Defining a Post-Industrial Style
Eric Hunting (erichunting at gmail.com), October 2009
On Defining a Post-Industrial Style
Industrial AGe Blobjects
Industrial Age blobbyness:
In any given culture predominate styles of design coalesce as a function of the aesthetic principles/theories/notions dominant in that culture at any given time and the nature of the dominant techniques of art, fabrication, and industrial production employed in its communities. Archeologists and anthropologists understand this well and commonly identify cultures and time periods by tell-tale characteristics of the design of artifacts and their manufacture. Even for the laymen this is a relatively easy things to discern. We can readily see the stylistic differences between ruins of ancient Roman, Egyptian, pre-Columbian, and other past civilizations. We can easily see the differences between pottery from ancient China, native American Pueblos, Greece, and Africa. But what about our contemporary civilization, for which we should have a more intimate understanding? What predominate characteristics denote the nature of design and manufacture in our current Industrial Age culture?
Given the industrial illiteracy common in the contemporary society, one could be forgiven for assuming there are no predominate characteristics of Industrial Age culture because there are so many kinds of products and industrial processes and such a vast diversity of aesthetics along with -thanks to the global and mobile nature of our current civilization- a mish-mash of world ethnic cultural stylistic elements. In most any American household one might readily find artifacts with stylistic features lifted from any number of cultures past and present; Chinese dishware in the kitchen, Dutch tiles on the countertop, Scandinavian modern furniture in the living room, Japanese lanterns in the back yard, middle-eastern rugs, Javanese batik patterns on clothing and bed sheets, Italian Palladian elements in the basic design of the suburban home -and we're not even talking about artwork and the like put up purely for decoration. It's almost impossible to go anywhere in the industrialized world and not find such a mix. And yet when one learns a bit about manufacturing and industry and looks carefully at the artifacts making up our habitat one begins to see common characteristics in the design of factory-produced goods. Though the spectrum of industrial processes used today is vast, there are some techniques and methods more dominant than others and which are more strongly associated with the key paradigm of the Industrial Age; economy and ubiquity of goods through centralized mass production. The logistics of mass production itself imposes limitations reflected in the design of goods -even where design often attempts to disguise or conceal them in some way. Like the tell-tale mold marks on an injection-molded toy, there is a subtle, underlying, Industrial Age style imposed on most everything in our habitat today that transcends any of the decorative stylings we apply to it all on the surface. A series of characteristics that, if you look for them, clue-you into products fabrication processes and to a general schema for manufacture as a whole.
Dominated by this overriding paradigm of centralized mass production, across the Industrial Age we have seen an evolution in industrial design culminating in what designers Steven Skov Holt and Karim Rashid dubbed -and SF/futurist writer Bruce Sterling popularized- as the 'blobject'; a mass-produced artifact characterized by streamlined organic 'blobby' forms deriving from the use of CAD/CAM and moldable materials such as plastic in largely monolithic shells. Commonly regarded as a very recent phenomenon, the actual origins of the blobject probably trace back -at least- to the application of Bakelite and similar early press-formed plastics to early consumer electronics and appliances as well as the use of pressed steel welded unibody construction in cars prior to WWII. It's roots lay in the desire of industrial design to accommodate a Modernist streamlined aesthetic of the period, to separate style from function as a means to aid the specialization of design as a profession independent of engineering, to facilitate forced obsolescence through fashion, and to accommodate Industrial Age manufacturing's tendency to seek to eliminate all aspects of hand craft in production through simplified fabrication processes (producing simplified forms) in order to insure uniform consistency and efficiency. These ideals tend to favor production processes based on molding of some form that can be easily mechanized -processes which are now predominate in contemporary manufacture.
The essential physical architecture common to most common blobjects today may actually have its origin in the 1955 Regency TR-1; the first pocket transistor radio and one of the first mass produced consumer electronics products employing a two-piece snap-together injection-molded case. This might seem too functionalist and rectilinear a design to be called a blobject -it's less 'blobby' in shape than the Art-Deco style radio enclosures of the pre-WWII era-, yet all the essential characteristics of the contemporary blobject are there including the exploitation of the mutability of topology of electronic systems to accommodate a design whose form is dictated by other factors. Though contemporary design forms may be increasingly fanciful, the architecture of a printed circuit board and other components suspended within a two-piece clam-shell enclosure is the dominant architecture among current consumer electronics products. The key difference between blobjects of the past and present is the economy of production tooling. The approach was always favored for its economy over other approaches that were more craft-dependent but the nature of molded plastic and metal production compelled maximization of production volumes to accommodate high tooling costs, particularly in the fabrication of steel molds and dies. This limited early blobjects to a spectrum of products most likely to be produced in volumes of many hundreds of thousands or millions of units. The reason for the explosion in application of these forms today is due to the application of CAD/CAM resulting in a radical reduction of costs for such tooling allowing the use of such forms to be justified for products of relatively low -and falling- production volumes.
The blobject now dominates contemporary product design and with their design process now empowered with computer modeling and their prototyping radically simplified through rapid prototyping technology, blobject characteristics can now be seen in everything from home appliances to spacecraft like the famed Spaceship One. However, a peculiar side effect of this has been a deterioration in the general competency of design. It's professional specialization now total, the design 'industry' increasingly disregards engineering and the technicalities of production, treating design as something pure and independent of such things. Students can graduate design schools without any working knowledge of any science or technology and we are increasingly seeing the showcasing and lauding of imaginary CGI based product designs that are quite simply impossible to ever produce in reality, defying even the most basic laws of physics. And as a community, designers seem decreasingly concerned about this because they treat the 'reality checking' as someone else's job. Industrial design is eliminating that industrial aspect. It's becoming a kind of art, which would be OK if the end result wasn't an increasing number of products that are wasteful and poor in function and performance and whose price is inflated on the basis of style. Style can now put a $100 price tag on a piece of cardboard. Is this a triumph of design, or a perverse aberration of it?
The blobject is the quintessential Industrial Age artifact. An object optimized for automated mass production where handcraft is completely eliminated and design is largely independent of function and production technique. While considered emotionally engaging, the blobject is often the basis of a kind of dishonesty in design. An attempt to hide the way things work, how they are made, and to disguise what they are made of and to base their quality on subjective aspects of aesthetics and stylistic reference to certain socio-economic classes. In this they tend to reflect the Industrial Age notion of a sliding scale of economy for everything in life, including social class status. Blobjects are also often deliberately irreparable and un-upgradeable -sometimes to the point where they are engineered to be unopenable without being destroyed in the process. This further facilitates planned obsolescence while also imposing limits on the consumer's own use of a product as a way to protect market share and technology propriety. Generally, repairability of consumer goods is now impractical as labor costs have made repair frequently more expensive than replacement, where it isn't already impossible by design. In the 90s car companies actually toyed with the notion of welding the hoods of new cars shut on the premise that the engineering of components had reached the state where nothing in the engine compartment needed to be serviceable over a presumed 'typical' lifetime for a car. (a couple of years) This, of course, would have vastly increased the whole replacement rate for cars and allowed companies to hide a lot of dirty little secrets under that welded hood. In his 2004 speech to SIGGRAPH entitled "When Blobjects Rule The Earth" Bruce Sterling commented on the dark side of the blobject saying;"...they haven't started ruling the Earth yet. Because they're still too primitive. They're not sustainable, so they're merely optimizing the previous system. They are a varnish on barbarism."
