Published January 3, 2014
Boston Valley Terra Cotta, a leading manufacturer of architectural terra cotta, had long been considering a foray into digital tooling to streamline the age-old process of terra cotta restoration. Yet, without thorough testing, there was no way to know if the technology would compromise the company’s defining hand craftsmanship. Meanwhile, some of its competitors were beginning to price them out of their own market.
Rigidized Metals Corporation develops deep-textured metals through a specialized rolling process that embosses patterns into sheet metal and then bends and forms panels for standard architectural systems. With a product portfolio that hadn’t changed much since the 1960s, CEO Rick Smith was eager to experiment with new design possibilities for metals.
Enter the School of Architecture and Planning. Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Architecture, was interested in testing out a new educational model that would link faculty and students with local manufacturers to explore practice applications for its research and arsenal of new technologies in digital design and fabrication. He approached the companies with a proposal: “We have this capacity, and you’re interested in new tools. Why not test them together?”
Over the past two years, architecture faculty and students have been deeply entrenched with the two companies, testing options to digitally enhance terra cotta restoration, pushing the limits of design and performance for metals, and working side-by-side with sculptors and metal fabricators in a rich exchange of knowledge. The partnerships have opened new realms of architectural research, created a unique pedagogy in situ with industry, and offered faculty and students immediate opportunities to test their ideas against real-world constraints.
Most of all, the academia-industry collaborations have unleashed a mutually reinforcing cycle of innovation. Both sides are pushing the other down paths they wouldn’t have traveled alone, creating new knowledge and ways of working, and fueling growth in the region’s industrial and research enterprise.
“Innovation is expensive. Here’s a win-win scenario where our school can serve as a testing ground before companies make big investments in technology or process and product innovations,” says Khan. “At the same time, we’re providing unique research and pedagogical opportunities for our faculty and students.”
It was summer 2011, just before the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Buffalo. The Department of Architecture and Boston Valley decided to conduct an experiment. Could the school’s digital fabrication tools replicate Boston Valley’s restoration of the ornate terra cotta panels on Buffalo’s Guaranty Building?
The two methods are radically different. Boston Valley, which has restored landmarks across the U.S., including San Francisco’s Russ Building and Chicago’s Rookery Building, employs an intricate restoration process that starts with draftsmen creating 2-D drawings of the terra cotta originals. Sculptors use these drawings to build a model of the object, which is then layered with plaster to create a negative mold. Finally, terra cotta is hand-pressed into the mold and carved by sculptors to create an exact replica.
The Department of Architecture’s digital method started with photographs of the originals to generate 3-D digital models, a process called photogrammetry. Guided by these digital models, the school’s 5-axis CNC machine routed a physical model out of foam. After a sculptor’s hand detailing, the model was ready for the final mold-making step.
“Our interest in this partnership was to explore the potential of digital craft-based processes and technologies in streamlining their workflow, to free them up to focus on the craft side,” says Khan. “It’s a question of ‘how do craft and computing come together’?”
Boston Valley president and general manager John Krouse liked what he saw (the digitally produced panels were showcased at the conference) and advanced the project into a rigorous testing phase. Khan and Mitchell Bring, a retired software entrepreneur and UB adjunct professor, would lead the effort.
They began by embedding a student intern to study Boston Valley’s workflow, production methods and equipment. Andrew Pries, who had just graduated from the BS Arch program, worked directly with the drafting department and mold shop to test the accuracy of laser scans and 3-D modeling in Rhino. He spent just as much time in the school’s Digital Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab), working out the kinks in Rhino and running models through its laser cutter and CNC router.
The effort moved rapidly from proof-of-concept to production. Krouse recalls the watershed moment when he saw the full design-to-fabrication test: “Everyone looked at each other and said, ‘this is a total game changer. We’re never looking back. We are so sold on this technology.’”
Boston Valley's first full-scale effort with the new tools was the recreation of four 19-foot-tall caryatids suspe nded from the corners of a 21-story Beaux-Arts building in Manhattan. Dubbed "Dorothy," the project pushed the partnership into a rapid and dynamic process of problem-solving and skills exchange.
Working out of a plywood-clad “Mesh Lab,” so-called after the fabric of digital modeling software, the Department of Architecture’s team worked side by side with model-makers, sculptors and draftsmen to refine and deploy the tools.
Peter Schmidt, a student in the MArch program who has interned at Boston Valley since August 2012, says the co-location has been invaluable. “By working so closely, we are able to test and implement new design concepts quickly and drastically alter the way we design for fabrication."
In addition to digitally “sculpting” the ornate details of the angel, the students have developed custom scripts to eliminate repetitive tasks, such as carving out the anchor holes and mortar joints that hold together Dorothy’s 44 blocks. Schmidt recently began working on a set of mesh analysis scripts to increase the accuracy and speed required to process 3-D scans, a task that’s introduced him to differential equations and complex kernel-smoothing algorithms.
