• Document: A New Epoch Automated Design Tools for the Mass Customization of Housing Kent Larson, Mark A. Tapia, and José Pinto Duarte
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Unlike today, many of the best minds of early twentieth century A New Epoch architecture were focused on the integration of new forms, Automated Design Tools for the Mass Customization of Housing materials, and technologies into innovative approaches to housing. Kent Larson, Mark A. Tapia, and José Pinto Duarte Le Corbusier issued this call to action in 1923, “A new epoch has begun . . . We must create the mass-produced spirit. The spirit of living in mass-construction homes. The spirit of conceiving mass-produced homes.” In the 1940s, Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann developed a factory based, mass-production system to manufacture highly customizable homes – the Packaged House. Gropius wrote, “It is by the provision of interchangeable parts that (we) can meet the public’s desire for individuality and offer the client the pleasure of personal choice and initiative without jettisoning aesthetic unity.” The effort failed spectacularly. A factory was built to produce 10,000 houses per year, but less than 200 had been manufactured by the time the company closed its doors. They soon found that it was impossible to actually offer personal choice with their system. Customized solutions took far too much time to develop, and custom manufacturing was a logistical nightmare. The company eventually settled on a few standard models, which looked cheaper than conventional alternatives while being more expensive - not a strategy for success in the marketplace. Other post-war industrialized housing efforts met a similar fate. More than a half century later, we have new computational-based design and manufacturing tools that may finally “offer the client the pleasure of personal choice and initiative” to an industry that – except for the very few – offers essentially no choice home buyers. Digital technologies now make it possible to replace both inefficient labor-intensive site production as well as inflexible mass-production with agile mass-customization, enabling formal and technological possibilities that Gropius could never have imagined. Ironically, computation may also offer the potential to reclaim the lost values of fine craft and detail that was swept away with the adoption of earlier non-digital technologies. Automated design tools may also permit architects to finally play a significant role in the design of houses for more than just the adventurous wealthy. While some of these new tools are beginning to be used by Frank Gehry and others for high profile institutional buildings, their application to residential design is in its infancy.

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