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.
Digital Structures collaborates on post-disaster housing in Puerto Rico and beyond2017-12-14
This week, Caitlin Mueller and Courtney Stephen participated in the MIT Conference on the Resilient Reconstruction of the Caribbean, in collaboration with Professor Miho Mazereeuw and the Urban Risk Lab, and Professor Justin Steil of MIT DUSP. Mueller and Stephen are also working with MIT architecture students and alumni (Danniely Staback, Luisel Zayas, Jorge Silén) to lead the Techos Disaster Response workshop in January 2018, in which students will travel to Puerto Rico to work on post-disaster housing.
Leslie E. Robertson and SawTeen See deliver 6th annual Edward and Mary Allen Lecture in Structural Design2017-11-29, Tags: collaboration
MIT is thrilled to host structural engineers Leslie E. Robertson and SawTeen See of LERA to deliver the 6th Annual Edward and Mary Allen Lecture in Structural Design on November 30 at 6pm in room 10-250. The lecture series features leading structural engineers and designers from around the world who come to MIT to speak about creativity and collaboration in their work.
Caitlin Mueller moderates panel discussion at Chicago Architecture Biennial2017-11-28, Tags: collaboration art engineering
As part of SOM: Engineering x [Art + Architecture], an exhibition produced by Mana Contemporary Chicago in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Caitlin Mueller led a panel discussion focused on collaborations between artists and structural engineers. Panelists include renowned artists and SOM collaborators Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Janet Echelman, and SOM Structural Engineers William F. Baker, Alessandro Beghini, and Nicole Wang.
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
Computational Tools and Experimental Making in Timber Construction: In Conversation with Christopher Robeller
Of the many exciting innovations in digital fabrication permeating architecture research today, the work of Christopher Robeller stands out in the growing field of timber construction. Robeller completed his PhD in 2015 on the integral mechanical attachment of timber panels at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL)’s laboratory for timber construction, IBOIS. He spent the following two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the Swiss National Centre in Research (NCCR), applying his research to the construction of a fully functioning building: the Vidy Theatre. Recently appointed Junior Professor in Digital Timber Construction at TU Kaiserslautern, Robeller presented his process and experience working on the Vidy at the ACADIA 2017 conference at MIT in early November of this year.
Robeller also stopped by to chat with us about his work and his thoughts on wood, the built environment, and the importance of experimentation in making. The questions and responses below have been edited for clarity.
Digital Structures: How did you get to be interested in and involved with wood?
Christopher Robeller: My family has been working with timber for a couple of generations, but for more pragmatic things like making windows. My fascination from childhood was always that wood was a nice material to work with - it’s not too dirty, and it’s something you can craft. It’s even got a nice smell to it! It’s a material I’m very passionate about.
DS: Can you describe your training in architecture and/or engineering?
CR: I studied architecture at the London Metropolitan University. It was not a mixed course, but I was always very interested in engineering at the same time. I was very impressed by all of the creativity and ideas being generated in architecture school, but there was a point where I realized that in order to make it really work, you have to overcome a lot of engineering challenges, and only if you really manage that can you make really great architecture.
I have combined my interests in architecture and engineering in the last few years. I first worked with Achim Menges, through which I collaborated a bit with Jan Knippers’s laboratory, a team of mostly engineers. When I went to IBOIS at EPFL for my PhD, I found that I was one of the few architects - there were times when I was one of two architects on a ten-person team.
It would be a shame for a building to have a strong and interesting architectural concept but have details that don’t match the quality of the rest of the building. I found an opportunity through the PhD to focus on those more in-depth aspects of geometry, fabrication, and engineering.
DS: What are your thoughts on relationship between architecture and engineering?
CR: In my traditional experience in architecture, there is not much interaction. You expect the engineer to figure it out, and most projects rely on the state-of-the-art. Architects and engineers get to work much more closely together in more experimental projects in academia.
Computational tools offer a chance for architects and engineers to work together. These tools offer control over design, and that control is valuable in both fields. There is only so much you can do with a software that comes off the shelf that was developed for certain purpose; if you want to use the software for a different purpose, you have to modify the software to make it do what you want it to do. Architects and engineers are starting to take advantage of this.
This area is where the two fields reach a bit of a common language. I am seeing computer scientists, civil engineers, and architects work on similar collaborative models. You might find a very interesting solution for your architectural or engineering problem in some algorithm that has just been developed by some computer scientists. Then you can get together and plug in together if you’re working on a common ground such as a common programming language.
DS: What are your thoughts on the relationship between academia and practice?