Read more about Peter Schmidt's experience with Boston Valley Terra Cotta and how it has pushed his research in digital fabrication.
The school’s Fab Lab, led by manager Lindsay Romano, also helped the company set up its first line of new technologies, including a laser cutter and scanner used for Dorothy’s reproduction.
Adds Bring: “We are integrating a complete system of technologies into their process from beginning to end. This kind of day-to-day consulting has been essential.”
In the end, the four 11,000-pound Dorothys, who recently made their way back to New York City, were fabricated in less than half the time, allowing artisans to focus on details such as the folds of Dorothy’s dress, or the curls of her hair.
As proof Boston Valley isn’t turning back, it just acquired the centerpiece of its digital tooling enterprise — a 5-axis CNC machine that is one of the largest in operation across the U.S. The router, which cuts along five different axes and can carve more sophisticated, 3-D designs, has already turned out a range of new projects, including Boston Valley’s restoration of the Alberta Legislature dome in Canada.
“This is opening up entirely new realms of architecture for us,” says Krouse, adding that the Alberta Legislature dome project would have been cost-prohibitive without the new tools. The company can also rapidly create prototypes and scale-models that help win new assignments.
The digital enhancements are also building smarter labor. The MeshLab has been formalized into the “ARCH Design Lab,” where draftsmen now man the CNC machine and artisans sculpt in Rhino and Grasshopper as well as clay.
Says Michael Fritz, senior sculptor for Boston Valley, it’s the perfect marriage of computing and craft: “The purpose of 3D in art and manufacturing is to bring us closer to spatial reality in the earliest stages of design and invention. The closer that we are able to insert 3D modeling into the very beginning of our manufacturing process, the more competitive and streamlined the restoration process may be.”
Khan says such digital craftsmanship is ripe with possibilities for architectural practice. “For a long time, architects have had to concede to limits of manufactured products because customized solutions were unavailable or cost-prohibitive. Digital craft provides an opportunity to alter manufacturing in a way that enables architects to more productively influence the products they use. There is great demand for this: A new era of 'craft' may be in the works."
The partnership has also set in motion a wave of innovation and new research.
Recently at Boston Valley, Guy Logel, assistant model mold/department manager, and Schmidt were pushing Rhino to render the mold of a terra cotta object with enough precision to skip the model-making step. For his master’s thesis, Schimdt plans to build a specialized CNC machine for cutting extruded terra cotta.
“We’re constantly trying to push our capabilities and the limits of what we can accomplish in the ARCH Design Lab. That culture of research has enabled me to vastly expand my knowledge of programming, fabrication, modeling and manufacturing,” Schmidt says.
For Pries, now a graduate student in architecture at the University of Michigan, the experience has changed the way he thinks and designs: “I have gained an appreciation and adoration for terra cotta. The means and thought processes behind the production and manufacture of architectural materials (especially terra cotta) have taken the forefront of my design work.”
Khan says he and Bring will continue to explore new pedagogical and research-to-practice applications for the partnership, with the Department of Architecture to remain embedded there for now. In October, the two partners will hold a workshop on digital terra cotta fabrication for an international audience at the ACADIA (Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture) Adaptive Architecture Conference, which the Department of Architecture is co-sponsoring.
Says Krouse, who’s already expanding the digital technology from Boston Valley’s restoration work to new terra cotta construction projects: “I don’t think we could have done it without UB’s help. Now that we’re doing it, everybody sees the future.”
The School of Architecture and Planning and Rigidized Metals CEO Rick Smith have for years come together around creative endeavors. It began with a sponsored lecture. Then Smith, who also owns three grain elevators in “Silo City” along Buffalo’s waterfront, opened their cavernous, gritty spaces to the school for studios, research and built works. After discovering a massive beehive in an abandoned building there, he sponsored a student design competition resulting in Elevator B, a 22-foot-tall permanent hive structure built by students with Ridigized’s steel panels. The dedicated community-builder has also worked with faculty on planning efforts in the surrounding Old First Ward neighborhood.
Thus, it seems almost natural that Smith would turn to the School of Architecture and Planning for what may become Rigidized’s biggest R&D venture in decades. “We’ve been producing the same patterns for 50 years in pretty much the same way,” says Smith of the company that was founded by his grandfather in 1940 and passed on to him by his father in 2000. “We’ve had great success, but we wanted young architects to help direct us to different ways of thinking for textured metal.”
The company embosses sheets of metal with a diverse palette of geometric patterns to enhance their durability and appearance. Their architectural use is largely as ornament — interior or exterior cladding, kitchen surfaces, railings or even screening for parking garages.
Having worked with the material through Elevator B, Khan and his faculty were intrigued by its aesthetic qualities — the three-dimensional feel of textured metal, the way it reflects and refracts light — as well as its potential for structural applications such as façades. The school’s digital technologies could also open new avenues for the product’s design and manufacture.
