Tolerance and customisation: A question of value

Apr 2, 2014
  • Article by Online Editor

Text: Michael Parsons

The idea of tolerance in architecture has become a popular point of discussion due to the recent mainstreaming of digital fabrication. The improvements in digital fabrication methods are allowing for two major advancements: firstly, the idea of reducing the tolerance required in construction to a minimum (and ultimately zero) and secondly, mass customisation as a physical reality. Digital fabrication has made the broad-brushstroke approach to fabrication tolerance obsolete and now allows for unique elements and tolerance specific to each element. The accuracy that digital fabrication affords the designer, allows for the creation of more complex forms with greater ease and control. So far, this has had great and far reaching implications for design.

The Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University, is currently installing its first robotic industrial arm, thereby joining the growing number of Australian architecture schools investing in advanced manufacturing processes. The continued mainstreaming of advanced digital fabrication processes such as, 3D printing, CNC milling, laser-cutting and robotic manufacturing in architecture schools, affords students the luxury of creating designs using these tools. Suddenly they have the freedom to explore digital design and manifest these digital designs physically, regardless of the complexity.

These processes have narrowed the gap between digital representation and the physical outcome. Now students can work in a digital world of infinitely thin lines and surfaces and are still able to manufacture physical products without much consideration for the modification of the digital model to account for physical constraints and tolerance.

The word ‘tolerance’ is commonly venerated as an ever-present guide to realise a design. It is seen as an acceptable level of difference between the represented ideal and the physical reality. The physical reality of a design is influenced by a vast variety of factors including, and possibly most importantly, the manufacturing process used, which accounts for the continual use of generalised tolerances. Although professionals may, on occasion, have access to digital fabrication tools, not all practitioners specifically design with digital fabrication in mind.


Students, unlike practitioners, are not restricted and as a result produce complex designs for a future we have not yet reached. Therefore, I think it is important to look at the implications that operating at zero required tolerance would have on the future of design. Complex, organic or algorithmic designs are undoubtedly evocative and captivating, but there may be a larger ethical consideration to be taken into account.

As fabrication technology tends towards requiring zero tolerance and develops more refined abilities to manufacture complex geometry, social tolerance for complex design will most likely increase. As is the case for many new technologies, the work of the early adopters stands out as avant-garde, but by the time late adopters are using the technology, the work it produces has become largely accepted and sometimes even the norm. Suddenly what was a unique work one year, is homogenous the next. With increased access to digital fabrication, comes a propensity to over-use or at least to use these methods without consideration.

Let’s look at a few examples. Firstly, in computation, the use of the Voronoi Diagram has become so commonplace that it no longer demonstrates any level of skill, quite the opposite in fact. The use of the Voronoi Diagram now requires a strong rational justification because its aesthetic appeal has become devalued by overuse. Another example can be the comparison between a simple 3D-printed cube and a twisted counterpart. Both cubes require the same number of print layers and similar print time; the only real difference is aesthetic.

A third example can be the use of a robotic arm to cut two lines, one dead straight and the other with non-uniform curves. A robotic arm does not know the difference between the cuts other than the fraction longer the curved line will take to cut. Once again, the only real difference is aesthetic. In the past, there was a difference in both skill of fabrication and aesthetic design; now there is simply an ever-decreasing skill in fabrication.

As the skill in achieving complex forms decreases, so does our societal value of complex formal outcomes. Maybe we need to revaluate our perception of difference, in other words our tolerance for complex design. We need to consider that what were two very different outcomes in the past are now only differentiated by one factor, aesthetics and not skill.

Is a blue cube really different to a red cube, if you do not privilege aesthetics? This is where the true issue of digital design and fabrication lies. What distinguishes one work of digital fabrication from the rest? What gives the work significance now that complexity is no longer intrinsically valuable? Students should not hide behind captivating forms and instead require stronger and stronger justification for their work.

As digital fabrication advances towards its goal of requiring zero tolerance, social tolerance will increase and so will society’s perception of homogeneity. Digital fabrication is devaluing itself through overuse and therefore it becomes the responsibility of the designer, and particularly design students, to reintroduce value into a design by synthesising multiple and complementary sources in a way that is unique and innovative. The challenge for students is not achieving technical or digital brilliance, but rather employing these mainstream tools to achieve architectural brilliance.

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02 Apr 14 at 3:01 PM • Donald Bates

“Another example can be the comparison between a simple 3D-printed cube and a twisted counterpart. Both cubes require the same number of print layers and similar print time; the only real difference is aesthetic.”
It is only an “aesthetic difference” if you only look at aesthetics. A “twisted cube” is not just formally, but also operationally, environmentally and organizationally different to an extruded cube. Assuming each plate or sets of plate form a floor plate or floor level, this would imply that the plan is also in rotation, and therefore views, orientations, solar exposure, contextual relationships are also changed from the pure repetition of a stacked cube. It doesn’t just look different – it operates differently – especially if you have ever tried to make the core and staircases of a twisted cube work properly.

“A third example can be the use of a robotic arm to cut two lines, one dead straight and the other with non-uniform curves. A robotic arm does not know the difference between the cuts other than the fraction longer the curved line will take to cut. Once again, the only real difference is aesthetic.”
Again, a non-uniform curved line may well be little different for the time it takes a robotic arm to draw or cut, but the consequential spatial, organizational difference to how such a surface, plan or material is used is not merely aesthetic in comparison with a straight line. To suggest otherwise is to treat all architectural actions as being merely aesthetic.

