We are Digital Structures, a research group at MIT working at the interface of architecture, structural engineering, and computation. We focus on the synthetic integration of creative and technical goals in the design and fabrication of buildings, bridges, and other large-scale structures. We are particularly interested in how digital techniques and tools can play an unexpected, collaborative role in these processes. Led by Professor Caitlin Mueller, the group is based in MIT’s Building Technology Program in the Department of Architecture, and also includes contributors from Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Center for Computational Engineering.
Caitlin Mueller to join panel for C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium2017-11-14, Tags: embodied-carbon energy
As part of the 2017 C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium, Caitlin Mueller will join a panel discussion focused on enabling technologies for a clean energy future on Wednesday, November 15.
Caitlin Mueller and Nathan Brown at ACADIA 2017 at MIT2017-11-03, Tags: computation
MIT is hosting the 2017 ACADIA conference with participation from Digital Structures members. Caitlin Mueller is the Papers Co-Chair for the conference, and Nathan Brown is presenting a paper on data-driven computational design. The conference has attracted a record number of participants, including several Digital Structures alums.
Paul Mayencourt presents at Wood at Work Montreal2017-10-27, Tags: computation fabrication digital-manufacturing embodied-carbon structural-optimization timber
Paul Mayencourt presented research on opportunities for using structural optimization and digital fabrication to shape wood structural beams and building components at the third annual Wood at Work conference in Montreal.
Designing with data: moving beyond the design space catalogNathan Brown and Caitlin Mueller, ACADIA, 2017
Design space catalogs, which present a collection of different options for selection by human designers, have become commonplace in architecture. Increasingly, these catalogs are rapidly generated using parametric models and informed by simulations that describe energy usage, structural efficiency, daylight availability, views, acoustic properties, and other aspects of building performance. However, by conceiving of computational methods as a means for fostering interactive, collaborative, guided, expert-dependent design processes, many opportunities remain to improve upon the originally static archetype of the design space catalog. This paper presents developments in the areas of interaction, automation, simplification, and visualization that seek to improve on the current catalog model, while also describing a vision for effective computer-aided, performance-based design processes in the future.
Digital brainstorming: New computational tools for creative data-driven designCaitlin Mueller, Nathan Brown, and Renaud Danhaive, ABX 2015: Conference for the Boston Society of Architects, 2015
This session focuses on tools that link conceptual design decisions in architecture to quantitative and qualitiative performance metrics, such as structural material volume, energy consumption, daylighting quality, and formal and spatial qualities. Developed by the Digital Structures research group at MIT, these tools emphasize design over analysis, aiming to help designers explore a wide range of diverse, surprising, and high-performing alternatives for conceptual design problems. Participants will learn strategies for using the tools in their own practices to navigate conceptual building design problems in a flexible yet data-driven way.
Structural grid shell design with Islamic pattern topologiesResearch, 2015 - 2017
Hängemattenbrücke (Hammock Bridge)Design, 2017
Structural lattice additive manufacturingResearch, 2015 - Present
Forces Frozen: Exploring Structural Ice ShellsWorkshop, 2014 - Present
Recent Blog Posts
Interdisciplinary Innovation: A Closer Look at Shaping Ultra-Thin Glass with Sophie Pennetier
Structural engineer Sophie Pennetier has worked on a wide range of specialty structures ranging from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the Mexico City Airport in firms such as RFR, Guy Nordenson and Associates, SHoP Construction, and Arup. Beyond this accomplished track record in structural engineering, all within ten years of graduating from university, Pennetier has already begun to challenge the boundaries of the role of the engineer.
A recipient of the Jerry Raphael fellowship from the Metropolitan Contemporary Glass Group and Urban Glass Brooklyn in 2016, Pennetier was awarded the opportunity to explore the possibilities in cold bent ultra-thin glass and to apply the knowledge as her own “designer, engineer, and maker” of a small glass sculpture. The process was additionally supported by Corning Inc, Coresix Inc, and Arup. Pennetier stopped by MIT in early October to give us a presentation on “Shaping Ultra-Thin Glass.” She shared with us the process of developing of her project, including steps such as testing, design, analysis, and fabrication. She also (bravely) entrusted us with handling a few samples of the glass to feel its flexibility. We sat down with her afterwards to chat about her experiences, her career, and her thoughts.
Pennetier presents her work in ultra-thin glass to master's of architecture students in Prof. Caitlin Mueller's Building Structural Systems II class.
While Pennetier’s sculpture project has greatly benefited from her background as a structural engineer, the work undoubtedly sits on the cusp of art and engineering. She cites Irish structural engineer Peter Rice as an inspiration. “One project I find particularly poetic is the Théâtre de la pleine Lune, the Full Moon Theatre (Saint-Andre-de-Bueges, France, 1992), which is a stage lit by moonlight. Mirrors are oriented such that it captures moonlight and reflects it onto the stage. It’s very inspiring that Rice worked on that project as an engineer. I think it’s essential to be at the border of art and engineering so that we can keep making buildings that inspire us, rather than just containers.”