“We wanted to ask, ‘can the product do other things?” explains Khan. “Can we explore its thermodynamic qualities, the aesthetic attributes of these metals, and opportunities to create 3-D effects that are interesting and quite beautiful?”
Architecture faculty members Christopher Romano and Nicholas Bruscia, both with research interests in design and fabrication with metals, jumped right in, directing two seminars in spring 2012 that had some students designing complex patterns and façade systems in Rhino and Grasshopper, and others bending and folding the metal in new ways.
The project quickly escalated into a single experiment that would test the performance and adaptability of textured metal: could super thin stainless steel panels be bent and fastened together to create a self-supporting, full-scale wall?
“The strength and aesthetics of texture, when looked at together, can create new ways of thinking about larger-scale structures that are super light, super thin and stunning in appearance,” says Romano, adding that the research could have implications for building skin innovations in how they shed water, handle wind and absorb energy.
Adds Bruscia: “To our knowledge, a sheet metal system this thin and at this scale, performing as a completely free-standing vertical application, has not been done before.”
Such ambition was just what Smith was looking for: “This intellectual curiosity is beyond the norm of what occurs in a corporate environment. It’s not necessarily about creating a product we can sell. It’s just showing the design world that we’re capable of doing innovative and interesting things. And in so doing, perhaps we can change the entire argument about what stainless sheet metal can do.”
Now they just had to build it. By fall 2012, the professors, together with a group of students from the initial seminars, began spending more time on Rigidized’s fabrication floor, studying equipment and workflow, testing metal folding techniques, and experimenting with how the material behaves at different angles and tensions.
Indeed, the project would need to fold and interlock 152 panels into a 24-foot-by-20-foot trapezoidal scheme, requiring an almost machine-like level of precision. Sited next to Rigidized’s headquarters, near the entrance to Silo City, the permanent installation would also need to perform under high winds and winter weather coming off Lake Erie.
To make it work, Romano and Bruscia developed computational models and then built prototypes out of plain carbon steel in the school’s fabrication shop. “This allowed us to test how it would come together, to make sure we had it right before building a more expensive prototype with Rigidized’s material and equipment,” says Bruscia. This process turned out to be crucial — their initial mock-up failed, which led to the current design, Scheme 2, now fully installed at Silo City.
Rigidized’s team of fabricators and engineers helped take designs from drawing to production, teaching Romano and Bruscia about the material along the way — how the panel’s texture affects the folding process, for example, or how the gauge of the metal affects pattern depth, altering the intensity of specular reflection.
“These are things designers might take for granted. Without this knowledge of the material, we might have been designing a model that was ultimately inaccurate,” says Bruscia, adding he and Romano have begun to run the project and team as a sort of architectural practice.
Daniel Vrana, a student in the MArch program who has helped take the project from concept to production, has experienced the value of this first hand. He visited Rigidized on a near daily basis during the project’s construction, to drop off drawings, review fabrication documents and observe production.
“This has probably taught me more than four years of studio on how the real world works,” he says. “I’m also seeing my work come back full scale. That’s something that doesn’t happen in studio.”
The knowledge exchange has gone both ways. Romano and Bruscia have pushed Rigidized’s team to bend metal into complex geometries, make intricate cuts and punches for fastening tabs, and, of course, understand completely new technologies.
“Manufacturing is usually about mass production, repetitive processes. Here we are coming in and totally customizing their workflow, inserting ourselves into the fabrication operation of Rigidized Metals,” says Romano.
But rather than back away from the challenge, the team has problem-solved together. “When we wanted to do something they’d never done before or were unsure about, we just had a conversation about how to make it happen,” says Bruscia.
“Sometimes you just have to test things out because they’re difficult to predict. That’s when we both learn something about what we’re doing.”
Adds Smith: “It’s taken the energy of Chis and Nick and their students to move us from ‘we can’t do that’ to ‘why not?’ Can metal behave as structure? No way. But if you bend it like that, then maybe it can.”
With new skills, confidence and curiosity, the Rigidized team is taking on work it wouldn’t consider before. “It’s already affected our business in the way our architectural sales group allows jobs to come in,” says Smith.
Looking ahead, Romano and Bruscia say there are dozens of research paths they hope to pursue with Rigidized, from exploring new textures and patterns to completing their almost scientific documentation of the specular qualities of Rigidized’s products. The Silo City installation recently received funding as a finalist for SKIN, a computational fabrication competition tied to the ACADIA conference. They are now building a second iteration that pushes the research forward by testing new pattern combinations and design details; it will be exhibited at the conference in October 2013.
For Smith’s part, he says he’ll stop working with UB when he stops having fun. “It’s interesting to see how good our interaction has become. If we sit down for an hour, we’ll go in all kinds of directions. Their curiosity feeds into mine. We have so many ideas right now. There’s no reason for this collaboration to stop in the foreseeable future.”