Thinking as Doing: An Investigation into Design Methodology, Fabrication Techniques and the Experiential

Luis Eduardo Boza, Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Click here to be directed to the gallery for the “Thinking As Doing” project described in the following paper.



Based on digital and technological advancements and the introduction of new design and fabrication tools to architecture, a new way of design thinking has emerged resulting in new ways to express ideas and create and fabricate meaningful designed objects and environments. These developments can be seen as a catalyst to stimulate a designer’s mind, facilitating conception, representation, reflection and production. As a result, digital fabrication technologies are narrowing the gap between representation and building, between digital design and making.  Designers now have the ability to move seamlessly between the two processes, allowing one to inform the other, which in turn changes the way we think about making. But how do these design methodologies and fabrication techniques inform the experiential? 


Digital Design-Build

“As educators and students, we should get back to what originally inspired us to become architects ourselves… Ultimately, it is the intimate connection to the process of making.”[1]

– Christiano Ceccato (Gehry & Partners), 2004

Although many architecture schools across the country are recognizing the need for students to participate in a hands-on engagement with the act of making in order to gain valuable insight about traditional construction practices, few are examining the ways in which technological innovations have impacted the act of making through the design-build model.  Digital design build makes use of digital design and fabrication as a way of providing students with the critical skills necessary to guide the future integration and development of these tools into the profession with the goal of bringing the architect ever closer to the act of making.[2] Although the name simply suggests the addition of a new tool to the traditional model, the differences between the traditional design-build model and the digital design-build model are greater than expected. 

In the traditional design-build model, the intent is to introduce the student to the world of construction as a means of viewing design and construction as a continuous, unified building process.  The advantages of this model are many, with the greatest being that the designer physically engaging him or herself with the natural environment experiencing the wind, light, topography and views.[3]  However, more often then not, the traditional design-build model separates itself into two distinct parts which occur in sequential order.  First, the design phase occurs, and only when the design phase is complete, can the build phase begin.  Although the experience of both phases is extremely valuable to a student, the traditional model does not work in the reverse order, allowing the “build” phase to inform the design.  The experience that is gained by a student is left to be integrated into future projects, but not the one at hand. 

This inevitable threshold in the so-called “continuum” of the building process is further evidence of recent critiques of the architectural profession and its marginalization of roles in the overall process. In architectural practice today, the construction document defines the limits of the architect’s role in the process. Despite the architect’s obligation to oversee the construction through completion, rarely does the supervisory experience in the making of the building find its way back into the design drawings. The drive for maximum efficiency in today’s process does not allow for it.

The digital design-build studio differentiates itself from the traditional model in that the ability to operate virtually presents a numbers of added benefits. The first advantage is the ability to visualize and represent the design proposal from any viewpoint or scale almost instantaneously. This benefit is strengthened when the designer begins to integrate data (view, topography, sun paths, wind directions, circulation patterns, etc.) derived from existing site conditions.  Secondly, the integration of computer aided representation through virtual parametric modeling provides students with a direct and seamless connection between themselves and the finished product. Parametric modelers are dimensionally driven and feature-based, containing a historical/hierarchical tree that records the design process.  Proposals are analyzed based on structure, motion and material. These tools not only allow students to virtually occupy the proposal, but in fact they require the student to virtually construct the proposal with the end goal being the creation of a physical artifact, not a representation of one. Probably the most important advantage can be found when we consider that the design-build model requires the full scale construction of a design. Therefore, in the digital design-build model, a method for extracting the design from the virtual environment into the physical, real world environment must exist.  Only then can the designer experience it fully, with all their senses, with the intent that what is learned from the physical object will be filtered back into the design process.

This critical stage in the digital design-build model is made possible with the integration of computer numeric controlled (CNC) fabrication machinery into the design process. Once fully resolved, these three dimensional constructs can be exported to various CNC equipments for the production of prototypes and scaled mock-ups through a “file-to-factory process”[4] to physically test/visualize a design proposal.  The import/export phase of this design process becomes cyclical, continuously entering and exiting the virtual and physical worlds to be studied by the designers with the tools available to them.  Once the design intent is achieved, fabrication leads only to the assembly of component parts since the actual construction process has already occurred, albeit virtually.

Studio Process

The pedagogical intent of the fourth-year digital design-build studio at The Catholic University of America was to examine how, through the use of digital fabrication technologies and given the framework of a digital design-build studio, students could begin to address the “essence of architecture” during the design process, rather than during the “build” process. In addition, with the knowledge of what these digital tools were capable of, students were to engage in all aspects of the installation, understanding their proposals not only in a “physical” capacity but in a “metaphysical” one as well.

