Exploring Future Workflows with TEX-FAB

There is an upcoming generation of architects who love to make things. These young designers are engaging in sophisticated workflows between design and construction that are laying the foundation for a newly organized architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. For those of us who have been practicing for some time, often in disbelief and astonishment at how buildings get built, this is really good news. 

As an industry, we are in the early stages of what promises to be a paradigm shift in how architects, fabricators, and construction teams work together. It is enabled by new digital tools and techniques, which are rapidly transforming how we work, from isolated practices into collective teams. The work of TEX-FAB is right in the middle of this change. 

Founded as an alliance among three universities — The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), University of Houston (UH), and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) — TEX-FAB is a nonprofit organization that connects design professionals, academics, and manufacturers who are interested in using digital technology to explore new industry relationships. Co-founders Brad Bell of UTA, Kevin Patrick McClellan of UTSA, and Andrew Vrana of UH began TEX-FAB in 2009. This year, Kory Bieg joined the group to represent The University of Texas at Austin. TEX-FAB has quickly become internationally recognized as having a unique mission that combines lectures and workshops by leading thinkers and practitioners with a yearly competition to design and build full-scale building prototypes. 

The focus of TEX-FAB is on digital fabrication as an extension of the design process. Through CNC (computer numerically controlled) technologies, architects are beginning to reposition design strategically within fabrication and construction processes, such that the design information they generate in the form of 3D computer models extends beyond the representational to include the precise sets of instructions used to drive manufacturing. The process is known as file-to-fabrication workflow. Moreover, these instructions have the capacity to embed the logic of building assemblies into the manufacturing processes, linking design to a new definition of detail that re-establishes the role of craft in the design process. This is evident in the prototypes from TEX-FAB competitions, in which materials ranging from sheet steel to cast concrete are processed and formed into intricate assemblies. Using industry standard software, details now consist of parametrically linked relationships of component parts with encoded information about design intent, material properties, methods of production, and assembly sequences. This is the technological context in which TEX-FAB operates. 

The founders of TEX-FAB are interested in positioning globally networked digital communication systems within a regional context. This is their unique take on a technology which, at its root, is about bringing together geographically dispersed people, knowledge, and ideas. While information can move around the world in milliseconds, material, equipment, and labor reside in particular places. Additionally, there are unique and context-specific knowledge bases that require face-to-face interaction to fully benefit from the nuances of this knowledge. Instead of envisioning digital technology as universally applied to all problems and situations in a one-way flow of information, TEX-FAB is interested in the dialogue between what technology can offer and what site-specific resources and experience can offer. Through the group’s competition series that draws entries from around the world, TEX-FAB has become a conduit between young designers, typically with limited resources for realizing 

their ideas at full scale, and a robust group of Texas-based shops and fabricators. 

While TEX-FAB sponsors both lectures and workshops to help promote its message of the potential of digital design and fabrication, it is the organization’s competitions that are most unique and take the typical academic discourse on these topics to a new level of implementation. TEX-FAB doesn’t just fabricate the winning entry of the competition; it also engages in a lengthy process of collaboration with the design team to develop a design-to-fabrication workflow within the constraints of local material and manufacturing capacities. TEX-FAB finds the best match between the design team and local fabricators, and then works together with the designers and fabricators to refine material selection, fabrication techniques, details, and assembly processes. Winning the competition initiates this workflow between the design team and the TEX-FAB crew — not unlike winning a competition for a building commission. In this manner, TEX-FAB competitions not only offer the opportunity for the next generation of architects and designers to realize their designs, but most important, they also explore next-generation design-to-production workflows that are desperately needed for the broader AEC industry. In this regard, they go a step beyond similar design/build competitions, such as the well-regarded MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program in New York. 

On a broader scale, TEX-FAB is addressing the well-established fact within the AEC industry that the current manner in which design teams and construction teams communicate, typically limited by an adversarial contractual relationship, has run its course. This structure has created a culture of isolated entities, on both the design and construction side, with deeply entrenched risk-averse attitudes that create very little incentive to collaborate. And while there are current efforts within the professional community to address this with new contractual structures like Design/Assist and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), it will likely take more of a cultural shift, and perhaps even a new generation of designers and fabricators, for the benefits of these efforts to be fully realized. 

This is where the importance and value of TEX-FAB is perhaps greatest. Its hidden agenda, beneath the surface of the extraordinary competition prototypes like “REPEAT Minimal Complexity” and “APPLIED Cast Thicket,” is to combine the latest developments in digital tools and techniques with experiments in teamwork and collaboration to develop veritable future models of team organizations that thrive on the open exchange of information and knowledge across disciplines. It represents the ambitions of a younger generation of architects who are using digital tools to facilitate collaboration among diverse teams with the goal of merging design and construction into an integrated workflow. Through its efforts, TEX-FAB is not only providing a forum for architects to design and build new advanced forms, details, and assembly processes; it is also facilitating the design of entirely new types of practice. 

Prototypes for the finalists of TEX-FAB’s 2013 International Digital Fabrication Competition: SKIN, will be constructed for the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) conference on October 22-31. A full-scale prototype of the winner will be constructed in collaboration with the Zahner Company and exhibited at the 2014 TEX-FAB event in Austin on February 19–23. 

Scott Marble is a partner at Marble Fairbanks and director of Integrated Design at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. His most recent publication is “Digital Workflows in Architecture – Design, Assembly, Industry.” 

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect, September/October 2013.