Today we recognize that a new set of cultural paradigms are emerging to supplant those of the Industrial Age, driven by an emergent and progressive demassification of culture amplified by digital communications and paralleled by a similar demassification of industrial production by virtue of digitally enhanced machine tools. We characterize this emergent Post-Industrial cultural shift by these processes of demassification and by the progressive miniaturization and automation of tools and processes of fabrication resulting in a localization and personalization of industrial production and progressive customization/personalization in the design of goods. The consumer of the Industrial Age is evolving, slowly, into a 'prosumer', increasingly engaged in the lifecycle of design and production of products as well as their use, adaptive-reuse, upcycling, and recycling. New miniaturized processes of production radically alter how things are likely to be designed and made to accommodate the topological and logistical limitations. As we have just seen, the Industrial Age culture is indeed characterized by predominant production techniques and a resulting predominate theory in design. Thus we can anticipate that the same would emerge with the emergence of a Post-Industrial culture.
Towards Post-Industrial Design
Let us now consider what a theory of Post-Industrial design might be like and the stylistic characteristics that are its hallmarks.
Alvin Toffler suggested that the transition between cultural 'waves' of civilization was not strictly serial in nature. That the seeds of the Second Wave (the Industrial Age) were emergent in the midst of the First Wave (the Pre-Industrial or Agrarian Age) and likewise the seeds of the Third Wave (the Post-Industrial Age) are currently emergent in the midst of the Second Wave. This is perhaps no more clearly apparent than in the history of the Industrial Age's greatest technical achievement; the personal computer. For in this achievement lay one of the seeds of the Industrial Age's own obsolescence; a new and commonly overlooked industrial paradigm called the Industrial Ecology. The personal computer is the single-most sophisticated mass-produced artifact human beings have ever created. Bill Gates once suggested that the creation of a new personal computer operating system was akin in complexity and man- hours to engineering and building a new jet airliner. And yet the astounding thing about this device is that, over the span of a couple decade, what was originally a multi-million-dollar colossus became a blobject one can carry in a pocket, is now so cheap and ubiquitous that people who can't even afford basic housing can still often afford a computer, and is so simple in composition that a child can be taught to assemble one in less than an hour using components made and bought from all over the globe -and it will boot up and run the first time it's turned on! This is an incredibly astounding feat that we are generally oblivious to. This is the single-greatest accomplishment of the Industrial Age, and most of us never think twice about it.
How was such a feat possible? We commonly attribute the rapid shrinking in scale of the computer to the advance of integrated circuit technology. But that's just a small part of the story that doesn't explain the economy and ubiquity of computers. The real force behind that was a radically different industrial paradigm that emerged more-or-less spontaneously in response to the struggle companies faced in managing the complexity of the new technology. Put simply, the computer was too complicated for any one corporation to actually develop independently -not even for multi-national behemoths like IBM that once prided itself on being able to do everything. A radically new way of doing things was needed to make the computer practical.
The large size of early computers was a result not so much of the primitive nature of the technology of the time but on the fact that most of that early technology was not actually specific to the application of computers. It was repurposed from electronic components that were originally designed for other kinds of machines. Advancing the technology to where the vast diversity of components needed could be made and optimized specifically for the computer demanded an extremely high development investment -more than any one company in the world could actually afford. There simply wasn't a big enough computer market to justify the cost of development of very sophisticated parts exclusively for computers. While performing select R&D on key components, early computer companies began to position themselves as systems integrators for components made by sub-contractracted suppliers rather than manufacturing everything themselves. While collectively the development of the full spectrum of components computers needed was astronomically expensive, individually they were quite within the means of small businesses and once the market for computers reached a certain minimum scale it became practical for such companies to develop parts for these other larger companies to use in their products. This was aided by progress in other areas of consumer, communications, and military digital electronics -a general shift to digital electronics- that helped create larger markets for parts also suited to computer applications. The more optimized for computer use subcomponents became, the smaller and cheaper the computer as a whole became and the smaller and cheaper the computer the larger the market for it, creating more impetus for more companies to get involved in computer-specific parts development. ICs were, of course, a very key breakthrough but the nature of their extremely advanced fabrication demanded extremely large product markets to justify. The idea of a microprocessor chip exclusive to any particular computer is actually a rather recent phenomenon even for the personal computer industry. Companies like Intel now host a larger family of concurrently manufactured and increasingly use-specialized microprocessors than was ever imaginable just a decade ago.
For this evolution to occur the nature of the computer as a designed product had to be very different from other products common to industrial production. Most industrial products are monolithic in the sense that they are designed to be manufactured whole from raw materials and very elemental parts in one central mass production facility. But the design of a computer isn't keyed to any one resulting product. It has an 'architecture' that is independent of any physical form. A set of component function and interface standards that define the electronics of a computer system but not necessarily any particular physical configuration. Unlike other technologies, electronics is very mutable. There are an infinite variety of potential physical configurations of the same electronic circuit. This is why electronics engineering can be based on iconographic systems akin to mathematics -something seen in few other industries to a comparable level of sophistication. (chemical engineering) So the computer is not a product but rather a _platform_ that can assume an infinite variety of shapes and accommodate an infinite diversity of component topologies as long as their electronic functions conform to the architecture. But, of course, one has to draw the line somewhere and with computer parts this is usually derived from the topology of standardized component connections and the most common form factors for components. Working from this a computer designer develops configurations of components integrated through a common motherboard that largely defines the overall shape possible for the resulting computer product. Though companies like Apple still defy the trend, even motherboards and enclosures are now commonly standardized, which has ironically actually encouraged diversity in the variety of computer forms and enclosure designs even if their core topological features are more-or-less standardized and uniform.
Thus the computer industry evolved into a new kind of industrial entity; an Industrial Ecology formed of a food-chain of interdependencies between largely independent, competitive, and globally dispersed companies defined by component interfaces making up the basis of computer platform architectures. This food chain extends from discrete electronics components makers, through various tiers of sub-system makers, to the computer manufacturers at the top -though in fact they aren't manufacturing anything in the traditional sense. They just cultivate the platforms, perform systems integration, customer support, marketing, and -decreasingly as even this is outsourced to contract job shops- assemble the final products.