These issues were explored in a semester long studio that consisted of twelve fourth-year architecture students. Given the fact that the studio intended to design and fabricate one full-scale installation, it was necessary to work in groups, fostering a collaborative work environment.  The notion of “teamwork” was not only a necessity, it also mimicked real world conditions in which designers, consultants and clients contribute to the overall discussion and design process. The studio was organized similar to a typical design firm where team leaders, whose strengths varied from conceptualization and visualization to construction and fabrication to budgeting and scheduling, managed those who generated proposals and worked on production.

The site chosen for the project is the main corridor in the School of Architecture and Planning (Fig.1). Students began the semester with site analysis, where groups focused on various conditions present ranging from circulation and use patterns to the movement of light and shadow.  Each group also documented sensory conditions of the site, noting the perception of sound, the speed of movement and the sectional relationships of the given site.  The students eventually chose to focus on the unique pattern of “wear” left from years of use on the existing wooden floor (Fig. 2). Made evident through these ghostly patterns was the life of the school: years of movement between studios, classrooms, labs, and exhibition spaces.  The hierarchy of spaces visible in the patterns subtly suggested more intimate occurrences and accounts between the major and minor spaces.  Arguably the most important surface of the building, the floor provided the departure point for the installation that would occur directly above it.

The project quickly developed into an installation that mediates the conditions present both above and below itself to create a third condition previously nonexistent. Derived from the “wear pattern” on the floor, the initial topological surface deforms in height relative to the blurred representation of the worn floor areas (Fig. 3) These deformations were also examined relative to the path of the sun, since the installation was intended to perform as a device that would reflect, refract and filter light onto the existing surface of the floor. Not only would the floor mark a more historical passing of time through the worn surface, but it would also become a surface that revealed a more present temporal condition of the movement of light and shadow.

The design development phase began with the construction of a three dimensional virtual model. The student groups shared the model over a network and used it to examine specific characteristics of the installation ranging from detailed connections to material studies and the resulting perceptual effects.  It was stressed that during this phase, information was gained from both virtual and physical representations.  Working collaboratively with J.P. Müller, a metal fabricator with OEC Engineering Corp. in Chantilly, VA, the students presented the design and development of the installation through virtual representations, including renderings and videos, and physical mock-ups, including hanging assembly, structural connections and materials.  It was quickly evident that the use of CNC equipment allowed students to not only visualize their proposals, but also to experience them through full scale mock-ups of design studies.   

Design development led to a structural understanding of the installation.  The decision was made that a grid-like framework would serve as the primary structure.  The virtual model was deconstructed using parametric modeling software to extract sectional members that acted as girders, beams and joists (Fig. 8) Eight individual panels would make up the length of the structure. Interlocking notches and bolt holes were parametrically modeled allowing for a linked relationship to all members in the installation. Understanding that each point of suspension varied from the next, a universal hanging system was developed, coined the “swivel sleeve,” that provided a similar resolution to each unique condition.  Infill panels of clear acrylic fins were designed and extensively tested for the potential of light reflection and refraction. Three hundred and eighty-four individually shaped panels sit freely on the structural grid. (Fig. 9)  Students found that the cuts made by the three-axis milling of the acrylic left a striated marking on the edge of the fin. Although first thought to be undesirable, students developed a method for “flaming” the edge. By moving a hydrogen torch along each edge, a clear finish emerged without losing the striated marking.  This process produced a unique prism-like condition when light passed through the edge. 

Final fabrication of the aluminum structural components occurred over several weeks, with students collaborating and working closely with experienced machinists and fabricators. In doing so, issues specific to materials and proper cutting techniques were resolved.   Students became versed in the use of CNC machinery, including high pressure water jet cutting and three axis milling. (Fig. 10)

Once the final components were delivered to the site, the process of assembly began.  A clamp-like detail, fabricated from standard aluminum extrusions, and the CNC milled “swivel-sleeves” served as the method of attaching the hanging rods to the existing trusses (Figs. 11-12) Once installed, the one-quarter inch stainless steel rods hung from the trusses awaiting the final structural framework.  Working on platforms specifically designed to slide along the existing mezzanine pipe rails, students assembled the individual panels of the undulating form.  Once each panel was fully assembled, it was then hoisted into place using a one-way pulley system.  Each successive panel was assembled and erected. (Fig. 13) Once fully suspended, the acrylic fins were installed in their specific locations predetermined during the construction of the virtual model. The assembly was completed in 24 hours.

