“What happens if, as an architect, you’re not only a draftsman, but also the designer of the tools that you design with?” Architect and PhD student, Ramon Weber, is exploring the ways that designers can build and adapt new technologies and then apply them at scale.
In his research at MIT’s Digital Structures Group and the Sustainable Design Lab, Ramon is investigating how digital stimulation tools, next-generation computational design and experimental fabrication methods can change the future of architecture. “We now have the power to shape computational tools and broaden the horizons of what is possible. That goes for fabrication as well, with new fabrication tools enabling us to create different kinds of shapes and geometries.”
A trained architect who has transitioned into the building science and research space, Ramon is questioning the process behind how we design and create architecture. “I’ve previously worked on projects that included elements like biomaterials and 3D printing of glass. Fabrication tools like this are typically either very experimental and artistic or founded in engineering and designed for making very small parts. My research is looking at how we scale up these technologies and what we have to change to make them work for architecture.”
This was explored most publicly in last year’s Material Ecology exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Ramon contributed to a range of works presented by Neri Oxman as part of the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group. “It was a very inter-disciplinary exhibition. The members of the lab included computer scientists, mechanical engineers, industrial designers, biologists and architects. It was a huge mix of people who are all very passionate about what they do in their respective fields.
I was involved in a 3D-printed glass project where the question was how we could scale this up for architecture. We looked at it from the design perspective of how we might print a glass building facade and also from a simulation perspective which explored the available tools to simulate how light goes through these complex geometries. And once you know that, you can start to think about how you would want it to go through. Ultimately, Neri’s vision was around designing light, itself.”
Growing up in the city of Zurich in Switzerland, Ramon spent his spare time 3D modelling and making short films with his brother. “My Grandfather and my Great-Grandfather were both architects and they had a little family office, but that was way before I was old enough to know anything about it. Architecture definitely wasn’t a lifelong dream of mine, but I was always into super nerdy 3D-modelling and my brother and I made these little movie shorts. He would act – he’s a very talented actor and went on to act professionally for a while – and I would film and edit and do the special effects. It was through that that I discovered 3D software. And for my end of high school project I did an animated short movie.”
Inspired by making movies but with a desire to do something more tangible, Ramon decided to study architecture at university, where he quickly discovered that architects and filmmakers use many of the same tools. “I did my undergraduate degree at ETH in Zurich, which is a very traditional architecture school. However, it was there that I discovered digital architectural design through my professor Phillippe Block, a structural engineer who revives long forgotten construction methods with novel computational tools and materials. I was into computational design and technology and working in Phillippe’s research group is what got me excited about digitally designed architecture and really started that journey for me.”
Ramon has since become particularly interested in generative design tools which can, for instance, simulate a 3D printing path, simulate form, or dimension a building part before it’s even built. “There are a lot of engineering and design tools now that give us additional freedom in design. This can be in formal explorations like during my time with Zaha Hadid Architects where we would model crazy geometries and computational methods on how you could unfold things; but also in research applications like my PhD where I’m exploring how we could use all these tools and new methods of form and language to make architecture more sustainable.”
Sustainability has become a key driver for Ramon in his recent work as he investigates the embodied energy of buildings: the energy – specifically carbon – which is contained within building materials like concrete slab, glass or steel. “This becomes especially important when we talk about climate change and ways that we can reduce the energy that our buildings use. If you imagine that New Zealand manages to achieve carbon net zero in terms of its operational energy, then the only energy your buildings will use is embodied energy. At that point, to make more sustainable buildings you must reduce that embodied energy. This can be done through the optimization of material life cycles, what their production requires and how they’re disassembled or repurposed at the end of that structure’s life.”
The piece that’s still missing in this process, he says, is scale. “It needs to be less about fabrication or artistry and more about how we can apply these methods more broadly. I want to make tools that can be used by a lot of people and have a real impact, rather than just the 1% of designers. The landscape at MIT is really interesting in this way because parts of the research group are really wired into politics. So there are a lot of important questions arising about how we can take computational design tools from a niche discipline to inform broader policy-making, for example.
With a few years of research left in his PhD, Ramon is keen to continue exploring emerging technologies. “I’m fascinated with newer and faster methods for simulation and collaboration, since they enable us to design in real-time. For instance, machine learning could enable simulations that would usually run for hours, if not days, to be computed instantly. Ultimately, the more I learn about these tools, the more I want to make them myself.”
To connect with Ramon, visit http://www.ramonweber.com/ and follow him on LinkedIn and Instagram.