3D Software to Boost Low-Cost Housing Options: Encoding Architecture with Larry Sass

Larry Sass is an architectural designer and researcher exploring digital design and fabrication across scales. Sass offers a compelling case for 3D modelling software as a challenge to current industry standards to democratize housing construction as a process.

3D Software to Boost Low-Cost Housing Options: Encoding Architecture with Larry Sass

Larry Sass is an architectural designer and researcher exploring digital design and fabrication across scales. As an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at MIT, Larry has taught courses specifically in digital fabrication and design computing since 2002. He earned his PhD ‘00 and SMArchS ’94 at MIT, and has a BArch from Pratt Institute in NYC. Larry has published widely, and has exhibited his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Larry’s research focused on digital delivery of housing for low income families. Main ideas are centered on discovery and development of new design tools that automated the production of design models and aid in fabrication of finished construction. His latest obsession is development of fabrication based software that helps designers and builders physical produce ideas from 3D computer models.

Question 1: What technology or technologies are the focus of your research, teaching, and action?

The focus of my research is figuring out how to use and convert 3D models into machined components. That's from 3D to 2D elements. My primary interest is in making houses, namely wooden houses and framing for concrete. My work is driven by a key fact: wooden houses remain the most frequent type of home construction across the United States and parts of North America, and they are often built by carpenters alongside contractors and builders. This is informed by my own history. My grandfather built his own houses. He had a 6th-grade education. And historically, I see the wooden house as an extension of the work of enslaved and formerly enslaved people in the United States, who fabricated all the buildings in the South. They did not know how to read or write. It doesn't take a college education to make a house or to write the practical code to support the generation of geometry, to make a shelter. My work aims to create the possibility to use computational architecture to think of housing as prototypes with broader applications and use cases for practitioners at all levels of the construction process.

My work and research consider one of two ways digital fabrication has impacted the field of architecture since the year 2000. The first way is when designers use digital fabrication as a muse or inspiration to generate form. We see this in the works of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, a kind of designer who generates single and double curves with computers. The second, I believe, is closer to my own approach and systems thinking most common at MIT. I use digital fabrication as a system of physical building production from sheet goods. If we think about the history of computation in architecture, the powder-based 3D printer, invented at MIT in 1983 by Emmanuel Sachs, serves as a current and common form of physical design production. Before that, CAD Software (Computer Automated Design) was developed in 1963 by PhD student Ivan Sutherland and was used to generate perfect line drawings. Its initial application, to serve as a graphical interface for the CNC machine (Computer Numerical Control), was also invented at the Parsons Lab at MIT in 1949. 3D printing, CAD, and the CNC are systems-based production. I do not think of them as products. As such, the way that I think about design and computation is systemic. I hope that designers use my systems to build for poor communities and disaster relief. I am less concerned with designers that decide to build luxury homes and mansions with the same systems. The aim is to solve challenges related to the production of wooden homes across scales. As a part of this work, I also write software with a faculty member from Singapore. The current version is used by novices to convert 3D models into modules ready for mass production with multiple 3D printers.  Lately, users of my software have printed life-size models of animated characters.

Q2: What are the ways in which these technologies are and could be used to advance the public interest?

There is a history of systems computing and what I term “back-end work” here at MIT that I’d like to underscore. Take, for example, Professor Tom Leighton in Applied Mathematics and CSAIL. Leighton founded Akamai and developed the initial technologies behind cloud computing. He was the first to figure out how to do consistent hashing, a method of moving data between servers. This led to the company Akamai and movies online. Top companies like CNN, Disney Channel, and YouTube were all launched after 2003 due to the work of Prof. Leighton. Nearly twenty years later, there are many faculty members at MIT working on AI, developing back-end deep learning, such as Chatbots and Machine learning systems. Therefore, when you think about back-end software for architecture, my work should be in the field of computer science and mechanical engineering. This is because my aim is to build a back-end system in support of front-end systems for design and physical production.

The next step in design computation is finding connections between actual designers, data science, and robotics. Data science can support knowledge construction for useful sustainable materials and construction systems. At the end of the day, we need to move from analog construction to digital construction.

Q3: What more could be done to ensure that these technologies are designed/used/regulated to better address the needs of those at the margins of society? Action?

We need free, open-accessible software that guides designers and builders in construction through building forming, and decomposition into elements. Computation can help us manufacture parts with ease in assembly and hand-guided assembly. We need software systems that generate designs similar to the chassis system offered by Wikihouse. We need software reasons through fundamental design decisions such as the location and structuring of doors and windows. The creation of accessible software democratizes access to professional carpenters and builders who, unfortunately, cannot keep up with the ever-growing demand in wood frame construction.