Prototyping lab preps future architects for real world

The practice of architecture is moving into a new, increasingly digital dimension, and the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is moving with it.

“The relationship between architecture and construction is basically changing because of advances in digital technology coming from construction and manufacturing,” explained Gil Snyder, associate professor of architecture. “Those changes are now part of architectural practice and design.”

Much of that new technology is housed in the school’s Rapid Prototyping Lab, which allows students to reproduce exact copies of historic building details, fine tune ideas for wall-fastening systems and test them in three dimensions, or check out how varied design configurations for a building panel might minimize the impact of pollution on an exterior wall.

“We are part of the trend of going downstream, getting our students involved in how things work earlier in the design process,” Snyder said.

Step inside the Fab Lab

The equipment in the lab works in both “subtractive” and “additive” processes, he explained, either building 3-D models and architectural pieces or precisely cutting and trimming away extra material to bring an architectural design to life.

UWM alumnus Dan Wilhelms, who graduated in 1981, contributed $91,000 in fall 2015 to help the lab buy an advanced handheld laser scanning probe and comprehensive reverse engineering software. Wilhelms is vice president of ABOVE VIEW by Tiles Inc., a manufacturer of ornamental plaster ceiling tiles headquartered in Milwaukee.

The new scanning device he helped the school purchase can provide an accurate scan of an historic building’s design ornamentation without damaging or removing pieces.

Technology drives much of the new equipment. With the aid of computers, students can digitize complex forms and configurations and then either archive them or manipulate them virtually to develop their own versions of anything from a logo to a building.

Last summer at the school’s 20th annual architecture summer camp, high school students used a Batman-like logo to build a small ear-bud holder, as part of their introduction to fabrication processes in design. “You can take any .jpg image,” Snyder explained, “and if you put it into the software, you can make a laser copy of it.”

Advanced students, on the other hand, struggle with figuring out ways to attach façade panels to a wall. They can now build models of the fasteners, using a MakerBot 3D printer that creates prototypes from melting and extruding plastics. That way they can test exactly how the panel clips would work in practice. “In the past, the architect would make a small drawing that would approximate the connection,” Snyder said. “Now, you can make these kind of precision models that we couldn’t do 20 years ago, models that confirm ideas and allow students to innovate with confidence. These are the future leaders of our profession.”

Some of the fabrication lab tools are particularly helpful in historic preservation work, or in the design of buildings that incorporate historic elements.

“Students can go to a house and scan a panel so they can replace it and it’s completely accurate,” explained Matthew Jarosz, director of the university’s Historic Preservation Institute. “With these advanced tools, our students are capable of undertaking research that combines historic aesthetics with today’s demand for attention to ecology, performance and cost.”

Sometimes architects and students don’t want to replicate the past, but prefer to re-imagine it. Currently, the school is involved in the preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright bungalows on the south side of Milwaukee. “We now can do all kinds of designs using 3-D simulations,” Snyder said. “If we wanted to take a Frank Lloyd Wright house and put a big window in it, we could see what it would look like.”

New technology also makes it possible for architects and students to improve the energy efficiency and sustainability of buildings by testing “what if” ideas before they’re actually built. One idea Snyder and colleagues are exploring in the school’s Spancrete Studio is developing a building wall that is self-cleaning and pollution-resistant. The idea is to create a wall with multiple variations in its surface using cement with titanium dioxide particles. When pollution interacts with sunlight in the nooks and crannies on the surface, the titanium dioxide is capable of neutralizing most organic and some inorganic pollutants, which fall down as dust without harming the building. “We can keep embellishing the surface in different ways to see what happens,” Snyder explained.

Most of all, he added, new technologies can help UWM architecture students learn to work even more closely with clients and contractors to brainstorm and test ideas before construction begins.

“People can talk about the same thing, coming at it from different angles. The contractors are involved and you can show them better what’s in your mind, and find out whether we need to modify this or that. We’re all trying to build stuff that will actually work.”

Top Stories