The Standardization Crisis

Time To Make Something New

by Nathaniel Banks

December 2019


There is a common misconception that architecture as it is envisaged today,  arrived through a moderately linear progression of routinely occuring stylistic evolutions. However, history reveals that oftentimes there are extensive periods in many cultures wherein formal, typological and technical experimentation rarely occurs. Many vernacular styles across the world remained somewhat unchanged for hundreds of years, with the limited materials and construction techniques available to early builders engendering a retardation in design innovation. Conversely, there are also periods of transilience, in which the methods of architectural production are irrevocably altered. The modernist movement of the 20th century marked arguably the most dramatic transilient shift in recent history, during which, the widespread application of progressive assembly line industrial processes revolutionised architectural appearance and production. As evidenced in both periods of architectural stagnation and transilience, the continued evolution of architectural style and practice is intrinsically linked to technological breakthroughs in fabrication and architectural production.

What many architects consider to be the most recent transilient shift is the digital revolution of the 1990’s, when computer aided design tools became commonplace in architectural practices. Digital tools were a game changer that allowed designers to expedite iterative processes, offer new methods of visualisation and representation, and develop adaptable and performative parametric forms. However, in spite of the newfound liberty afforded to designers through the digital medium, many consider architecture in the post digital era to be uninspired, repetitive and stylistically devoid of substance. Indeed, for all the hype surrounding parametricism as an endlessly customisable and adaptive design tool, built ‘parametric’ works tend to fall into either being splined stylistically driven forms, or at their worst, scripted pattern applications. Even more homogenous, are ‘copy paste’ architectural designs, that feature structural elements, layouts and material choices copied and pasted from BIM models to expedite production. This growing trend of self similar designs infers a growing lack of design innovation in spite of the apparent freedom only recently bestowed to designers through the digital medium.

One notable aspect of the digital revolution that was dissimilar to all prior transilient shifts was its disaffiliation with new modes of fabrication. While CAD software has continued to rapidly advance since the 1990’s, the tools and methods of fabricating post digital architecture still rely on standardised construction elements developed during the industrial revolution and early 20th century. The inability of these techniques to interface with modern digital design tools is a dilemma that has yet to be resolved, and may be primarily responsible for inhibiting developed explorations into the new stylistic possibilities posed by the digital medium. What is thereby needed in architecture today, is a fabrication revolution. One that enables designers to create architecture that fully reflects the digital revolution. Something new.

The Introduction of Mass Standardisation

The industrial revolution marked the introduction of prefabricated, standardised assemblies as architectural building elements. While somewhat uniform construction elements like brick and mortar have been used in architecture for thousands of years, they were traditionally hand molded from local clay, imbuing variance in a brick’s shape and performance depending on the producer. The industrial revolution however, introduced a ‘Taylorised’ (as inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor) approach in fabricating construction elements. A brick could now be industrially screened, molded, cut, coated, glazed, dried, fired and cooled, all in a single factory using precise and consistent equipment. This precipitated the production of elements that both performed better structurally, were more uniform, and could be produced at a cheaper rate than their manually produced competitors.

While Taylorised industrial processes were initially limited to producing simple components like brick and glass, many architects and engineers pioneered the creation and application of unconventional industrial tools to produce wider arrays of prefabricated components. Joseph Paxton notably invented several unique metal casting techniques and filed over 50 patents while developing repeatable, quick assembly cast iron girders and column joints for the Crystal Palace. Similarly, Jean Prouve pioneered the use of industrially processed materials like formica, plywood, and aluminium as structural architectural members, using unconventional processes like metal pressing to fabricate repeatable facade panels. These investigations into unconventional fabrication processes greatly widened the catalogue of components that could be prefabricated cheaply, improving the variety of materials, structural systems, and stylistic directions architects could affordably pursue in the mid 20th century.

Recently however, the wide adoption of standardised construction elements, while liberating in its creation of an affordable catalogue, risks channeling architecture towards the creatively reductive role of an assembler. Having access to such a wide array of affordable and reliable standardised construction elements has driven down the cost of general construction significantly, while custom fabrication has become an expensive commodity. The production of custom construction elements require many procedures and processes that inflate their cost. To produce a custom window frame, a designer must first prepare a sketch or 3d model, present it to a fabricator, receive a quote, amend the original design, pay and wait for a test product, and potentially repeat these processes until a desirable window frame is produced. Undertaking these processes can be prohibitively expensive and time consuming. Comparatively, simply purchasing and installing a standardised window frame is far cheaper and faster. In a design culture where architects are working under strictly limited budgets and short design timeframes, many architects’ first point of compromise, is the substitution of custom components with standardised alternatives. This practice has become so commonplace, that many firms now consider it standard procedure to orient their conceptual proposals around the use of standardised construction elements, rather than develop unique schemes that require custom components to realise. The role of the architect in these cases is reduced from that of Paxton and Prouve as revolutionary agents in fabrication to achieve novel conceptual designs, to one constrained by the rules of existing systems to assemble architecture from a limited catalogue of parts.

