Assembly Required

21 Aug, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

As early as 1908, you could pick out a prefabricated home from a Sears Roebuck catalog, paying anywhere from $495 to $4,115 for an English cottage, a Tudor mansion or an Arts and Craft bungalow. Eventually, two boxcars arrived with your new home in thousands of pieces. You had to figure out how to assemble these precut panels, numbered boards, windows, doors, nails and knobs into the dream home pictured in the catalog (“Sears Homes: Mansions by Mail,” Alice Dahlgren’s AtHome Newsletter).

Cameron Crockett, a form.Z trainer, set designer and architect, envisions a new breed of prefabricated homes -- modular ones with pieces that fit like a jigsaw puzzle. About four or five close-to-finished modules -- for example, the master bedroom, the second bedroom, the kitchen, the living room and the carport -- are transported to the site for assembly. His modules, each measuring approximately 9’ X 40’, are designed with tapered corners so that they can conveniently fit in conventional trash-bin trucks and can be dumped without being damaged.

“I was approached by a manufacturing company in California,” Crockett says. “They’re interested in entering the prefab market. And this was developed as a prototype.” That explains some of the characteristics of his architecture, like the foolproof assembly methods and the small number of parts. By his own admission, he’s an architect inspired by manufacturing.

Organic Architecture

Crockett calls his prefab residence “an artificial pod,” like a seedpod that’s part of the existing landscape. Instead of shapes that stand in defiance of their surroundings, Crockett’s tubular structure huddles close to the ground like a caterpillar might.

Cameron Crockett imagines a prefab residence produced with manufacturing processes.

“The so-called clean architecture [meaning straight lines, plain surfaces and minimal articulation] doesn’t appeal to me,” Crockett says. “I’m interested in the messiness of shapes -- all things organic.” His tool of choice is form.Z from auto.des.sys, known for its 2D/3D manipulation tools and used by those with varying skill sets, from novices to professionals.

“form.Z’s strength is in [handling] complex architectural forms,” he observes. “If you’re doing a square shopping mall, you may be using only a small percentage of form.Z’s features. But for people who’re interested in architectural exploration, people who’re interested in the more sculptural and dynamic shapes, I believe form.Z will serve them well.”

He urges his students and peers to explore some of the more sophisticated features of form.Z, such as its NURBS (nonuniform rational b-splines) handling tools. “In earlier versions,” he recalls, “it’s stiff. You would create parameters, then out of those parameters, geometry emerges. But in the more current versions, it’s much more dynamic -- more ability to manipulate and edit objects after they’ve been created. Now, within architecture, we have manufacturing processes that can support these complex shapes.”

3D Craftsmanship

“We steal ideas from manufacturing, then make it our own,” Crockett jests. One such adopted idea, he points out, is RP (rapid prototyping). “form.Z is extremely adaptable to rapid prototyping because it’s a solid modeler that treats shapes as volumes [as opposed to surfaces], which makes it very conducive to RP methods like stereo lithography [building 3D objects by layering materials].”

With no in-house RP machine, Crockett usually sends his RP jobs to service bureaus for production. “The file format is rarely a problem,” he says, but also warns that you must have clean geometry to avoid RP headaches.

“Let’s say there are two high beams; one passes through the other,” he explains. “Clean geometry means that the two objects acknowledge each other. In form.Z, you’d use the Union tool to solidify the two into a single unit. If you leave one or two of them in, it might be all right, but if too many of those unresolved objects are there, the RP machine may run into problems.”

In his teaching, Crockett often emphasizes craftsmanship -- something people don’t often associate with 3D models. “It’s something that’s lost in the digital medium,” he laments. If all you want is a nice rendering for presentation, the invisible parts beneath a stack of 3D objects may not mean much, but if you plan to use the 3D models for manufacturing processes, like Crockett often does, then 3D craftsmanship is crucial.

Intoxicating Tubes

Crockett’s resume of set designs includes, among others, concert stages where Madonna, Shakira and The Back Street Boys have appeared. When beer-dispensing equipment maker Micro Matic commissioned him to create a fluid exhibit set, he made good use of the manufacturing processes he’s become familiar with.

The exhibit set for beer equipment maker Micro Matic emphasizes fluidity.

“All the aluminum membranes were created within form.Z,” he explains. “Then I sent them to a manufacturing company that has a 3D tube bender [Moss]; it bends tubes to my specifications without human intervention. They were then shipped back to Vegas [the exhibit site], where we put them together by their part numbers like a Tinker Toy set.”

Crockett’s plan is to introduce such manufacturing processes into construction projects. Full of enthusiasm, he exclaims, “This is where it gets exciting, because we’re no longer limited to what we can do with plans and elevations. We can facilitate construction processes out of 3D models.”

The Three Stages

Crockett observes when designers encounter a software tool, they invariably go through three different stages. In the first stage, the designers -- and their designs -- are victims of the tool; they’re constrained by the limited knowledge they have of the program, thus their designs are confined to rudimentary shapes. “It’s the tool controlling you; not the other way around,” he adds.

In the second stage, the designers become masters of the tool, having gained the confidence and the knowledge to command the software to do their bidding. The third stage -- the final stage of maturity -- is where “you let the tool take you to a new place,” he sums up.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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