For an Industrial Ecology to exist, an unprecedented degree of information must flow across this food chain as no discrete product along this chain can hope to have a market unless it conforms to interface and function standards communicated downward from higher up the chain. This has made the computer industry more open than any other industry prior to it. Despite the obsessions with secrecy, propriety, and intellectual property among executives, this whole system depends on an open flow of information about architectures, platforms, interfaces standards, software, firmware, and so on -communicated through technical reference guides and marketing material. This information flow exists to an extent seen nowhere else in the Industrial Age culture. It's hard to even characterize the computer industry as something of the Industrial Age because of this. And perhaps the single-most ironic part of all this is that most of the people in this industry have no grasp of this concept of an Industrial Ecology or any concrete notion of how their own industry works. They never see the forest for the trees -leading to repeated strategic blunders from the top with executives forever left puzzled because they still think they're in an industry that works like Henry Ford's car industry. This whole thing evolved ad-hoc, aided by the rather abstract or high-level nature of digital electronics and software engineering with their basis in symbolic languages.
One of the surprising aspects of such an Industrial Ecology is the multi-directional flow of design and development influence along the food chain. One might assume that control over the evolution of computer platforms flows strictly from the top down. It doesn't. In fact, IBM learned that lesson the hard way. Competition produces innovation at any level of the food chain with impact flowing both vertically and horizontally through the ecology. And though a particular platform may define a particular food chain down through the ecology, any number of potential food chains may be hosted in that same collective ecology. This is why such radically different platforms as the Macintosh and PC can be products of the same ecology.
Progressive modularization and interoperability standardization tends to consolidate and simplify component topologies near the top of the food chain. This is why a personal computer is, today, so simple to assemble that a child can do it -or for that matter an end-user or any competitor to the manufacturers at the top. All that ultimately integrates a personal computer into a specific physical form is the motherboard and the only really exclusive aspect of that is its shape and dimensions and an arrangement of parts which, due to the nature of electronics, is topologically mutable independent of function. There are innumerable possible motherboard forms that will still work the same as far as software is concerned. This made the PC an incredibly easy architecture to clone for anyone who could come up with some minor variant of that motherboard to circumvent copyrights, a competitive operating system, a work-around the proprietary aspects of the BIOS, and could dip into that same food chain and buy parts in volume. Once an industrial ecology reaches a certain scale, even the folks at the top become expendable. The community across the ecology has the basic knowledge necessary to invent platforms of its own, establish its own standards bottom-up, and seek out new ways to reach the end-user customer. And this is what happened to IBM when it stupidly allowed itself to become a bottleneck to the progress of the personal computer in the eyes of everyone else in its ecology. That ecology, for sake of its own growth, simply took the architecture of the PC from IBM and established its own derivative standards independent of IBM -and there was nothing even that corporate giant could ultimately do about it.
Today even end users compete with the 'apex manufacturers' at the top of the food chains. A PC can be as readily built by an end-user himself or built-on-demand in a shop as it can be bought pre-made with some large company brand. This has led to some companies adopting strategies of 'mass customization' based on allowing customers to select configurations of PC products assembled on-demand -a powerful concept in a demassifying culture increasingly subject to Long Tail market phenomenon and which is now spreading to other industries where there are means of introducing similar flexibility in production, usually through modularization of optional features. So all along the food chain of the PC platform parts developers are alternately thinking about and marketing to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), parts distributors serving custom PC makers, and even end-users. Again, this is all an astounding revolution in the way things are supposed to work in the Industrial Age. A great demassification of industrial power and control. Just imagine what the car industry would be like if things worked like this -as well one should as this is, in fact, coming. Increasingly, the model of the computer industry is finding application in a steadily growing number of other industries. Bit by bit, platforms are superceding products and Industrial Ecologies are emerging around them.
Precepts for Industrial Design
So what does this story have to tell us about Post-Industrial design? Well, from the Industrial Ecology we get our first precept for a Post-Industrial design theory;
- With the exception of very simple artifacts and elemental components, platforms supersede products. Many artifact forms can share a common platform, representing applications of the platform. Soon there may be few products. Just platforms and their applications.
Bruce Sterling recently characterized this principle with the concept of 'spimes', suggesting that in the near future we will all become 'spime wranglers'. A spime is an artifact whose platform architecture becomes digitally enmeshed with its lifecycle so that, across all its instances as an artifact, it becomes self-aware of its use and lifecycle, feeding information back into its design and progressive evolution. So for every artifact there is a kind of digital network associated with it linking what users do with it to its original digital design. This design thus learns from all activity associated with its instance artifacts, evolving to self-optimize relative to the passive -and active- performance evaluation of its users. In effect, the artifact becomes a sensory organ for the digital design through which that design -as if it were an intelligent entity in and of itself- senses the satisfaction or frustration of the users and the impact on the environment, evolving itself to suit. We see the beginning of this kind of thing in software, where programs increasingly automatically feed back information about their use and failures with that information subsequently being used for -encoded into- later automatic software updates. Imagine if most everything in our environment worked this way, learning and evolving by our interaction with it.
In this notion we get yet another precept of Post-Indfustrial design theory;
- Artifacts are static instances of an evolving design through which a design learns. A design thus has a lifecycle independent of, but in parallel to, the lifecycles of its instances. The intrinsic value of an instance of a design is quite tiny compared to the design itself as the embodiment of the collective knowledge -the genetic heritage- gathered through all its instances. Deliberate variant designs may be owned but primary designs -platforms- exist as a community resource evolved from the encoded contributed experience of their users. This is the basic meaning of Open Source.
This is actually a pre-industrial idea. Before Industrial Age culture's obsession with everything being owned by someone somewhere, no one individually owned the designs of artifacts. Once they came into common use, designs became cultural knowledge constantly communicated across communities and refined by the feedback of users who were also often their producers. And so there is a kind of organically evolved perfection in the designs of early artifacts rarely seen in products of the present. However, this is beginning to re-emerge as digital technology gives our artifacts feedback networks to their virtually-embodied designs. This is a common feature of Post-Industrial culture; a re-discovery of certain pre-industrial paradigms within the context of new technology.
Now, the notion of spimes is not entirely passive, given the limitations of the artifact alone as a sensory system of the user experience and environmental impact. And so these same networks of feedback will be employed for active communication from users and communities as well, imposing design specifications for reasons other than performance -particularly environmental and safety. We see this today in the form of users groups, customer review forums, standards committees, and occasionally government regulatory control. In the near future, as production continues to demassify and localize, local and personal customization of designs will become commonplace and function like a deliberate experimentation in the genetics of platforms. Most everyone will actively engage in this as a consequence of their compulsion to personalize things.
