New manufacturing technologies, software advances, and cloud based platforms are transforming the relationship between designers, industry and end-users. Digital fabrication methods are enabling high performance homes to be mass-produced locally through small, distributed factories; parametric design makes bespoke home design affordable and new browser based platforms enable customers to design their homes on tablets, sending fabrication orders for do-it-for-me services or lowered-skill-entry level for self-builders. Britain is experiencing a significant shortfall of 150,000 new homes a year to ameliorate this the government is incentivising custom- and self-build, which is simultaneously expected to encourage more diversity and innovation in the market.
There have been numerous attempts to mass-produce housing which have proven benefits, yet prefabrication has failed to catch on for two key reasons: firstly, the high set up costs makes centralised factories vulnerable to notorious fluctuations in the construction market, secondly repetitive design does not fit with people’s emotional and practical need to customise their homes and buildings.
However, in the second decade of what has been heralded (by author and surgeon Atul Gawande) as ‘the century of the system’, today’s technological capabilities could be poised to challenge these two major constraints by promising architecture that is completely bespoke, yet mass-produced. Such new systems offer solutions to the housing crisis and several British firms are foregrounding innovations needed to bring them to market.
Bauman Lyons Architects, working in a cross-disciplinary team funded by Innovate UK, is leading proof of concept and full size prototype demonstration research for a flagship system for a new universal ecology of bespoke systematised building components that will arise from existing manufacturers’ capabilities and give potential to connect them directly with consumers (and vice versa) through the Internet browser and digital manufacturing. Automating the reiterative aspects of design vastly reduces time spent reinventing the wheel but moreover, guarantees certainty of cost and quality from the outset, removing the requirement for circuitous building procurement procedure that is wasteful and therefore expensive.
These developments are in their infancy but hold the potential of creating a completely new set of relationships for almost every aspect of architecture. As with all innovations, their potential impact cannot be fully anticipated. We can, however, speculate on the level of likely disruption and contemplate what new possibilities Mass-Bespoke Systems would create for building and place making.