Conversations on 3D Printing and Architectural Design with Alvin Huang

Conversations on 3D Printing and Architectural Design with Alvin Huang

At the ACADIA 2014 conference at USC I had the chance to get a quick interview one of the conference's co-chairs, Alvin Huang AIA (founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture & tenure-track Professor at the USC School of Architecture), to talk about his views on the current state and future of Architectural Design as well as his piece in the exhibition, the 3D printed Durotaxis Chair created with a Stratasys PolyJet 3D multi-material printer. 

Alvin Huang and Apollo Spiliotis at ACADIA 2014

Alvin Huang and Apollo Spiliotis at ACADIA 2014


Apollo: How did you get involved in 3D printing?

Alvin Huang: I’ve been using 3D printing since 2002, so it’s not something that we just got into; we originally started using 3D printing for prototyping , making physical models for architecture. We soon realized how easy it was to replicate in scale and furthermore to produce things that we wouldn't have been able to create by hand. Its not just the complexity and the speed, but also the high quality of the presentation:  you can do something that is extremely detailed, without having fingerprints or glue marks on it.

Do you find 3D printing aids the design process of your architectural projects? 

We don’t think of the 3D printer as a design tool necessarily. We design for real materials, real construction processes and eventually we replicate those through the 3D printer. The Durotaxis chair is something different altogether…. 

3D printed Durotaxis Chair.

Do you find the design processes you used to create the structure of the chair essentially can help create the different typologies of building structures?

When we conceived the Durotaxis Chair, the starting point was 3D printing. The intent was to capitalize on the multi-material properties of the Stratasys printer and be able to highlight that. We were able to articulate gradient condition , not only in color but through the geometry, the size, the scale and the density; and we were even able to control the material properties through stiffness and softness. The 3D printer was the medium and 3D printing was the context: we wanted to design with that material in mind, rather than produce a design and then figure out how to make it.

How did you decide to go with the PolyJet system instead of using FDM or other printing process?

The PolyJet is the only method that allows you to manipulate the gradient color condition and gradient material condition. With FDM, Fused Deposition Modeling, the material gets deposited down over and over and fused together, and although you can use two different colors, you can’t gradiate between them. It’s like taking two hot glue guns, one red and one blue, you’re not going to get purple, you’re just going to get red and blue.

I understand that the PolyJet gives more flexibility , does it have extra print heads?

The PolyJet has two printing heads, each head has 96 nozzles making it almost two hundred nozzles. The build layer is about 16 microns, so you can get very fine detail. 


That is impressive. In FDM you usually can only go down to about 100 microns, with SLS down to 40:  16 microns is quite phenomenal. As more users start getting into 3D printing, do you think artists will be pushed to "up their game", as consumers will have the ability to create 3D models quite easily with the new generation of apps?

I think 3D printing gives the ability for consumers to print  their own models but they will still mostly need someone to design for them. The value of 3D printing is that  things like shipping, packaging and sending things around the world (wasting energy and material) could be reduced, if not eliminated. You’re not making 5000 to hope to sell 400, you’re making one to sell one, if someone buys one, they get one.

Basically it’s like personal manufacturing instead of global manufacturing and distribution…

Personal manufacturing in the sense that instead of buying an object, you’re buying a file. When you download the file it’s yours, and what you can also do is mass customization. Now we have thingks like Nike ID, they have a mass production process where you can customize, you can feel like you designed your shoe ( you actually didn’t design it,  you chose from possibilities the designer will give you). With 3D printing the average consumer would still not be designing their own chair, but they could manipulate the design in order to print their own chair, their own Barbie, etc.

I've ordered a few products from a company that works like that. It's called  Nervous System. They create the process driven design for intricate jewelry or objects, so that every design can be unique; and yes, it does sort of feel like you've designed it yourself…

Once the the design possibilities are laid out for you , you’re just manipulating sliders to find the version that you think is best for you……

…which is great, I guess it makes things more distinctive and personal instead of everything being an exact copy. And speaking of distinctive and personal choices, which software works best for your needs? 

We’re mostly using Rhino with Grasshopper and also using Kangaroo along with all the zoo of plugins for Grasshoppper. For the Durotaxis Chair we also jumped into Zbrush and Maya.

Do you think there are limitations in Grasshopper that made you have to jump over to Maya, to try to hack the code so to speak?

Maya’s very good at dealing with meshes, which is exactly what you need for 3D printing. What Rhino is very good at is precision… as Rhino is mostly Nurb-based, those Nurbs have to be converted into meshes to be acceptable for a 3D printer?

Yes, we’re mostly working with Rhino and Grasshopper to create the line network mesh, but then we’re using Maya and Zbrush to thicken and articulate with color.

What would be your dream material, in the years to come, to use to 3D print? Would you rather explore with concrete, or some sort of bio-material?

I think the dream of course would be anything that had the lowest carbon footprint but at the same time produced the most material performance. Material performance is something we’re mostly interested, not only what the material looks and feels like, but also literally what it does. We don’t like to think of material as a finish, we like to think of it as an active element that has an embedded computational property. 