This brings us to another precept;
- Though often initiated by individuals, designs persist as social constructs. A successful design invites customization. Like a culture, a design that resists or has stopped evolving is obsolete. Dead.
This is the point where peer-to-peer theory starts to become very important to our discussion. If we except the proposition that a design becomes a social construct through, basically, the reverse-engineering of the user experience and then add in the option for a community of users to pro-actively participate in that design evolution, then we are dealing with a peer-to-peer process of iterative design. For this to work the network entity that represents a spime must be structured in such a way that the communication it facilitates is multidirectional. It must become a social network of sorts. Remember how, in the computer industry's industrial ecology, it became necessary for information to flow not just from the top-down but in all directions because, ultimately, innovation could be generated at any level of the food chain with impact spreading out to all levels? Well, this is also true in the network of a spime. A spime is not simply a linear link from user to design. It's is a chain-link through the larger network of the collective industrial ecology of every component that goes into it -and through them bridging to every other spime associated with any other artifact's platform -and their individual social networks. All design, all industry, all technology thus begins to merge as a peer-to-peer system. It's easy to see, then, how Sterling can suggest that, in the future, we'll be spending most of our time spime wrangling.
As we noted earlier, the dominant tools a culture uses impacts the possible practical design. Contemporary design has largely disconnected itself from the nature of the dominant tools to such an extreme that many less conscientious designers have little knowledge of how the things they design are actually made -and in the long run the end-user even less. This is possible because the flexibility of a few key contemporary manufacturing processes is so great. One of the key aspects of this industrial flexibility is scale. We have seen a growth in diversity of blobject-type products not just because of the growing economy of their development but also because molding technology has afforded a steady increase in the maximum scale and topological complexity of objects these processes can handle. In 1955, when the Regency TR-1 appeared with its small two-piece injection-molded plastic case, that was about the average size of anything made with that production process. At the time such cases were relatively new and is was still more common for consumer electronics to employ pressed metals, pressed plastics, wood and wood composites, hard leather, and even coated forms of cardboard for enclosures. Larger appliances and products relied almost entirely on pressed sheet steel using techniques common to the auto industry -this as an improvement over the earlier reliance on woodcraft. By 1985, injection molding had reached a point where quite large and complex single piece objects were becoming possible, the largest at the time, at 1.75m long, being the body of the ill-conceived Sinclair C5 electric vehicle. With the introduction of rotomolding exceptionally large plastic structures have become increasingly practical, such as hot tubs, large chemical and water tanks many meters high and wide, and simple shelters. With such plastic tanks already being repurposed for utilitarian shelters, one can expect entire roto-molded cabins of significant size in the near future.
Such feats are very dependent on the nature of production facilities, which with centralized production evolved to become exceptionally large -as big as towns with some industries. It is of little importance for such facilities that typical machines like the sheet steel press could commonly be three storeys high. But with the progressive miniaturization of machine tool technology and the progressive localization of production, practical limitations in scale appear and new approaches to design become necessary to realize products of scale using smaller tools. As noted earlier, we characterize the Post-Industrial culture, in part, by its reliance on a new spectrum of miniaturized machine tools used in a local -potentially personal- context. Here the mode of production is demand-driven and highly diverse. Typical Industrial Age factories could specialize huge facilities for the production of just one product. But the Post-Industrial fabrication shop of the near future seeks to produce the full spectrum of artifacts supporting a high standard of living within the confines of a single small facility. Thus the miniaturization of the production facility must impact the approach to design in order that artifacts of large size and great diversity can be made.
Interestingly, a similar problem exists for the visionaries of prospective space habitats. In order for human beings to ultimately inhabit space, we will need to be able to deploy a complete industrial infrastructure there. But there's a key limitation. One cannot easily precision-fabricate artifacts in the ambient environment of space. Thus, by logical extension, one cannot precision-fabricate anything in space that you cannot fit through a pressure hatch. Because of this simple fact it becomes very easy to discern the difference between plausible and implausible proposals of space habitats by virtue of the visual indications of how they are made. If they look, for instance, like they appear to be made in the fashion of a conventional air liner it is safe to assume they are implausible because they would need a pressurized enclosure bigger than they are to make them in with some kind of pressure hatch large enough for them to pass through whole. However, modular structures -particularly those based on space frames- are obviously more plausible because they break down into a series of small modular components one might make in the confined spaces of a habitat, easily get through some modest-sized hatchway, and assemble simply in the ambient space environment -most likely with some robotic assistance of limited dexterity.
We can apply this same logic to the design of Post-Industrial artifacts based on a similar limitation in the scale of the independent fabrication workshop. Practical products of the local 'fab shop' must, by necessity, limit the maximum scale of any monolithic component, will favor modularity, and will favor employ of multi-functionality in components. This also suits the logic of the 'prosumer' who is seeking to optimize the ease of production of an artifact he is often making for his own use.
This brings us to our next precept;
- By virtue of the dimensional limits resulting from the miniaturization of fabrication systems, Post-Industrial design favors modularity following a strategy of maximum diversity of function from a minimum diversity of parts and materials -Min-A-Max.
As a consequence of this when combined with the tendency of Post-Industrial artifacts to be based on platforms rather than discrete self-contained non-evolving designs we derive yet another precept;
- Post-industrial artifacts tend to exhibit the characteristic of perpetual demountability, leading to ready adaptive reuse, repairability, upgradeability, and recyclability. By extension, they compartmentalize failure and obsolescence to discrete demountable components. A large Post-Industrial artifact can potentially live for as long as its platform can evolve -potentially forever.
A scary prospect for the conventional manufacturer banking on the practice of planned obsolescence, but then Post-Industrial production isn't concerned with a profit motive. It is concerned with maximum yield in productivity for the prosumer. Essentially, a prosumer seeks a maximum quality of life by maximizing his labor yield in the support of a given standard of living. All profit equates to time from people's lives. A Post-Industrial culture seeks to exploit demassification, localization, and ultimately personalization of industrial production as a means to recover the personal time lost to other people's profit in an Industrial Age consumer culture where you never get paid what you're worth and you never get your money's worth on anything you buy. That potential dividend is huge, especially if the productivity leverage of automation if fully implemented to that end. This is why discussions of Post-Industrial cultural emergence often revolve around such concepts as post-scarcity, cashless economics, and the job-less lifestyle. We foresee a point where maintaining a high standard of living requires about as much attention and effort as running a free web server.
