Custom design for everyone

Bauman Lyons Architects has invented a system to make self-build easier by facilitating custom designs and enhancing control over costs. Director Irena Bauman explains

Bus stop and walkers' shelter in Fridaythorpe, the first MassBespoke prototype.
Bus stop and walkers' shelter in Fridaythorpe, the first MassBespoke prototype.

What is MassBespoke?

It’s a construction system that can be mass produced but tailored to individual requirements. It brings together three new technologies: BIM, Grasshopper (the free and user-friendly Rhino plug-in) and digital fabrication – CNC machining in particular, which is suitable for distributed production.

You used to have to invest heavily in large factories for prefabrication. Demand in the construction sector, however, is very uneven, so companies that invested in large factories quite often went bust. The history of prefabrication is littered with failed businesses. That is why we are looking at developing a construction system that is parametrically designed for distributed production.

What is the basic building material/element?

At the moment OSB and plywood are the main materials; they are available now and economical.  As part of the research, we are looking at many other boards. The system will constantly develop as new materials emerge.

What market are you aiming at?

MassBespoke will be suitable for self-builders, as you only need a small set up – a single machine. It should also be of interest to developers and even to manufacturers for franchising. Suppliers would be able to obtain a licence for their products to be integrated in the system; fabricators could also get a licence to use the system; and architects could acquire permission to provide MassBespoke to their clients.

How did you come up with the idea?

We are quite a small firm, we are developing our team around the skills of our people and also around the opportunities created by our clients. About three years ago we had a client in a small place called Fridaythorpe in the North-east of England. They commissioned us to design a bus stop and walkers' shelter on the village green. They had a very small budget and we could see right away that they would not be able to build it unless our fee included construction of the shelter. So Matt Murphy, an associate in the practice, developed a design in BIM for CNC fabrication and built it himself. He suggested that we parametrise the information for future projects, so we would not have to reinvent the design process all the time. 

Stages of MassBespoke production model from geometry generation and analysis to fabrication and erection.
Stages of MassBespoke production model from geometry generation and analysis to fabrication and erection.

Why did you choose to pursue this further?

We have the skills, we are interested, and there is demand. The construction industry can’t continue in the same way, we need to build to higher environmental standards. The rental sector is a completely new market that is interested in the performance of buildings. But the volume house builders are not; they just sell them. And there’s a lot of waste in the construction industry, a lot of conflict, a lot of loss of knowledge in translation between different stages; it’s a very wasteful industry.

How does MassBespoke set higher standards or reduces waste? Is it designed to be particularly energy efficient?

MassBespoke is only the structure, the envelope; clients will be able to do whatever they want with the system. But we are designing it so that the depth of the construction allows for Passivhaus standards to be achieved.

Crucially, we work to develop an integrated supply chain. At the moment there are components, there are suppliers, there are subcontractors and main contractors, and there are the clients. At each transition there’s a margin, overheads, wasted time, abortive work. All that will be swept away by MassBespoke, there will be massive savings in the whole sequence of operations.

What skills are needed for this project?

Matt Murphy is a good example of how multi-skilled you have to be as an architect to engage with something like this. He understands the software but he also understands fabrication; he can go between the two, and that’s very rare. Even the great experts who teach computational and parametric design don’t necessarily understand the fabrication end of it.

If you look at the profile of Innovate UK-supported construction projects, they are mainly in the South-east. We want to create a culture of construction innovation up here in the North (BLA is based in Leeds) by nurturing our own talent, encouraging people to think differently and work across traditional disciplines. This year we are starting with a placement for a very able student from Sheffield, who will be combining her final year six work with our research. We will be training her on Grasshopper, enabling her to develop the required skills.  

Who are your research partners?

Arup’s engineers are working with us on the parametric design. Stage One, a specialist fabricator of exceptional structures, which built all the Serpentine Pavilions and the Olympic Cauldron in 2012, is leading on the logistics of fabrication. And then there is Simply Rhino, the software company.  The collaboration with Arup is key to the project.

We are also partnering with Professor Lenny Koh of Sheffield University, an expert on low carbon supply chains. Our enquiry into supply chain integration considers how commercial building elements can be integrated into the MassBespoke model. If companies are prepared to parameterise the product information of a window or cladding system we can integrate it into our construction model so that the whole building becomes fully parametric. We are also investigating the available manufacturing capabilities of the industry.

Other than industry capacity, what are the particular challenges you grapple with?

The integration of the software is the major one. We use around 10 different packages that all have to interact with each other, and they don’t. Parametric design requires integrating the structure into the design, so that the structure adjusts automatically when the design changes. That is why we need so many software packages. 

We held a number of workshops with some of the best brains sitting around a table and literally writing code as we were looking at the bugs. It’s exciting, and it’s amazing when it works. But we still have a long way to go.

Also fabrication tools such as CNC routers don’t necessarily behave the way we assume they do, we need to understand more about down time and speed of cutting. Or materials, for example the 18mm plywood, it’s not 18mm all the way through, it varies in thickness. Then the logistics – when you cut 350 pieces, how do you actually assemble them? There’s a whole logistics sequence that we haven’t yet resolved in the second prototype.

To start with the shelters have been produced with OSB and plywood.
To start with the shelters have been produced with OSB and plywood.

It will require ongoing work to keep the different software packages compatible.

Yes, but we want the system to be an open platform and expect that people will also develop their own products. We are always questioning if we are creating just another way for specialists to control the process. What are the genuinely open elements of the system? We have to navigate the ambition to make the system freely available with the ability to recuperate our investment and be profitable. That is very difficult.

How important has support from Innovate UK and other sources been?

We couldn’t have done this without subsidies. Initially we only had help from a client who allowed us to use their CNC machine to produce the first prototype. It was apparent that the approach was working but substantial investment was required in order to undertake the necessary research. Initially, we were unsuccessful in our application for research funding from Innovate UK. Then we hired consultants who specialise in Innovate UK bids and have since won funding for research, proof of concept stage, supply chain integration and most recently full size prototype funding. We also made a successful application to Inland Revenue for tax relief on research and development and are currently awaiting results of our bid for a voucher from Robott-Nett Advanced Manufacturing that will entitle us to 400 hours of engineer time to develop automation capacity in the system.

If the government cuts R&D funding that would seriously disrupt our plans. We still require support to bring MassBespoke to market. 

Should you not succeed in bringing it to market, will it have been worth the (financial) risk?

We invested about £50,000 of our own funding. It’s a risk in a sense if the project doesn’t come to fruition, but we have learned so much in the process. Even if MassBespoke doesn’t happen for whatever reason, having the capacity to work in this way has already opened up new opportunities for us.
 

Gesine Kippenberg is practice policy and projects officer at the RIBA. This interview is part of an RIBA series on construction innovation driven by British architects.