Natural Parameters: digital material design

Supervisory team: Dr Michael H Ramage (Cambridge) and Ron Bakker (PLP/Architecture)

With an eye towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is currently underway, this project intends to research the shift of two paradigms that have been profoundly embedded in modern architecture. The first is the division between design intention and actual construction, declared for the first time in 1452 by Leon Battista Alberti through his treatise De Re Aedificatoria. This separation has persisted for more than half a millennium. Through the study of parametric design and digital fabrication, allowing a break from the use of standardized materials towards a more organic architecture in which pieces are designed specifically for each building and are fabricated on site, we seek to link design, computation, manufacturing and construction for a faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly architectural sector.

The second paradigm takes us into the separation between matter, form and structure, intrinsic in modern architecture, which has led to a generation of buildings driven by geometry in which form is prioritized over material. We intend to look at how nature makes use of material composition to develop extremely efficient forms in order to support the connection between matter, form and structure to develop light, efficient and sustainable buildings.

This research proposal examines the two most widely used natural materials: wood and clay, to understand, enhance and articulate their emerging behaviour in the digital era. Through comparison and understanding between materials and processes, we propose to research and design elements which will be cut digitally or fabricated through 3d printers and can be easily assembled on site. We intend to develop parametric designs taking into account material, form and structure for later fabrication and construction. Through this research, we aim to promote a more holistic architectural process in which design and construction have a greater connection. Clay and timber materials are very different in their composition, in their possibilities and limitations, but they have a great potential for a more economical, rapid and sustainable architecture in the future. Engineered timber construction is faster, better for the environment, and with the right research fundamentals, cheaper and higher in quality. Digital clay bricks can bring the abatement of cement mortar through appropriately designed dry joints. A novel brick could also reduce complexity and construction time. If the bricks are 3d printed on site, buildings will require fewer deliveries, improving the adjacent urban environment. Our expertise in architecture, engineering, high-rise timber, clay and composite manufacturing will be brought to bear on the challenge of supporting the use of digital clay and digital timber widely in design and construction.

This research project will contrast and investigate the possibilities that both digital timber and digital clay can bring to the confluence of creative digital design and fabrication for the transformation of architectural practice. Our research group already has world-leveraging expertise in the innovation of natural materials and structural forms. We seek to address the transformation of construction through merging our material, engineering, manufacturing expertise and structural knowledge with PLP's extensive experience on architecture, digital fabrication and parametric design.