Lifecycle, Resources, and Impact:
Another key characteristic of Industrial Age design concerns materials and the progressive shift across the past century from the natural to the synthetic and then to the increasingly complex synthetic in the spectrum of materials employed in manufactured goods. Until quite recently, this transition has been accompanied by a shift from the recyclable and biodegradable toward the non-recyclable, and non-biodegraseable, though the general concern for such things at all is fairly recent in industry. They have always had somewhere else to unload waste -even if the search for that place as increasingly approached the point of absurdity. The driving force behind this progression toward the synthetic has been both the compulsion to eliminate hand labor processes through molding techniques and costs. As we've depleted many common materials, industry has sought to use them increasingly efficiently (well, efficiently from the context of only one side of the equation...) to keep costs down. Wood is a good example of this. From the start of the 20th century on there has been a compulsion to find ways for the total utilization of lumber to maximize the value of the raw timber. This resulted in a trend in mainstream American housing that first saw traditional post and beam construction supplanted by light 'stick' frame, then saw that stick framing increasingly replaced by composite or engineered lumber, and now sees a growing use of Structural Insulated Panels that are a sandwich of plastic foam and oriented strand board. The modern house is evolving from a structure of wood to high-tech papier mache and, increasingly, plastics are being introduced. In the form of fiber-reinforced plastic extrusions, they are now even taking a structure role. People once scoffed at the Monsanto plastic house of the future at Disneyland, and yet this is exactly where we are today -even if we prefer to hide that reality behind drywall and paint. Plastic represents the most complete use of the lumber resource with an indifference to lumber quality (which is deteriorating worldwide due to over-harvesting and artificially accelerated tree growth) when it's being reduced to raw cellulose. On the positive side, this is bringing an end to the need for actually sourcing that cellulose from trees at all, allowing utilization of more quickly renewable plant sources like bamboo. But on the negative side the resulting composites and plastics are commonly less easily recyclable. Home renovation is a major source of landfill waste.
In the Post-Industrial production context, waste becomes a local problem that cannot be avoided by the local producer. They don't have the luxury of putting tons of trash on barges to send to distant economically disadvantaged communities out of sight and mind of the genteel folks. It also becomes a resource as the detritus of the Industrial Age can prove a valuable source of cheap raw materials for the imaginative. Early proponents of Post-Industrial theory and culture also tended to be strong proponents of the concept of adaptive reuse, seeking to employ industrial and architectural cast-offs in novel ways. The new designer/prosumer must be much more concerned about the whole lifecycle of artifacts, the management of waste as key to one's net productivity as any method of fabrication.
This brings us to our last precept;
- An effective design anticipates a lifecycle hierarchy defined by direct reuse, adaptive-reuse, upcycling, recycling, biodegradeability, and finally ultimate waste. Materials are chosen with this lifescycle in mind, thus favoring designs that use -and venerate- materials in simple unadulterated forms wherever possible. Paint and glue are sins.
This notion parallels the idea of employing modular component systems as direct reuse is the most efficient form of recycling. We can anticipate that common Post-Industrial artifacts will tend to rely more on mechanical assembly and feature far smaller spectrums of simpler materials where possible to accommodate other modes of reuse and recycling. Recycling technology tends to lag far behind other areas of advance in industrial technology. It has so long been such an overlooked aspect of industry that, even at the large and primitive Industrial Age scale of things it remains nascent. it may be some time for this technology to catch-up at the localized production scale. And so one must manage waste on the front-end; by the choice of materials and a conscious limitation on applications/decorations that hamper their recycling. Thus Post-Industrial design anticipates not just some product lifecycle but the total materials lifecycle. Being forced to live with one's own trash is an important impetus for thinking smarter about it.
Let's now consider some examples of artifacts that exhibit characteristics of Post-Industrial design sensibility. We've already discussed one of the prime examples;
The personal computer:
The PC represents the prime example of a product of an industrial ecology and the prime example of a platform superseding the designs of a very large variety of products based on it. The computer enthusiast can now personally create a computer in any form with any level of performance and features they desire simply by picking from an infinite assortment of parts found in innumerable on-line catalogs. If this is not enough, there are any number of services available for further customization of parts like enclosures. And this is global. The PC is the first 'world product'. Choices tend to dwindle with size, however, as the smaller the form factor the less flexible the integration of components and the more exclusive the designs of motherboards become to the designs of enclosures. With laptop computers assembly-on-demand is quite rare due to extreme limits on form factors and we have seen most portable computing devices evolve into blobjects as a result.
Today we are seeing the platforms of computers evolve in such a way as they don't just supersede any one form of product, they are no longer embodied by any one device. Network technology is now replacing the motherboard as the primary integrator of an overall personal computer system, with the resulting trend being a dissolution of the computer into a cloud of network integrated appliances that, individually, are becoming more blobject-like because they are so reduced in size and increasingly portable in nature. Early personal computers would seek to integrate everything that made up a computer -even the keyboards- into a single enclosure. A Swiss Army Knife logic prevailed with computer product design. Today, however, the primary subsystems and user interface elements of a computer are now often broken up into smaller separate self-contained components that may all belong to the same platform but are not of any common model line or even the same manufacturer. CPUs, network interfaces, hard disk drives, CD/DVD drives, monitors, keyboard, and some portable devices, all of these elements that collectively make-up a personal computer now are found as discrete network-integrated devices. In the near future, these devices will work collectively in multiples and without regard to physical distance and will be joined by many other consumer electronics and home appliances and many mobile devices that, today, exist as separate computers. TVs and their media servers, electronic toys, computerized tools and home appliances, laptops and mini-laptops, tablet displays and eBook readers, cell phones (increasingly taking the form of mini-tablets) and headsets will all become user interface appliances for a collective personal computer integrated without much respect to location. Curiously, while the individual components of the personal computer are evolving away from the Post-Industrial model towards becoming blobjects, the platforms of personal computers are evolving closer to the Post-Industrial ideal of complete architectural openness and community ownership.
The brain-child of designer Ken Isaacs, Living Structures and their building system -dubbed Matrix- were among the first deliberate attempts at Post-Industrial design. They are also some of the first examples of 'furnitecture'; furniture that crosses the line between furniture and architecture by exhibiting an integration of many zonal functions of living/working spaces and sometimes having characteristics of enclosure. They were also one of the inspirations for what came to be known as the Urban Nomad movement.
Like many mid-century intellectuals, Isaacs anticipated a radical transformation of western culture in the wake of what seemed, at the time, like the imminent wholesale failure of Capitalism and the rest of the Industrial Age paradigms. Thus he sought to use design as a means for society to re-appropriate the technologies of the collapsing Industrial Age in a new social context. Craft was all about hand-craft technique and talent -an art form little concerned with producing artifacts of practical use. This could not have mass impact. One needed to apply technology toward new fabrication techniques that maximized personal productivity toward independent support of a good standard of living realized in spite of the traditional cash-economic systems that seemed on the verge of failure. (much as they do today) Thus he envisioned a new 'do it yourself' ethic based on that premise. One could argue that Isaacs was the original Maker -as we call such enthusiasts today.