“In the past, there was a difference in both skill of fabrication and aesthetic design; now there is simply an ever-decreasing skill in fabrication.”
How is it possible to say “an ever-decreasing skill in fabrication”? If anything, digital and robotic technologies are increasing the “skill” of fabrication, if by “skill” we mean more and more precise and well-executed fabrication. Making more precise and well-resolved connections, joints, folds, intersections, surface textures, etc is hardly a lessening of skill in fabrication. And just because more and more people (students) can do so, does not lead to the conclusion that skill is decreasing. It is just more readily available to a larger pool of practitioners.

02 Apr 14 at 10:29 PM • tom rivard

Concentrating on the aesthetics of the output of digital design and fabrication has always been the weakest justification for its adoption, as evinced by the consistently most vacuous (though sometimes the flashiest) student projects in our Universities, closely followed by the equally desperate (and slightly sinuous) balcony designs on many recent speculative apartment buildings.

The Voronoi pattern noted is a very good example. And we ought to use the word “pattern” as opposed to “diagram,” because this is primarily how this relational ordering system has been used in architecture – as a superficial way to willfully shape irrelevant form when the demands on the architecture (or the architect’s own ability to parse relevant responses to programmatic, environmental or urban conditions) are unable to provide the generative means to do so. The Voronoi “diagram” is not overused (if anything, one might argue that the operative (as opposed to decorative) principles behind it have never been used at all). Its populist “pattern,” however, is thankfully dying a timely death, or at least disappearing from mainstream attention and the covers of design magazines, its application now reserved for the frontages of RSL bars and legions of (still) unaware speculative design projects.

Historically, valuing aesthetics over operation is ultimately a losing game, whatever the industry – witness the Edsel. Or Kim Kardashian’s butt.

08 Apr 14 at 1:37 PM • Warwick Mihaly

Michael, I agree with your sentiment that digital design tools are dangerous. Not just robotics, but modularisation, unitisation and BIM are already being exploited to do things like reduce construction costs at the expense of design quality. Despite BIM being regularly heralded as the saviour of the architecture profession, I suspect it will facilitate offshore documentation and further erode the Australian architect’s skill set. This is an observation that deserves greater discussion.

There is an opportunity nested in each of these technologies though that this article doesn’t address. Robotics can achieve differentiation at the same cost as uniformity. Modularisation can increase design quality while maintaining equal construction costs. BIM can permit more fluid dialogue between design, documentation and construction.

Virginia San Fratello at the AIA Conference last year made an interesting point. She argued that our collective design sensibility is strongly informed by construction. Repetitive elements in a building are valued in part because they are the most efficient to build. But 3D printing opens up the opposite: repetition is no more efficient than difference. Who knows, our entire design language might be unrecognisable 10 years from now. What we previously achieved with a table saw, power drills and set square might now be the role of factory-based 3D printing. Exciting days ahead…

16 Apr 14 at 10:37 AM • luke andrew flanagan

It appears that at the core of this discussion is a question about just where the value adding lies in architecture, and just what is the ever changing and shifting role of the ‘architect’ in this process? Does the shift towards digital fabrication as a primary method of design and fabrication [construction?] also connote a shift toward the role of the architect being more of an ‘architectural technologist’, or ‘building technologist’? if the ‘architect’ is simply a practitioner who inputs parameters and outputs ‘building designs’, then firstly the profession is in trouble [my opinion], but it also means that both teaching methodology and the overall pedagogy of architecture schools, and the profession need to take a look at themselves; are schools focused on creating ‘office ready’ graduates, or are they exploring the role of the architect in place making and city design? As was written in a recent article entitled ‘Is your architect a computer?’ Frank Gehry was quoted as saying at his own exhibition, “The computer has become an opportunistic gadget for most of the profession… The personal intervention, the brain that transforms it into art, is needed to get beyond the recognizable language of the computer program”. This reinforces the point that digital modelling and fabrication techniques are intended to be ‘thinking tools’, rather than programs which do the work for you.

if we step back from the ‘final product’ in this equation, and look at 3D modelling, rather than simply broad brushing digital fabrication as dangerous because it doesn’t teach students about ‘tolerances’ [regardless of the point that i would make which is that it should be the discipline leading the profession, and not the other way around], we can understand that the modelling component of this process engages far more with spatial thinking and exploring, rather than producing an outcome, and this, if we’re considering digital production techniques as a core component of ‘architecture’, and not ‘architectural technology’, is possibly where the value adding of the architect lies in this process, as Louis Kahn once said, “architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces”, and digital tools can enhance that. Whether or not this is adding value to the discipline or profession then comes down to firstly how its taught, and secondly how its used; is the computer a component in a process which enables thinking in a more spatial sense, or is it a machine which produces designs for you?

All of this is interesting, but it this still leaves a much larger question unanswered, if digital production and fabrication are the future of the construction industry, what then is the role of the architect? What is the difference between an architect and a building designer? What is the difference between an architect and an architectural technologist / façade designer / architectural engineer [all of whom are most likely more qualified to be using digital means of production than an architect], or any number of other professionals or practitioner who can learn to use digital tools? I have my own opinions on this matter but I’m going to leave it as an open question, what is the role of the architect is all of this, and where and how are they adding value?


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