The Experiential:  Technology & Place

“Our real hope is that (technology and architecture) will grow together, that some day one will be the expression of the other. Only then will we have an architecture worthy of its name, an architecture that is a true symbol of our time.”[5]

– Mies van der Rohe, 1953

In considering the aspects of the experiential qualities of the installation, the studio considered what makes “place” and how architecture (and other installations) is intertwined with the experience of a place.  In Steven Holl’s article Anchoring, he states,

 Architecture is bound to situation… a construction is intertwined with the experience of a place… Building transcends physical and functional requirements by fusing with a place, by gathering the meaning of situation… When a work of architecture successfully fuses a building and situation, a third condition emerges. In this third entity, denotation and connotation merge; expression is linked to idea which is joined to site.”[6]

Holl suggests that “the essence of a work of architecture is found in the link between idea and phenomenon and is not yet fully evident until the moment when a building is realized.  During the design process, ideas are ‘unordered’ and remain that until order is given through the introduction of site, cultures, and program.”[7]  He argues that “the idea is still only a ‘conception’ and only until the building is realized can the ‘intermeshing’ of experiences occur, making ‘place.'”[8]  Juhani Pallasmaa elaborates on this thought in “The Geometry of Feeling”, describing the artistic dimension of any architectural work lies not in the “actual physical thing” but in the “consciousness of the person experiencing it.”  He states that architecture is a “communicative power” and meaning in architecture depends on its ability to “symbolize human existence or presence through the spatial experience of the work.” [9]

Given the recent innovations in computer aided design and fabrication technologies, how should the built environment maintain the notions present in Holl’s and Pallasmaa’s writings? How should architectural schools teach technology with the intent of “place” making?  Today, technology is typically taught as topical course that encourage students to think about technology rather than through technology. This is an odd approach when we consider that the architect’s role is one that adds technological imagination and place-making experience to the equation between the engineer and the contractor.[10]  If an architecture conceived through technology is to be worthy of a greater perceptual effect and ultimately define place and human experience, both the pragmatic and visceral aspects of building must be studied simultaneously through the tools employed. 

Considering the digital design-build model previously discussed, the question was asked of the phenomenal effects and place-making abilities of the installation. How did the use of the computer inform the design process from conception to construction and on to assembly?  More importantly, how did the technologies employed inform or contribute to the installation’s ability to create a heightened awareness of the site through various phenomenological and perceptual effects? Consequently, the installation was a means through which the students asked how they, as future architects, are to deal with technology and place as “related phenomenon,” and how they, as described by Kenneth Frampton, are “to better understand how the technologies that architects employ, influence the places we construct, and conversely, how the places in which we find ourselves influence the way we build.”[11] 

Students investigated a number of experiential conditions during the design and build processes. The concepts of parallax, the “slowing of light” and figure/ground relationships ultimately focused on and became clearly evident in the final installation.


A perspective view presents the surrounding environment about a horizon line relative to the position of the viewer.[12]  Everyday, an infinite number of “perspective” views makes up our visual experience of our surroundings.  Students examined how this concept could be further exaggerated through the formal manipulation of the installation.

Parallax, the apparent displacement of an object caused by a change in the position from which it is viewed, is clearly evident as one moves his/her position relative to the completed installation (Fig. 14). At various positions, the installation reveals itself as mostly transparent or opaque. As the viewer moves through the site, one can’t help feeling as if he/she is being controlled by the installation itself, always trying to find the specific location where one can comprehend the exact nature of the installation’s transparency.                                      

Consequently, the installation acts as a space-making and controlling device, albeit from afar.  The undulating form of the installation plays a particularly important role as the embodiment of movement. Made possible through the use of computer modeling and fabrication, the form expresses the flow of movements found within the school. At key moments, however, the viewer takes command of the perceptual dialogue and aligns him/herself with installation through a framed view, intentionally located by the designers.  These moments mark previously overlooked areas within the school and allow the viewer to experience them as never before.

The “Slowing” of Light

In The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Richard Feynman describes how translucent and transparent materials allow light photons to pass through while partially reflecting others. (Fig. 19) The study of quantum electrodynamics suggests that the reflective activity on a material surface can account for up to 16% of the light particles that strike it, creating the visible reflection of light.[13] This dynamic passing of light through a material is described by Feynman as the “slowing of light.” [14]

During the design of the installation, the students were particularly interested in the quality of the reflected and refracted light.  Students mocked up numerous alternatives that analyzed the shape and proportion of the acrylic fins relative to their numbers and spacing within the structural framework. The “slowing” of light creates a mysterious, veil-like effect that is sometimes transparent and sometimes translucent, creating a visual complexity from its multiple layers of surface reflections.  The final result is a visual effect that supersedes a view of the installation itself. When the effect is perceived, the “object” installation is dematerialized into a floating, weightless cloud hovering in the massive overhead void within the building.  The installation invites the viewer to gaze upon the effect, rather than through the installation or even at the installation itself. 