With this notion in mind, Isaacs devised a modular construction platform based on simple materials that could be handled with simple cheap tools yet serve for a very large variety of uses. Called Matrix, this simple system of 2x2 wood frame construction based on bolt-together 'trilap' joints and using simple surface-mount panels of plywood would later be revised in the form of a system called Box Beam that became a catalyst for the later Soft-Tech and grass-roots renewable energy movements of the 1970s. Today it has re-emerged under the name Grid Beam.
Using this simple building system and a system of modular element design, Isaacs then developed a series of furnitecture designs called Living Structures -because one could customize and adapt them spontaneously using the simple rules of the building/design system. The first of these devised as a way for he and his wife to maximize the use of the volume of a modest studio apartment, these DIY constructions combined multiple furniture features into common structures of roughly cubic unit forms that also allowed for access to the normally unusable overhead volume of a room, creating many levels of functional space in the standard single-storey volume. Resisting suggestions to market these designs as Modernist furniture products, Isaacs published his designs to free public use in a book entitled How To Make Your Own Living Structures and conducted a series of short courses teaching their construction in colleges around the world, admonishing his students to use and adapt the system to create for themselves. And so they did, with Living Structures emerging in the works of many young designers of the time and appearing in other books such as the Nomadic Furniture series and others similar focused on notions of adaptive reuse of common objects and industrial cast-offs.
Isaacs went on to experiment with ever-more-ambitious applications of his Living Structure principles, seeking to develop a practical system of 'nomadic housing' that suited a model of a future migrant intellectual youth culture that traveled the deteriorating cities and suburbs of the collapsing Industrial Age and repurposed their detritus into a new culture. An idea not so far removed from what SF writer Corey Doctorow -in the contemporary Maker context- recently dubbed the Outquisition. Switching from the wooden frame construction system to stressed-skin plywood structures and the use of early forms of pipe-fitting frame systems such as the ubiquitous Kee Klamp framing, he devised a variety of novel microhouse designs that have inspired many designers to this day, such as those of the N55 group in the Netherlands. Isaacs and his supporters even explored the creation of vehicles. However, as the scales of structures explored increased, Isaacs encountered increasing challenges with the limitations of simple materials, particularly with weatherizing his structures for use in the outdoor environment. Most of his microhouses proved short-lived -but then in the nomadic context they were not intended to be permanent in the manner of conventional housing. More like the traditional housing of native Americans and Polynesians, they were intended to constantly evolve and be renewed.
Tivoli Model One Radio:
One of the most iconic Modernist electronic appliance designs of the 20th century, the Model One radio was the creation of high fidelity audio technology pioneer Henry Kloss who cofounded a string of companies across his career producing breakthrough home audio products that, for the most part, all featured a characteristic minimalism in design, at once retrospective and modern, very high in quality yet understated in appearance. More an engineer than an industrial designer, Kloss' designs were always about the technology on the inside of the box. In that they make a powerful visual statement in their external simplicity. The origin of the Model One design lay in the two-piece KLH Model Eight monaural table radio (one box for the radio, one matching box for the speaker, and both designed for convenient bookshelf placement) -the product of the second company Kloss co-founded. Brought out of retirement to co-found the Tivoli company, he revised this design with more modern MOSFET technology producing the Model One monaural radio and its related Model Two stereo system. This remains the anchor product of the Tivoli company to this day, the basic form factor and its simple aesthetic now adapted to support more contemporary CD players, satellite radios, and digital audio systems.
It is the minimalism of Koss's design that makes the Model One a model for Post-Industrial style. A throw-back to some degree to the construction of the earliest of home radios, it takes the form of a simple open-ended finished wooden box that uses simple recessed flat alloy plates to enclose front and back and simple internal stand-offs to support its circuitry, all held together with a few screws on the back plate. A 3" circular speaker is matched to a 3" tuning nob with two smaller nobs and two simple LED lights in between rounding out the only controls. Many old electronics devices have used similar enclosures but, whether by insight or chance, Koss arrived as a particular set of dimensions for this simple box (212.7mm wide, 114.3mm high, and 133.35mm deep) that not only proved visually appealing and most convenient for placement on a table or shelf but also proved well adapted to accessory components and many other electronic device uses. A simple modification of the front and back faceplates is all that is needed to accommodate different applications. More recent products of the company have diverged from the original design form but a half dozen products in the Tivoli line still employ this exact same enclosure in a variety of color options. Thus this design has become a platform for many kinds of electronic devices relating to the original radio. It could work for much more. One can easily imagine this exact same enclosure employed with countless devices including personal computer hardware.
In the context of early Post-Industrial production, where fabrication technology still remains somewhat limited in flexibility and scale, an enclosure design like the Model One's would accommodate the need to maximize productivity from a minimum of reusable modular component elements. One could thus readily imagine today's Makers employing such an enclosure in a thousand applications and readily evolving their internal components as technology evolves without throwing away other perfectly reusable components. It was with the inspiration of the Model One that this author, some time ago, proposed the concept of enclosure profiles; extruded tubular profiles in a small range of sizes that would accommodate a large variety of appliances and electronics using the same basic design approach. These extrusions might be made of a variety of materials -though aluminum is most-likely- and would feature integral circuit board slots, screw tap ridges, and external ridges for heat sink fins and stand-off legs. The profiles would be produced as a stock material, cut to length, and routed on their open ends to accommodate simple recessed face and back plates held in place by screws. Simply by using different profile lengths, cutting and marking different face and back plates, and mounting different internal components an endless variety of devices could be accommodated with the same profile, and this would be further expanded by a small spectrum of profiles for common device sizes;pocket scale devices like music players and cell phones, tablet-like devices like portable computers or monitors, desk/shelf/table devices like radios, small appliances, and computer hardware, large appliance enclosures for things like computer printers, microwave ovens, and so on. For the largest enclosures, composite profiles would be used, based on precision-interlocking corner or side panel profiles with different optional formed-in features.
Currently, the Maker community continues to rely largely on adaptive reuse of found objects for electronics enclosures. But when indigenous enclosure component designs start to become standardized among some users, it's likely that something very similar to the Model One design will emerge.
The well-intentioned but ill-fated brainchild of famous photojournalist Tony Howarth, the Africar was perhaps the first Post-Industrial vehicle design. After many years traveling the roughest parts of the globe, Howarth came to the realization that the industrialized countries were doing a great disservice to the developing countries in the export of used conventional automobiles designed to suit the roads and auto service infrastructure of those industrialized nations but very poorly adapted to the situation and environment in the rest of the world. In the poor road conditions of developing countries, common automobiles were short-lived and repairs -if possible at all- impossibly expensive because of reliance on imported components. (this is why, today, we commonly see a ubiquity of just a few brands and models of cars and trucks in the developing world -typically the few most rugged and cheap of Japanese made vehicles like the Toyota pickup trucks) To address this problem, Howarth came up with the notion of developing a new low-cost automobile specifically adapted to the situation of developing nations. A car that could handle the rough conditions of unpaved roads, was simple enough in design that it could be largely made locally even in these poor countries, and which was very simple to repair even with crude tools because it would be made mostly of wood.