As elegant as her sculpture is, the project also represents an innovative step. “Ultra-thin glass is particularly lightweight, clear, and scratch-resistant. Corning invented this material decades ago and yet at the time there was no application for it. In parallel, at least two markets are interested in the material: the automotive industry and the electronics industry. The automotive industry is looking to make lighter cars that are still robust enough for security, while the electronics industry is interested in making lighter, clearer, scratch-resistant electronics with the glass.” Pennetier explains that as a company, Corning maintains a hopeful eye on steering the material into the automotive market, which will likely have a quicker and larger return investment than the field of architecture. In contrast, buildings using this material may remain few and far between for now.
Does Pennetier mind that the built environment may not be the primary application for her research? A believer in interdisciplinary innovation, Pennetier points out that Peter Rice’s development of structural glass was informed by aeronautics knowledge. “The demands between cars and buildings may be different, but if anyone pushes the technology, it is beneficial for any industry. No one is really reinventing the wheel.” She adds, “My vision is to design a building envelope with ultra-thin glass, so I’m happy to resolve the material challenges on any path in this direction.”
Pennetier’s ideas on innovation are not purely motivated by the advancement of science. Having practiced in both Europe and the US, Pennetier observes that “innovation comes with breaking the rules.” She noticed that structural innovation was made more possible in the US, where the engineer-of-record was able to take more risks per professional liability, in contrast to the heavy approval process required in Europe to engineer beyond the code. However, she firmly believes that the greater freedoms possible in the US should be tempered by the engineer’s social responsibility. “For example, if I am designing a glass balustrade, I have the responsibility of making a redundant system to protect the lives of people. In the US code today - which will change soon - you can still use non-laminated tempered glass, a very resistant security glass. However, if the glass has no interlayer, it doesn’t prevent you from falling when it’s broken, which can be very dangerous. So I will not design freely just because the code lets me; ethics are an important driver as an engineer and designer.”
Pennetier maintains this social awareness for her future work in ultra-thin glass. “We have glass everywhere, and it is getting thinner in all industries. Ultra-thin glass may take a lot of energy to fabricate, but it is recyclable and lighter than regular glass, coming in spools that make it easier to transport during the manufacturing process. There is potential to use this material to make processes greener. What’s next for me is ensuring there is a viable social context for this material. My sculpture succeeds as a mechanical prototype, but we still need to make sure it has a meaning for our buildings.
What advice would she give to engineering students looking to create art? “Maintain a project-oriented mindset,” she says. She cites her experience as a project manager in practice as crucial to the management of this independent project. These skills include risk management and time management. Her experience as a PM also enabled her to effectively engage with her collaborators; her work was additionally supported by Corning Inc. and Coresix Inc. “At one point my collaborators nearly dropped the project because it was too expensive. I made many phone calls and was eventually able to negotiate a compromise.”
On a more personal level, Pennetier encourages engineering students to “recognize the fun. Find what makes you feel alive; that kind of motivation will take you far. Engineers rarely take the artistic path, so don’t be afraid to let your crazy idea bloom.”
Digital Structures attends IASS 2017 in Hamburg
Members of the Digital Structures research group recently participated in the 2017 Symposium of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures in Hamburg, Germany. This conference brought together researchers from all over the world interested in topics such as digital design technology, shell and membrane structures, deployable structures, and conceptual structural design.
From MIT, Nathan Brown first presented his research on how to use data analysis techniques to automate and simplify early-stage, performance-based design spaces. Next, in a session about inflatable structures, Prof. Caitlin Mueller gave a talk about her research with Valentina Sumini into formfinding for deep space habitats, which could eventually be used to house communities on the Moon or Mars. Finally, after patiently waiting until the last day of the conference, Paul Mayencourt presented his recent work on shape optimization of timber beams, which has the potential to reduce weight and environmental impact in what is perhaps the most commonly used structural member (although columns may have a thing or two to say about that).
The conference also gave Digital Structure members the opportunity to visit historic and contemporary structures in both Hamburg and Berlin. Highlights in Hamburg included the Philharmonie, a glass roof for the central bus station, and a tour of the Hamburg Grossmarkt, a historical concrete roof from 1962, which was organized by the conference. These tours, which often involved a crowd of people exiting a seemingly non-descript, 50-year-old concrete subway station, and then turning around and dodging traffic while trying to get a good picture, must have been curious sight to the locals.
Berlin also contains many interesting buildings and structures to visit, such as the Sony Center roof, the House of World Cultures, the renovated Olympic Stadium, and the dome on top of the Reichstag building. It also offered the opportunity to visit in person the East Side Gallery, which was the site of a recent Digital Structures bridge design competition submission. As a result of an utter lack of planning, climbing the Reichstag dome was only possible due to a fortuitous, last minute visitation slot opening up at the perfect time. German security must have sensed two young, bright-eyed structural designers who would jump on the opportunity.
Digital Structures members also spent much of the symposium gaining inspiration for how to best organize IASS 2018, which will be held in Boston next July. We are looking forward to hosting next year’s symposium at MIT, and welcome all who are interested in these topics to submit papers and consider participating in the workshops, talks, and other events that will take place next year!