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Parametric Brickwork

Iranian architecture firm Sstudiomm explores the potential that brick can offer by utilizing parametric architecture. Instead of relying on unique construction elements for assembly on-site at a later date, Hossein Naghavi and the team of Sstudiomm consider how a simple mass-produced element like the brick can be assembled in unique ways by taking advantage of digital technology.

As Francesca Hughes points out in her wonderfully written book-The Architecture of Error (MITpress2014)- using the same devices that are used to build submarines in the building industry would also import other characteristics of war-machines to our buildings. Yet after almost half a century architects mostly celebrate their successful seemingly silent dominations of millimetres of errors using the banned machines. It is seemingly silent as it comes with what Hughes calls a “False economy” which may normally fade in “flows of data” and the client’s appreciation of their new unique property.

This again reveals the inherent edginess of digital architecture and more generally a project’s approach toward technology or in other words – if not all but the bigger part of – its identity.

Negative Precision // An on-site technique for parametric brickwork

The proposed method is an on-site method which uses stencils to keep the bricks in position, and avoids too much rotation –domain of nine to 27 degrees, so more than half of a brick is always in the mortar- in order to keep the wall structurally simple. The stencils work independently of the model and as an autonomous product; one can have the stencils and start building a wall. Each pattern is made by a matrix of different rotation angles of each brick. The built prototype is in Damavand, Iran and 17 unique stencils are used to create the pattern. The technology budget is limited to the price of laser cutting -almost zero-. A normal bricklayer would be able to lay the bricks with some minor extra charges. Only one extra worker is needed to hold the stencils in the place initially and he is done and free until the last check after the vertical levelling etc. The stencils are used independent of the 3d model in the built prototype
to unbind the built wall from the model. The 3d model and the built prototype don’t match due to couple of on-site decisions like increasing the horizontal bonds and also some decisions –like the starting point, the exact corner detail, etc.- which had been left to be made on-site. Thus a pattern is turned to couple of stencils and one can build the wall without a 3d model.

The most literal perception of the negatively precise is a precise negative mold and a rather free filling matter. The negative is the most precise part, not the end product. The robotic method to make parametric walls has been explored by comprehensive researches by Zurich’s ETH, Harvard’s GSD, etc. around 2005. Their studies have been a leading inspiration source for the project. Two other projects influential in the inception of the idea are ShoP’s Mulberry Building and Archi Union’s parametric concrete-block wall. ShoP’s Façade is a great use of an ever growing 2d pattern similar to Toyo Ito’s 3d experiences.

Hopefully soon or someday not turning a single wall to a parametric one would look economically false.

The Archi Union on the other hand had interestingly used an on-site method of using individual molds to keep their blocks in position, almost zero surplus precision. As part of the design process, some of the characteristics of each were picked and some were criticized and avoided. The favoured included a dream of a nice everlasting parametric brick pattern made on-site. On the contrary, the project tries to avoid: the surplus precision of prefabrication method ShoP uses and cranes, the unconsidered labor Archi union has exposed to the workers by having them hold maybe a couple of thousands of individual molds in place, and the super precise prefabrications that define Kohler and Gramazio’s works and their weird mortars/glues.

Using of stencils in bricklaying may not be new; regardless the new technologies simply have opened the vastest untouched possibilities to the field. The method uses a simple application/grasshopper code to project any pattern modelled in Rhino on a parametric wall. Extracting each row’s outline creates a group of vertically aligned stencils. In the built prototype the stencils are cut by laser cutting aluminium sheets –to resist possible moisture -. A simple “x” cross pattern like ShoP’s Façade was chosen because the most dominant historic brick building of the neighbourhood in the city of Damavand is covered by various beautiful “x” patterns, and on the other hand their negative shape; diamonds, remain one of the most dominant geometric figures of traditional architecture and brickwork of Iran. The use of a horizontally symmetrical pattern enabled having the number of stencils cut to half, as the first and the last row are laid with the same stencil and the second with the one before last and so on. The stencils were vertically aligned simply by a group of vertical threads. They also got a fold in the back in order to not deform. And the wall got connected to the main concrete structure using roll bolts, etc. as a secondary façade.

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