With a design akin to a cross between a station wagon and a very light sport utility vehicle in four and six wheel variants and a pickup truck form, the Africar employed the suspension, engine, and drive train from the then still ubiquitous Citroén 2CV and a carriage-style frame and body made of engineered wood laminates and resin-impregnated marine plywood that could be repaired with low skill and potentially endlessly customized. Though this use of wood seemed strange to the generally unimaginative motor enthusiast community, engineers had well demonstrated its equivalent strength and safety to any other composite materials used in the most expensive sports cars and was potentially very environmentally sustainable -particularly with the potential use of bamboo laminates. Development plans even called for eventual development of a low-precision engine that could be fabricated in lower-tech machine shops, replacing the use of the 2CV engine.
Africar International Limited was formed in 1986 and plans called for the creation of numerous small local production facilities across the world. Unfortunately, Tony Howarth's skill as a businessman was not remotely close to his skill as a photographer and from the beginning his start-up company spiraled into an uncontrollable escalation of debt and missed milestones. Constant re-design of the vehicles delayed initial production and in an ill-conceived attempt to cover escalating debt cars were sold in advance of production and a dubious loan crowdsourcing scheme introduced. Today a concept of this sort would have most-certainly been approached as an open source project but at the time that was a very new and alien concept even to the computer industry, though, ironically, the roots of the open source concept are said to actually originate in very early auto industry history and the formation of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturer's Association. With a chronically nebulous business plan, mounting debts, a growing mob of increasingly frustrated customers and investors, and no end to the design and engineering finalization in sight, the fate of the Africar was sealed. To avoid prosecution when the company finally collapsed in 1988, Howarth exiled himself in the US until 1994, whereupon he was arrested on return to the UK. The Africar briefly resurfaced in the form of the Bedouin, a kit car with a fiberglass body shell offered as a 2CV conversion and made by the company called Special Vehicle Conversion. Only a few of the kit conversions were produced before this vehicle also disappeared. For reasons unknown, to date no plans of the Africar or Bedouin are known to exist. With so many OScar projects now emerging around the world, it seems odd that this obvious contender has not reemerged. Either the plans have been completely lost or those who hold them are grossly lacking in foresight.
Since the invention of pressed steel welded unibody construction in the 1930s, the manufacture of even the most practical and minimalist of mainstream automobiles has been dominated by giant corporations with access to massive amounts of investment capital able to cover the costs of production systems of huge scale -in particular the three storey steel presses used to produce primary chassis shell pieces and whose forms alone are said to cost millions to make and must be cost-justified by ridiculously large production volumes. The Africar was one of the few contemporary mainstream vehicle designs to defy this norm. It was a vehicle that could be built in facilities of small scale and relatively low technology, was designed in anticipation of free customization and evolution by its own users, and was so serviceable and repairable it could live forever. It was an excellent example Post-Industrial design principles. It embodies exactly what would be an ideal open source car -far more so than most of the designs currently being developed by OScar projects. Had the Africar succeeded it might have radically changed the situation in the developing world and emerged as the successor in ubiquity to the 2CV and VW Beetle. It's a tragedy that such a promising and potentially world-changing design was felled by mere executive incompetence.
The Honda Unibox:
The most novel entry in the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show was a vehicle so unlike anything seen before that it left western auto industry reporters and reviewers largely confused. Many reviewers panned the design because of its extensive use of transparent body panels -completely missing the obvious point of their use as a means to showcase the very novel structural features of the vehicle. Designed by Sam Livingstone, the Honda Unibox is 'kai van' type of microvan vehicle and one of the few attempts at a totally modular automobile platform. Like the motherboard of a personal computer, the foundation of this platform is a flat chassis module hosting six wheels; two large front wheels linked to an extremely compact front engine module and two pair of smaller wheels in the back. A unique wheel-integrated suspension system eliminates conventional bulky suspension systems. The top surface of the chassis module features a wooden deck with longitudinal aluminum alloy slots into which seats and other fixtures are plugged in and freely positioned. A heads-up-display replaces conventional dashboard instruments and a drive-by-wire control system puts all driving controls into a repositionable joystick. A video rear-view monitor is mounted in a bar spanning the whole top edge of the wind shield space providing a panoramic view. A folding touch display emerges from slot in a curved wooden front bulkhead, providing access to a navigation system, audio system, and Internet. A set of aluminum truss beams plug into the chassis to form the boxy shape of the vehicle and host external and internal body panels as well as LED indicator lights. Within the interior volume created by the trusswork a series of accessories are stored, including an electric mini-scooter and powered cart. 17 alternately clear or opaque (all clear in the concept vehicle) panels make up the body of the vehicle which also features two large side doors with integral electric lifts for the folding scooter and cart and a large back door.
Virtually all the components making up the Unibox are demountable and interchangeable, bolted-on or employing a plug-in interface. The side panels in particular are intended for owner-customization, being freely swapped with clear or opaque panels in any number of colors, patterns, or surface textures. The form of the vehicle would be freely modified by a different set of plug-in truss elements, allowing it to assume a vast assortment of forms. While the prototype employed an extremely compact but conventional 4 cylinder in-line engine module, the form factor could readily suit any number of different power plants and anticipates the use of hybrid or electric power.
Though like most concept cars it is less than entirely practical and will never become a production vehicle, the Unibox is like an embroidery sampler of every key industrial design concept likely to become significant in the 21st century. This is the epitome of a Post-Industrial vehicle, though in practice it is more likely that functional vehicles of the emerging Post-Industrial age will rely -initially- on more durable space frame chassis as with luxury 'supercars'. (which are commonly built in small facilities and use space frames and composite bodies both for their superior performance and as a way to avoid the cost of large steel presses. As we've seen with the Model One, luxury products often have characteristics in common with the Post-Industrial style due to their basis in small volume hand-based production in modest scale facilities. In many ways Post-Industrial production is a revival of pre-industrial modes of production enhanced in productivity by new technology)
Tomahouse and Jeriko House:
Across the 20th century inventors and architects have been experimenting with means to industrialize housing production in order to address the ubiquitous and worsening problem of homelessness and sub-standard housing that emerged as a side-effect of Industrial Age paradigms themselves. For the past century the production of housing has resisted all attempts to industrialize it in any effective way, in part because the scale and complexity of the typical home is so great (in point of fact, the automobile is the largest artifact effectively produced by centralized continuous mass production. Everything larger tends to be produced in intermittent series production -like airplanes), in part because the traditional builder community has always tended to resist new technology which it always regards as a threat to job security, and because there is a fundamental economic aberration in the relationship between built structure and property value resulting in an essential dysfunction of the common housing finance paradigm -made painfully obvious in the past two years on a global scale.
