I Robot

MARS Pavilion experiments with robotic construction

Architecture Technology West
MARS Pavilion experiments with robotic construction (Courtesy Ben Rose Photography)
MARS Pavilion experiments with robotic construction (Courtesy Ben Rose Photography)

How do two young designers get to participate in an invite-only robotics conference in Palm Springs, California, organized by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos?

First, you have to be creative; second, you have to get your work online, and finally, you have to be lucky.

Joseph Sarafian and Ron Culver, AIA were classmates at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design in Greg Lynn’s studio. They were exploring how to use digital design to create unique components that could be fabricated using state-of-the-art industrial robotics, the kind of robots that build cars. They developed a system that allowed the designers to go directly from a digital image to physical reality. Their prototype eventually found its way onto the internet.

(Courtesy Ben Rose Photography)

Then, according to Sarafian, “We got an email from Amazon’s team out of the blue, after seeing our robotic concrete research ‘Fabric Forms’ on blogs and websites.” They were invited to attend what Amazon calls their MARS Conference (Machine learning, Automation, Robotics, Space exploration). Like a private TED Conference, the MARS Conference brings together business leaders, academics and others pushing the envelope of technology.  

The resulting MARS Pavilion prototype—including an exhibition and video of the design process—is currently on view at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in the Los Angeles Arts District.  The pavilion will be up through Saturday, October 7 and has been sponsored by CTS Cement and Helix Steel.

Besides acquiring The Washington Post and Whole Foods, Jeff Bezos owns Blue Origin, a space exploration company that is intended to compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The Blue Origin company motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”

This motto might also apply to the work of Sarafian and Culver. The MARS Pavilion by their firm Form Found Design (FFD) is the first robotically-cast concrete pavilion in the world. While it is intriguing to look at, what is more important than its image is its method of design and construction.

Detail view. (Courtesy Ben Rose Photography)

The MARS Pavilion consists of 70 unique, robotically-cast “wishbone” shaped components that are all bolted together with an identical steel connection detail.  Using the robotic precision of large ABB industrial robots, they achieved a tolerance of 1/16 inch. This is extraordinary in concrete construction, where the usual level of tolerance is ¼ inch—It’s an improvement of 400%.

All the MARS Pavilion forms are derived from concrete’s most inherent quality, compression. Walter P. Moore performed a structural engineering analysis and recommended one-inch “Helix Steel” twisted fibers for reinforcement rather than traditional re-bar. This provides greater flexibility.

Robots building the concrete pavilion.(Courtesy Ben Rose Photography)

The goal is to allow for the precision fabrication of a wide range of design components at low cost. Ron Culver described their approach as “a true digital workflow where previously unbuildable complex geometry is now feasible.” In downtown Los Angeles, for example, Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the Broad Museum proposing many unique concrete forms. Due to cost constraints, the design had to be simplified so that only the oculus (a curved opening at the front of the building) survived the value engineering and cost-cutting process. FFD believe their approach will allow design variation in concrete with no additional cost.

FFD envisions many future applications including creating economical housing solutions for developing nations. Sarafian explained, “We are interested in exploring this fabrication technique to create an easy-to-assemble housing prototype for developing countries.”

The MARS Pavilion installation is on view through October 7th at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, 900 E 4th St, Los Angeles, CA 90013, tickets are available for the closing reception here. You can follow Follow their FFD’s work on Instagram @formfound_design

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