8 min read

Back in November, I had the pleasure of attending the 37th annual conference of the Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) conference. This year the theme was ‘Disciplines & Disruption‘ and the impact of technology in shaping or disrupting design, methods and cultural fronts. With the MIT Media Lab in Boston as the host, I had high expectations, and it didn’t disappoint.

The conference was the best I’ve seen, even better than the 2015 conference in Cincinnati. An exposé of outstanding research and stimulating debate. What made this conference stand out from the previous conference I’ve attended was the sheer quality of the keynote speakers. All the keynotes were genuinely inspirational, and it was impossible not to leave the venue without a refreshed and renewed enthusiasm for the future of the AEC industry.


Neri Oxman, who coined the term and pioneered the field of Material Ecology, was a logical choice for the opening keynote. Oxman presented the research of ‘The Mediated Matter Group‘ which she heads up at MIT. Operating at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology, the group’s work pushes the boundaries of technology to a whole new level. Unlike the plethora of researchers focused on simple 3D robotic extrusions, the Mediated Matter Group has been developing biologically informed and digitally engineered process such as 3D printing optically transparent glass structuresadditive manufacturing using biodegradable chitosan, and multi-material 3D printing.

Chitosan artefacts, the Mediated Matter Group 

Thomas Heatherwick was awarded the ACADIA Award of Design Excellence and gave a poetic and moving keynote presentation around his work and the notion of ‘soulfulness’. His Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa seems to capture this philosophy perfectly, combining history, texture and intrigue into a truly magnificent building. While somewhat of a controversial pick for ACADIA, the full-house didn’t seem to mind as he enchanted the audience with his storytelling. It was a poignant reminder of the importance of human-centric design.

Jessica Rosenkrantz & Jesse Louis-Rosenberg of Nervous System presented some of their recent work-in-progress. Their Kinematics Dress, which is made up of hinged triangles which tessellate to cover the body, and their Kinematics Link, which uses a chainmail system to achieve much higher compression, represents a new approach to manufacturing. Both projects are 3D printed as a single folded piece and require no assembly. This was a fantastic presentation which demonstrated how to tightly integrate design, simulation, and digital fabrication to create complex customised products.

Kinematics Dress, Nervous System 

Conference papers

With over 450 abstracts submitted, of which only 24% were accepted, the papers and projects presented were of exceptional quality. While most of the talks emerged from academic research, it wasn’t hard to imagine how these ideas could filter down into mainstream processes. While there were many fascinating papers, highlights included:

Freezing the Field: Robotic Extrusion Techniques Using Magnetic Fields

By Melissa Goldman & Carolina Myers. Awarded the ACADIA Autodesk Emerging Research Award, the paper introduces a new method of robotic extrusion using magnetic fields to construct ferrostructures. Using a custom tool and ferromagnetic material, the research develops a construction process utilizing the off-plane tool paths of a 6-axis industrial robotic arm to pull, attract, and repel material into a hardened structure. The ferromagnetic liquid forms spikes and connections around the invisible magnetic fields, and upon hardening, freezes the field into a new physical artefact that defies gravity.

Towards Force-aware Robot Collectives for On-site Construction

By Nathan Melenbrink, Paul Kassabian, Achim Menges & Justin Werfel. This paper explores developing a fully autonomous robotic construction system capable of building without human supervision or intervention. Previous work using a swarm approach to robotic assembly generally neglected to consider forces acting on the structure, which is necessary to guarantee against failure during construction. In this paper, the authors report on key findings for how distributed climbing robots can use local force measurements to assess aspects of the global structural state.

A Generalized Approach to Non-Layered Fused Filament Fabrication

By Vicente Soler, Gilles Retsin & Manuel Jimenez Garcia. This research attempts to generalise an approach for large-scale, non-layered spatial extrusion. The methodology consists of splitting a volume, representing any arbitrary geometry, into discrete fragments with a finite number of possible arrangements. These fragments are combined in response to a series of design criteria. A novel application of graph theory algorithms is used to generate a continuous and non-overlapping path through the discrete segments.

Shared Realities: A Method for Adaptive Design Incorporating Real-Time User Feedback using Virtual Reality and 3D Depth-Sensing Systems

By Bess Krietemeyer, Amber Bartosh & Lorne Covington. This paper presents a methodology for developing a mixed reality computational workflow combining 3D depth sensing and virtual reality (VR) to enable iterative user-centred design. Using an interactive museum installation as a case study, user point cloud data is observed via VR at full scale and in real-time for a new design feedback experience. Through this method, the designer can virtually position him/herself among the museum installation visitors to observe their actual behaviours in context and iteratively make modifications instantaneously. In essence, the designer and user effectively share the same prototypical design space in different realities. 