Figure / Ground

Edgar Rubin, a Danish “Gestalt” psychologist, was the first to systematically investigate the figure-ground phenomenon, where in perceiving a visual field, some objects take a prominent role (figure) while others recede into the background (ground).[15]

In the case of the installation, the students considered a number of relationships when conceiving of the experiential effects.  Relational fields, such as structure and infill, transparency and reflection, and light and shadow were examined.  Each of these binary conditions is revealed individually, but never simultaneously.  At times, the installation appears cloud-like, with no apparent external structure. At other times, the installation reveals its structure, pronouncing the rigorous grid-like framework.  The light that filters through the surfaces reflects and refracts between the many acrylic fins, creating an incomprehensible reading of transparency and opacity. The complexity of the sun-lit condition denies the reading of the installation as purely transparent or opaque.  One can only focus on transparent areas after changing his or her gaze from the reading of reflective areas. (Figs. 24-25) Light and shadows are also affected, not only on the multiple surfaces of the installation but, more noticeably, on the ground surface.  As one would expect, light finds its way through the undulating surface to the floor surface, projecting pools of light and shadow. Only here does the reading become more complex and engage the viewer to separate layers of light (Figs. 26-27)Multiple opacities of light and shadow overlap on top of one another creating a confused hierarchical reading.  The viewer’s gaze suspends itself on one or the other in order to make reason.


“Architecture, more fully than other art forms, engages the immediacy of our sensory perceptions. The passage of time; light, shadow and transparency; color phenomena, texture, material and detail all participate in the complete experience of architecture.[16]

The “Thinking as Doing” studio was successful on a number of levels. First, students gained valuable insight into the cyclical nature of design and construction through the use of the latest three dimensional visualization and design development software, as well as fabrication technologies.  Secondly, the digital design-build model afforded the students the opportunity to fuse experiences gained in both the design and build portions, allowing each to inform the other throughout the process. Finally, and most importantly, students involved confirmed the importance of human experience in the built form.  For students who often felt frustrated by the feeling of confinement when working with purely virtually represented design proposals, CNC technologies provided the “out” for their virtual creations to be physically experienced. This opportunity to experience the reciprocal nature of work, the back and forth, the to and fro communication with the built form, becomes the essence of architecture.  Too often designers and architects speculate on (or even overlook) the potential of human experience with the built form are often disappointed with the end result.  CNC technologies require a fully resolved virtual construction. This studio sought to understand how these tools can assist the designer in understanding the experiential effects, not in the virtual worlds as previously was the case, but first hand, physically, in the final space of the site.



[1] 2004 ACADIA Conference, “FABRICATIONS,” Christiano Ceccato and Siamak Hariri lecture.

[2] Branko Kolarevic, Architecture is the Digital Age: Design and Manufacturing (New York, London: Spon Press, 2003) p 13

[3] William J. Carpenter, AIA, Learning by Building: Design and Construction in Architectural Education (New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold,1997), pg 8

[4] Branko Kolarevic, Architecture is the Digital Age: Design and Manufacturing (New York, London: Spon Press, 2003) p 13

[5] 2004 ACADIA Conference, “FABRICATIONS,” Christiano Ceccato and Siamak Hariri lecture

[6] Steven Holl, Anchoring (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989) p 9

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Juhani Pallasmaa, “The Geometry of Feeling: A Look at the Phenomenology of Architecture,” Theorizing A New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press 1996): 450-451

[10]  Barbara Allen, “Rethinking Architectural Technology: History, Theory, and Practice,” Journal of Architectural Education (February 2001, 54/2): 142

[11] Kenneth Frampton, Steven A. Moore, “Technology and Place,” Journal of Architectural Education (February 2001, 54/2): 121-122

[12] Steven Holl, Parallax (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000) p 121

[13] Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter  (New York: Princeton University Press, 1985) p 69

[14] Ibid.

[15] Geert-Jan Boudewijnse, “Gestalt Theory,” An International Multidisciplinary Journal (2005, 27-1) p 29

[16] Steven Holl, Anchoring (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989) p 9