Identifying Freeform Construction Applications

To generate applications of Freeform Construction technology that are grounded by industry, 17 practitioners and 6 academics, representing 13 organisations were canvassed for ideas during the course of a one day workshop. Engineers, architects, construction managers, academia, CAD software houses and construction innovations developers were represented. Two groups of 7-8 were selected such that each group was reasonably diverse in terms of the professions represented. In each of the groups, each person was asked to provide answers to the question:

‘If you could have a ‘freeform machine’ today what would you use it for?’

Table 1 rationalises the responses. The discussion fell into broad categories that reflected the elements of a building and construction. Six technology categories also emerged. Potential applications tended to fall into those that can be delivered through improving computing technology and those that require a physical process and/or materials. Of those, some applications reflected what can be achieved through Rapid Manufacturing and CAD/CAM technologies today. Examples of others reflected what is being achieved in high end architecture though digital fabrication. More far reaching applications tended to fall into three further categories: new specialist processes that provide a solution for use in a conventional construction environment; those that would be particularly suited to off site fabrication using new technologies; and those applications that are only conceivable when new technologies are applied to the construction of the whole structure.

The sense of the group who contributed to Table 1 was that Freeform approaches could help in the manufacture of complex forms and in component and systems integration. One major issue identified, was that of responsibility. Where integrated components have two or more functions, i. e. a wall with heating water transport and electrical distribution, then who takes the responsibility for the design? If digital design information is used directly by the ‘contractor’ via a digitally controlled process, who is responsible for the construction; the designer, the contractor or those who built the machine?

The study demonstrated that there is a desire to improve how construction is procured. Technology can play a significant role and it is likely that the viability of new processes will be driven by specialist application. Major issues for large scale Freeform Construction, however, will be in proving the viability of the technology, establishing design process, contract requirements and supply chains to enable it.