Digital Applications & Integrated Standardisation

Ironically, in spite of the variety of design and visualisation processes afforded to designers through the digital medium, it has in many ways continued to further accentuate architecture’s dependency on standardised components. Since the 1990’s Building Integration Management (BIM) software has become the standard toolset for working out how to physically realise digitally designed concepts. Revit in particular is ideal for running structural analytics, producing accurate construction documents, and in providing 3d model data to engineers and contractors. As a design tool, the software also features an extensive catalogue of standard construction systems and families. While convenient, the presence of such a catalogue can lead to standardised system integration being the primary design driver. When designers realise their model doesn’t accommodate a necessary standardised system, they immediately change the model to fit the system rather than spend time researching potential alternatives from outside the digital catalogue. Furthermore, families of workable systems can be blocked and archived for later use. Therefore, instead of designing new assemblies of systems in subsequent design projects, architects can recycle previously developed assemblies. This is particularly common in housing projects, where entire housing units are copied and pasted across multiple housing estates, to expedite the design process. This further reduces the role of the architect, to that of an assembler of blocks, and propagates the mass production of self similar ‘copy paste’ architecture.

The integration of standardised construction components within digital software also acts to relegate new digital forms of architecture to stylistically driven splined enclosures. Fluid forms in architecture are inherently difficult and expensive to build, with formworks often needing to be comprised of large sets of discrete panels atop monocoque frames. While the use of parametric design software has enabled the digital visualisation and organisation of these forms into manageable building assemblies, they do not currently offer a solution to the expense of fabricating such large sets of custom components. Currently, this dilemma has been avoided through a separation of fluid custom form, and standardised structural systems used in post digital construction. Digital designs can thereby have the appearance of unconventional fluid form, while still utilising standard structural systems across the majority of the project. A common example of this in practice, are the works currently undertaken by Zaha Hadid Architects, that have built a brand on fluid formal expression, but are reliant on standardised Revit construction families for structural supports and environmental systems. Financially, this decision is rational, as it saves both time and money on researching, testing and fabricating structural and environmental systems that will not likely be noticed by inhabitants post construction.  However, this separation of formal and functional components in construction insidiously acts to constrain the role of ‘digital architecture’ to the production of fluid shells, rather than allowing for the parametric development of integrated, structural and environmental systems.

Architecture is now on the verge of a standardisation crisis. Standardisation, while a boon for encouraging the production of cheap, consistent building components, is now beginning to stifle architectural exploration and innovation. The role of digital design, in relation to construction  is currently questionable. In many ways, digital software has exacerbated the homogenising effects of standardised assemblies, through the development of ‘families’ as blocked design assemblies. Furthermore, while digital software does offer a greater capacity for architects to design formally and structurally customised components, the prohibitive costs associated with straying away from standardised construction, stunts investigation into these capabilities. If designers are content with this paradigm, architecture risks becoming platitudinous and banal, perpetually dictated by the constraints of standardised construction to produce only what is possible from a limited catalogue of parts. 

The Fabrication Revolution

The primary limiting factor in moving away from standardised assemblies is cost. Digital software can now expedite the design and iteration of custom construction components, however cannot interface with conventional machinery to fabricate them, and thereby require considerable amounts of  labour and expertise to produce. However, new types of industrial machinery are now becoming available to designers that can directly interface with digital software, enabling the direct transposition of digital models into fabricated components. Numerical control machinery like CNC mills and 3d printers are able to directly extract tool path instructions from a digital model in the form of G-Code, enabling custom subtractive and additive fabrication for digitally conceptualised components. Additionally, assembly tools like robotic manipulators are now starting to be applied to perform more complex transformative processes on construction materials, like incremental deformation and anticlastic metal folding. This new wave of automated machinery may ultimately herald in a new era of fabrication. One that can for the first time, rapidly and affordably produce customised, parametric construction elements.

However, just because these new automated technologies exist, does not necessarily ensure that they will be widely adopted in architecture. In order to achieve a fabrication revolution away from an absolute dependency on standardised components, architects will have to play an active role as agents of change.

Firstly, similar to Paxton and Prouve, architects will have to pioneer the use of new fabrication techniques in their design work, as a means to display their ability to create custom assemblies affordably and effectively. To many, the crystal palace was a demonstration of the capabilities of assembly line equipment’s ability to create prefabricated modular construction at a massive scale. A similarly ambitious project today, could be a mechanism for realising the contemporary capabilities of automated fabrication equipment.

Finally, architects will have to distance themselves from BIM software as a primary producer construction documentation. This, I consider to be the greater challenge to overcome. To many, a step away from the use of BIM software, represents a step backwards that moves away from the seamless coordination of engineers, designers and contractors made possible in programs like Revit. However, this collaborative design model is currently dependent on the continuous incorporation of standardised construction elements in almost all aspects of the resolved digital model. This is a fundamentally constraining aspect of BIM software that inhibits the exploration and incorporation of unorthodox construction components. Less information dependent modelling software like Rhino3D, does not impose constraints dependent on existing construction elements, but can still be used to develop and analyse design concepts structurally. Therefore, I would advocate a more holistic adoption of a variety of digital software in the production of resolved architectural concepts.

Ultimately, I acknowledge that changing the course of practice away from standardised construction elements is a somewhat futile endeavour. Standard components will always play an integral role in ensuring affordable architectural production and expedite complex construction processes. Similarly, BIM software such as Revit, greatly improves interdisciplinary design cohesion, especially in complex, systematised projects. My intent is thereby, not to ignore or reject the existing tool sets offered to architects, but to critically assess their necessity in built architectural production. Only by carefully assessing the relevance of standardised components in a design, can a clear argument for the advocation of new techniques and customised components be made.  In doing so, architects should be fearless in exploring new automated technologies and fabrication techniques, to create construction elements that better reflect their design proposals. Only then, can architecture escape its recurrent tendency towards self similar production, and progress toward a new period of post digital transilience.