The Computational Challenges of a Mega-Space Frame: Shaping the Envelope of New Mexico City Airport

By Foster + Partners. This paper discusses the challenges faced and the methods used to develop a visually continuous and smooth space-frame model and envelope for the new Mexico City Airport. In particular, it explores how dynamic relaxation was complemented with bespoke mechanisms for mesh manipulation, interfacing and mesh smoothing to fine-tune the final form.

Beyond Heuristics: A Novel Design Space Model for Generative Space Planning in Architecture

By The Living. This paper proposes a novel design space model that can be used in applications of generative space planning in architecture. The model is based on a novel data structure that allows fast subdivision and merge operations on planar regions in a floor plan. It is controlled by a relatively small set of input parameters and evaluated for performance using a set of congestion metrics, which allows it to be optimised by a metaheuristic such as a genetic algorithm. The paper concludes by speculating on the potential of such models to disrupt the architectural profession by allowing designers to break free of common ‘heuristics’ or rules of thumb and explore a broader range of design options than would be possible using traditional methods.

Multi-Machine Fabrication: An Integrative Design Process Utilising an Autonomous UAV and Industrial Robots for the Fabrication of Long-Span Composite Structures

By Felbrich, B. et al. This paper describes the integrated design process and design development of a large-scale, fibre composite pavilion, in which the fabrication setup, robotic constraints, material behaviour, and structural performance were integrated into an iterative design process.

Quarra Cairn: Incremental Stability Through Shifting and Removal of Mass

By Zayas, L. et al. This paper explores the potential to intelligently remove material from the interior of a column drum to produce a leaning column that could contribute to the elimination of massive falsework. 

Adaptive Robotic Training Methods for Subtractive Manufacturing

By Giulio Brugnaro & Sean Hanna. This paper presents the initial developments of a method to train an adaptive robotic system for subtractive manufacturing with timber, based on sensor feedback, machine-learning procedures and material explorations. The methods were evaluated in a series of tests where the trained networks were successfully used to predict fabrication parameters for simple cutting operations with chisels and gouges.

Monolithic Earthen Shells & Robotic Fabrication

By Stephanie Chaltiel & Maite Bravo. Awarded the ACADIA Autodesk Emerging Research Award, this project explores the implementation of additive manufacturing for monolithic shells based on the deposition of different clay mixes through robotic spraying over a temporary fabric formwork 

Programmable Knitting

By Jane Scott. Presenting the developments over the past year since winning the 2016 Autodesk Emerging Research Award, Scott’s work examines the potential for knitted fabric to exhibit environmentally responsive, shape-changing behaviour. Her work re-examines the constituent components of knit fabrics to engineer smart behaviours without using electronics or smart synthetic materials. These fabrics demonstrate the principles of programmable knitting.


In addition to the conference was a 3-day workshop where delegates explored new technologies and new ways of working. Hosted at Autodesk’s Build Space, six workshops were offered:

  • Computational Research in Architecture and Structures, Block Research Group, ETH Zurich;
  • Impossible Objects, Kruysman | Proto ;
  • Design Space Construction: Defining, optimizing, and communicating performance-based building design spaces, Perkins + Will;
  • Machine Learning Applications for Design and the Built Environment, RMIT University;
  • Print Fast, Pile High, Zaha Hadid Architects; and
  • Pop-Up Production, James Coleman, Nadya Peek and Craig Long.

The workshops were a great success and it many ways were the highlight of the conference. Having the ability to intensively experiment with new technology for three consecutive days without disruption is somewhat a luxury.

Team BVN – Farbod Fathalipouri, Paul Wintour, Anissa Rivera Rizal & Matthew Blair


To conclude the conference I had the privilege of having a guided tour of Autodesk’s Build Space. Special thanks to Zach Kron for showing us around. It is a pretty impressive space which allows researchers to help make their ideas a reality.

Autodesk’s Build Space

Overall the conference was a great success, and I look forward to next year’s conference which will be held in Mexico City. Calls for papers and projects will be announced in January 2018. The full 2017 conference proceedings are available at CumInCAD.

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