CR: They can be worlds apart, especially in timber construction. The community of timber construction is highly skilled but can sometimes be rather conservative. On the other hand, there is the creative and artistic community of architects who design amazing things with timber. It’s really interesting how you have to find a balance between these two groups because they can be very far from each other.
Given the complexity of wood, you have to bring the two groups together. You have to talk to the companies in the construction industry that specialize in timber. In design and engineering, we are usually generalists working with many materials, whereas these companies have long ago specialized in one material and have gained a lot of knowledge over the decades. That’s something that should be respected. If you get in touch with them - which you only do through these experimental projects - you learn a lot from them.
There is a lot of discussion right now over the social component of digitalization. There is a danger of neglecting people who are not in the loop. Once again, computational tools allow you to integrate people in industry into the design process. I think we’ve done that with the Vidy Theatre: we went to companies, talked to the experts there, and included them in the process. I specifically developed a program that the fabricator there could use. We didn’t use software that eliminate the engineer and the fabricator from the design and manufacturing process. It’s something we should think about: how these digital workflows can incorporate specialists.
DS: Do you hope to continue bridging these fields - architecture and engineering, and research and practice - through your new professorship?
CR: I am definitely trying to bring the four worlds together. People in practice already know how to do things; they’re absolute professionals in the state-of-the-art. In teaching, the beauty is in not having that expertise yet. This lets you think about things in a completely different way, in a free and open way, and you might come up with interesting and intuitive solutions.
For example, I was making the first prototype for a timber plate shell construction project in the workshop by myself, with my hands. I was assembling the prototype on its side because intuitively it made sense to allow the weight of the elements to help with insertion. But in building design, it was being designed right-side-up as usual, and that was what was causing all the problems when we tried to put together a larger prototype. It wasn’t until we finally thought back to the first prototype that I built sideways that we realized what the problem was. I might not have had that experience if I hadn’t made that prototype myself.
Timber plate shell prototype assembled on its side. Image courtesy of Christopher Robeller.
Great architects and engineers are people who quite often have been working physically themselves making things, making prototypes and models. This very rarely happens in actual architecture-engineering design processes - it’s only in academia that a designer of a building actually goes and makes not only a representational model but a functional model of some joint or assembly - himself.
Robeller (left) chats with DS students Courtney Stephen (middle) and Paul Mayencourt (right).
DS: What is something that excites you the most about future possibilities in wood?
CR: We can do amazing things with timber in fabrication, and I think that’s the biggest development in the last ten, twenty years. If you had shown me our work on the Vidy Theatre ten years ago, I would have thought it was magic. Now having done all of it, it doesn’t really seem like magic anymore.
We have come a far way, and it’s much easier to do these things now. While geometry processing and fabrication have become more manageable, the building implementations allow us to focus on new challenges such as integrated concepts for structural engineering and building physics.
One reason I went to IBOIS is because of their machinery (5-axis CNC machine). If you want to experiment with the making of today, you need the technology to be accessible; you don’t have that everywhere. In educational institutions, it’s very important to not only have the technology but to have it accessible to the greater community.
It’s funny, I talked to companies like Blumer Lehmann - they had their first 5-axis machine in 1985. That’s how long they’ve had it! Mechanically, not much has changed. You probably could have done the Vidy Theatre back then. The computer was surely capable enough. The limitation was accessibility: you didn’t have the CNC machinery in universities, at least in architecture and engineering. CNC technology may have been developed at MIT, but it took a long time for it to come into architecture and building in a way that’s accessible to the architecture research community.
Construction of Vidy Theatre. Image courtesy of Christopher Robeller.
Another exciting challenge I see is that not only do we have something very beautiful, but we also have something that can make a positive impact in terms of the ecological construction that we need so much. It’s like having your cake and eating it too! We have something beautiful, something interesting, we can address the challenges of digitalization by making jobs more pleasant and more interesting and less hard manual work, and at the same time we can maybe make it more ecologic. But that’s really a maybe; I’m very self-critical about my work so far, and it has not been something focusing on sustainability - yet. But this is clearly something I see as a realistic possibility and something I want to look more into.
DS: Do you have any advice for young researchers and architects who are interested in exploring and applying timber innovations?
CR: Be passionate and be creative. When you first begin as a student, you’re very free from any state-of-the-art that tells you how things are supposed to work. You have to use the moment. Eventually, of course, you have to learn all of the things, but every stage of the journey is an interesting step.
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.
The Philharmonie (left) and interior of the Hamburg Grossmarkt (right)
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.
Sony Center roof (left) and glass dome of the Reichstag building (right)
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!