And how many years before we could use actual 3D printed parts in architectural related structures? Or how about 4D printing? I love the idea of creating something that can adapt certain situations and conditions. Would that be something you see in the future of architecture?

I think right now the process is not at all in its mature state, though I wouldn’t say that it’s in its infancy. All of these digital processes are maybe in their teenage years. They’re all trying to figure out who they are, what they are, what they want to do…

…and they’re glitching at their creators like a normal teenager…

Right…and they’re all making mistakes trying a lot of things, as there’s a lot happening that promises a lot, though I don’t think that one of the promise is full scale 3D printing for entire buildings. I do think there is a lot of promise in components, either at the literal component level, meaning the component itself being printed, or the molds or tools or plugs that actually make up a component. Sometimes you really don’t need a 3D printer. If you’re doing something that’s straight and flat it’s a lot easier to buy a piece of cheap material.

What about innovators like Arup , for instance, that are trying "hack" the material elements to produce a structure that’s 100 times thinner/lighter but also has the same capabilities? Wouldn't you need to 3D print this material or special mold?

Well, a lot of that comes from using composites, like Carbon Fibre that’s like 20 times the stiffness of steel and about 1/10th the weight.

How do you merge these two worlds: BIM through Revit / ArchiCAD on one side, and the computational-driven design apps like Grasshopper? Do you use RhinoBIM? What do you think about Dynamo trying to bridge the gap?

Yeah Dynamo is trying to do it, and I think they’re actually launching something called Rhynamo, which is an actual translation that you can work parametrically in Rhino/Grasshopper and the result shows up interactively in Revit. Back to the main question, I don’t think those two worlds are so far apart. I don't even consider parametric modeling being new: it’s always been with us and I think if you’ve ever drawn anything by hand, if you’ve ever drawn anything in CAD, as an architect, you are trained to think parametrically. If you’re aligning two things, that’s a parametric rule, if you’re bringing two things on center or dividing something equally, that’s a parametric rule. Intuitionally, or whatever you want to call it, you may not be aware you’re working parametrically.

I followed a great Hangout On Air with Novedge a while ago, where you mentioned an interesting quote about technology by Mark Weiser: "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it." That got me thinking of another similar quote by Arthur C. Clarke : “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I feel that your style of design and in effect the intricate structure of the Durotaxis chair as well as the contemporary “futuristic” type structures we see today, have a sense of "magic" to the average user. Is that something you’re trying to create as an Architect-Wizard? And if that's the case, do you mind people seeing behind the curtain? 

Alvin Huang - Synthesis Design Architecture

Alvin Huang - Synthesis Design Architecture

Not at all, I think architecture requires integrity and honesty. I like to look at something and be able to see the structure, see how it stands, I like to be able to understand what its intentions were and how it was made. I think the magic part is something that is – at least on the design side – changing.  This is probably the first time where you could have a principal of a firm who’s a licensed architect that knows "codes", knows "zones", can manage a budget, can manage a project, deal with the client, and can still not only draw CAD but also open up Grasshopper and manipulate the model. 

I also think there are a lot of misconceptions about this type of work. Take the ACADIA conference for example. Take a look at who is teaching the workshops and who’s in attendance: SOM is present with 10 people , NBBJ with 9 , Woods Bagot with 7 ; these are big established corporate offices whose people are using these technologies, working with them and pushing them to the edge, not necessarily for making novel forms, but to use them innovatively. The field of computational design research is bridging a ground of leaving an academic and avant-garde exploration and becoming an actual form of industrial R&D.

There’s a lot of use of vivid colors or bright white in most contemporary Architectural Design, still most architects (Starchitects included) love to wear black. Care to solve this mystery for us once and for all? (Coincidentally Alvin is wearing a black outfit during this interview)

Um….that’s a tough one…

…do you think it has something to do with not wanting to detract from the architectural piece itself?

Possibly……… or more simplistically: when I was an undergrad USC School of Architecture, Pierre Koenig, the Architect of Case Study #22 and a number of eccentric modern classic homes around here, was my structural instructor. I do remember seeing him wearing all black and thinking that was really cool!

No-one looks bad in black, right? (I resisted my architectural urge to wear black today, I didn’t want to look too important amongst all the esteemed presenters who also are in fact mostly wearing black.)

Sometimes I try not to, sometimes I wear…gray.

Looks like in the future of Architecture a line has been drawn: on one side there are the standard functional box buildings; on the other, the kind of contemporary “futuristic” / user-driven / computational curvaceous architectural designs you and your company are embracing. Since you already made the choice between  brutal grungy simple function and seamless organic forms in favor of the second,……I will ask you to make another fundamental choice: do you prefer Galactica or Star Trek?  

 I….wouldn’t say I have a preference, although if I had to choose, it would be Galactica of course….

….can’t argue with that.


Architect - Tech Writer - 3D Artist - 3D printing enthusiast