabilities and the idea that I wanted to push technology to expand the possibilities digital fabrication offered to the field of architecture. My internship at Boston Valley has fit perfectly into those ambitions. The school’s various research groups have also given me the freedom to pursue aspects of architecture that are of greatest interest to me.