Manufacturing Architecture: Dana K. Gulling on the CRM Revolution

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How do the processes that shape our building-products shape our buildings? That is the question at the heart of Dana K. Gulling’s work as an architect, author and associate professor at North Carolina State University.

Her latest book, Manufacturing Architecture, is the first architectural reference guide to customized repetitive manufacturing (CRM). Examining the diverse processes that utilize molds and jigs for the mass production of custom building components — from slumping glass and extruding plastic, to casting metal and pressing clay — Gulling demonstrates how architects can collaborate with product manufacturers to develop innovative, project-specific solutions while lowering costs and reducing production waste. Architizer sat down with the author to learn more.

customized repetitive manufacturing

The Center for Asian Art at the Ringling Museum of Art by Machado Silvetti is clad in 2,800 press molded terracotta tiles; photo by Anton Grassl/Esto.

How did you first become interested in customized repetitive manufacturing?

“I have a Bachelor of Architecture from Notre Dame and a master’s from Yale. I had made things during my undergraduate time but it was at the Yale shop facilities, where you had a lot of freedom to use the equipment as needed, that I started realizing that the ways things are made can tell you a lot about how they are designed. From there I’ve just been very interested in making … I began gathering a series of case studies looking at different manufacturing processes, and then visiting manufacturers to understand and photograph these processes. I’m at a point now where I have about 200 that involve customized repetitive manufacturing.”

customized repetitive manufacturing

The Walbrook Office Building by Foster + Partners is wrapped in bladder molded fiberglass louvers; photo by Nigel Young.

How does customized repetitive manufacturing compare to CNC-based manufacturing?

“It’s an interesting counterpoint to CNC technology. I think we’ve grown beyond the initial fascination with the tool, where CNC technology can do all these great things but it takes time, and it can waste material and cost a lot of money. And so, is there something that makes use of that technology and its ability to customize but also takes the economics of repetitive manufacturing into mind? That’s where this idea of CRM comes from, using CNC technology to make a mold that is then used to repeatedly manufacture an item.

In the Walbrook Building, for example, which is one of the case studies in the book [concerning molded fiberglass], Foster and Partners had looked at CNC milling the exterior louvers out of aluminum but it was not cost effective and would have taken too long, especially since the project was developer-driven. In that sense, they needed to look at something that made use of a mold, that could be made more economically but still had the same looks and benefits in terms of design, balanced on the realities of how much time it can take to mill anything.”

customized repetitive manufacturing

The North Carolina Museum of Art by Thomas Phifer and Partners uses fiber-reinforced plastic ceilings to direct light into its galleries; photo by Scott Frances.

What advice would you give to architects looking to incorporate customized repetitive manufacturing in their projects for the first time?

“First, familiarize yourself with different manufacturing processes. As architects, we understand things about materials but need to understand more about how they are shaped. For example, with a material like fiber-reinforced plastic, understanding that it can be shaped through contact molding, which is what was used [for the ceiling coffers] in the North Carolina Museum of Art, or through pultruding, which is like extruding but involves pulling rather than pushing. With the same material, you get totally different looks out of these processes.

The other thing is, once you have an idea of a material’s look and how it can be shaped, work directly with the manufacturer to figure out ways of making it economically. I think architects are very good, especially nowadays, at listening to contractors and understanding that we’re trying to bring everyone to the table early and often. We need to also be doing that with the components we use in our buildings, so talk to somebody that extrudes plastic and find out what their capabilities are.”

customized repetitive manufacturing

EcoARK by Miniwiz is clad in recycled blocks, molded from 1.5 million plastic bottles; photo via Miniwiz.

Is the use of customized repetitive manufacturing limited to individual projects?

“Sometimes, we’ll see products that are custom-made for a particular building and once the mold is made they will become mass market. A case study that did that is EcoARK by Miniwiz. They used a blow-molded recycled plastic to make what they call Polli-Bricks, which look like interlocking, hexagon-shaped plastic jugs. Those were specifically designed for that building but now you can buy Polli-Bricks through their website. They come in a series of colors and sizes, with different options of LED lighting. So, there are ways that architects can start monetizing these works and carry them forward.”

customized repetitive manufacturing

The Yale Health Service Building by Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam Architects is faced in alternating courses of flat and bull-nosed bricks; photo by Timothy Hursley.

What is the typical production run for a component made through customized repetitive manufacturing?

“The production runs can really vary from project to project. Sometimes a project will have a production run of two, some will have a production run of hundreds of thousands. One of the largest case studies in the book is the Yale University Health Services Building by Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam. It incorporates certainly over 300,000 [extruded mud] bricks.”

customized repetitive manufacturing

Hesiodo by Hierve-Diseñeria features a façade of 7,723 hand-blown glass spheres; photos by Alejandro Villareal.

What were your favorite case studies to research?

“I would say that the definition I have of repetitive manufacturing is that things are repeatedly made but they don’t have to be made by a machine. With the Hesiodo apartment building in Mexico City, for example, there are 7,723 hand-blown glass spheres hung up on the façade. They were made by a craftsman in Guadalajara using a hand-carved wooden mold … And so, you get consistency in terms of the exterior of each piece, which is fairly dimensionally accurate, but you also get these handmade qualities of varying thicknesses and air bubbles.

This idea of marrying repetitive manufacturing with a craft, to me, is where the projects got really interesting. What seemed like a contradiction ended up working hand in hand. That’s the nice thing about my book; you will see some case studies where a whole bunch of components are stamped on a machine press, and some that have this really hands-on, craft-like making to them that is just so beautiful.”

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