The ETH Masters of Advanced Studies (MAS) Architecture + Digital Fabrication begins a new semester with a new challenge for its participants; to develop a full scale “Minimal Living Unit”. With 17 participants from 12 different countries, the MAS team are now transitioning from architectural generalists into advanced specialists in this multidisciplinary domain. Jay Chenault, an MAS participant, writes about the experiences of the first semester, learning about new technologies for design and robotic fabrication, and interacting with the experts and researchers from the NCCR Digital Fabrication. 

In the first semester of our MAS my colleagues and I have come to understand the importance of experimenting and making at the full 1:1 scale. Over the past three months we have been learning about digital design and robotic construction. The emphasis on full-scale prototyping has been a huge challenge, but it has also been invaluable for developing new digitally driven assembly processes, and in understanding the capabilities (and limitations!) of the available robots and technologies. By December 2015 we had fabricated three structural timber prototypes, which were subsequently load-tested (2 out of 3 were loaded to destruction!) and the results analysed. Our experiences with real materials, assembly methods, testing, and technologies, and our understanding of our tests, have provided us with insight that should allow us to investigate the balance between expressive craftsmanship, responsible engineering and innovative digital design methods.

…But our MAS programme is not only based in the lab. We also have regular interdisciplinary exchange with the other researchers and experts in the NCCR Digital Fabrication, and teaching modules from a variety of experts (both ETH and external) who provided us with rich intellectual exchange and critique. This past month we began a month-long structures course where we are receiving critical design feedback, desk critiques, and lectures from researchers and postdocs in the BLOCK Research Group (BRG). This teaching builds on the first semester where we had input from external experts such as Fabian Scheurer of designtoproduction and Prof. Guillaume Habert from the Chair for Sustainable Construction at ETH.

Looking forward into the rest of this semester, we will soon face the challenge of fabricating full-scale prototypes in order to prove the feasibility of our current design ideas. This work will include robotic tool development, designing architectural envelope fabrication processes, and testing the joining and assembly systems. The “design studio” method of organising our programme allows us to develop as a team and to bring our diversity of backgrounds and experiences into our projects, and with the NCCR research cluster next door the working environment for the space is supportive and loaded for knowledge sharing and innovation.

The construction of a minimal living unit by means of computational design and robotic fabrication is a design, engineering, and technical challenge, and one that will force us to develop new innovative solutions and a set of optimised the robotic processes to build it. To do this we are going to need to develop a smart design, some serious testing methods, and we (and our machines) will need to produce many, many, many prototypes. Although this will certainly be a lot of work, it is also exactly why we are here… and we are already looking forward to showing off our fully realised “Minimal Living Unit” in the summer of 2016.

Jay Chenault, 28.01.2016
Jay Chenault is an MAS Digital Fabrication participant and previously undertook his M.Arch at Kansas State University.
He has also contributed to the Oz Journal as editor, claims Antoni Gaudi as his most influential architect, and enjoys camping with family and friends.