The industrialization of housing was a particular obsession of mid-century Modernist architects who often saw a solution in the concept of modularization. However, none of the countless modularization schemes devised over the century proved viable -and this is not because they were impractical in function and performance but rather that they persistently failed to find the necessary support from industrialists to bring them to market. Though commonly attributed by the inventors of these systems to simple stupidity and lack of foresight on the part investors and corporate executives, the fact of the matter is that these proponents of modular architecture tended to have very poor grasp of the natural of industrial production nor a clear understanding of the difference between products and platforms. Often they would pursue ideal or 'perfect' house architectures which they thought could be universally standardized like the essentially universal architecture of the mass produced automobile. Essentially the problem of the practical industrially produced house is exactly the same as the problem as the practical cost-effective personal computer; housing is simply too big, complicated, and diverse as a technology for any one company to industrialize it effectively and comprehensively by itself. And thus the solution to industrialization of housing production is largely the same as that which proved the case with the computer; the industrial ecology of multiple manufacturers in a ecology of interdependence defined by architectural platforms. But unlike the computer industry, the housing industry had no ground-up modularization in another more fundamental industry (electronics) on which to rely as a source of established components production that could be re-purposed to a housing application. In other words, there was no other kind of building industry whose already established production of components offered potential repurposing to the housing application. Thus there was no basis of an ad hoc evolution toward an industrial ecology for housing as there was for the computer. This needed a purposeful cultivation -which of course was not possible when architects and building system inventors generally lacked the slightest comprehension of how industrial production and its underlying economics actually worked.
However, there were hints of a solution, in the notion of 'plug-in architecture' and in Modernists' experiments in adaptive reuse of prefabricated industrial structures -as exemplified by the mid-century work of Charles and Ray Eames. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eames_House) The concept of plug-in architecture was devised as a strategy of industrialization through the modularization of building elements intended to simplify and speed the on-site construction process while affording pre-fabrication of the bulk of a structure in a factory setting. Most plug-in architecture schemes tended to be hopelessly large in unit module scale, in part because many architects could not relinquish their ego in the design of platforms for housing rather than discrete house designs. This would ultimately lead to industrialist indifference because there simply is no one or even few housing designs that can be standardized as universal. No one house design can hope to have the market appeal to realize the production volumes necessary to justify large scale continuous mass production. But another, rarer, group of designers looked at the concept of plug-in architecture from the context of a much smaller component scale geared toward owner-building. They envisioned systems of housing akin to very advanced office partition systems where the owners of homes could readily build durable structures of their own using simple rules that could be encoded, in some fashion, into the interfaces of system components, creating a pre-engineered fool-proof building system. And here is where this concept converged the explorers of adaptive reuse of modular industrial building systems, chosen for their pre-fabricated virtues, their simplicity of assembly, and their over-engineered structural performance making their use fool-proof in a housing context. But the industrial building systems of the time tended to be designed for large space structures with large steel structural elements that precluded ready owner-building except at the scale of finishing elements. It would take some decades more for industrial building technology to realize something more suited to the small component plug-in architecture scheme.
In the 1980s such an industrial building system did emerge -not in the form of a system for industrial buildings but rather in a system intended for structures used in industrial automation. Though predictions of an era of Total Automation appeared early in the 20th century, the advance of automation was long hampered by the combination of high systems cost with high rates of obsolescence and a tendency for overspecialization in systems design. The 'universal robot' remained a creature of science fiction while actual automation systems proved difficult to cost-justify, making industrial outsourcing a more effective option. Almost simultaneously during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of companies around the globe began offering a new modular building technology specifically for industrial automation based on extruded aluminum T-slot profiles. Employing simple bolt-together assembly and a burgeoning assortment of modular system elements, T-slot offered a way to overcome some of the problems associated with the adoption of automation by allowing systems to be both readily custom-designed to a manufacturer's needs and perpetually upgraded to suit changes in technology. T-slot quickly became ubiquitous, not only in automation but in robotics research, science and engineering laboratories, office furnishings, and even the arts. The advent of this technology may have been key in the radical shift late in the century in favor of flexible contract job-shop over traditional centralized production, resulting in a decline in large factory development by and after the turn of the century.
Sometime in the late 1980s, a German resident of Bali named Frank Toma took notice of this new framing technology and began to explore its application as a light building system for vacation and resort cottages. He found many of the countless accessory components potentially repurpose-able in a house building context and developed an at once both simple and sophisticated building system combining high-tech T-slot components sourced in Germany with the hand-crafted woodworking found in Indonesia, Using aluminum profiles for housing construction was, of course, not entirely new. Even as early as the 1950s, this application had been demonstrated by inventor/architect Jacque Fresco -now known for his work as a futurist with The Venus Project. But this early technology had the same problem of all modular house building systems devised in the past in that it was new and exclusive to this housing application, had few home designs, and had to establish a massive production infrastructure from scratch. Unlike all other modular house building systems, T-slot had pre-established production as an industrial product and so needed to justification as a house building system for its primary parts production. The housing 'application' simply added to the pre-established market for T-slot. This is the key element that has been missing in the schemes for industrialized housing all along. This is what was needed to bootstrap this modular technology -just as the personal computer relied on the pre-established electronic components production as a source from which to build its own industry from. With the aid of designers Shinta Siregar and Pamela Pangestu of Nexus Studios, the fledgling Tomahouse company devised an elegant aesthetic for a series of pre-fab cottage and house designs that seamlessly blend Modernist, Asian, Polynesian, and even nautical aesthetics while conforming the limitations of a completely modular building system relying entirely on bolt-together construction.
Little of the underlying technology employed in the Tomatech system was proprietary -given the increasingly ubiquitous nature of T-slot technology itself, and as the Modernist Pre-Fab craze took hold across the 1990s and T-slot profile makers began expanding their product lines to include larger profiles, Tomahouse was quickly joined by a number of other developers of T-slot based housing. Key among these are New Orleans based Jeriko House, which at first started as a US distributor of Toma Tech, and iT House in California. Several other firms employ similar technology with more proprietary profiles. Frankly, all these housing developers are in nascent stages of development and few complete houses have been built by any of them. But this modular building concept has much traction today and interest in the technology is growing.
With this technology edging toward an international open source building platform, (which this author has dubbed collectively as Utilihab) it appear to be realizing the ideal of plug-in architecture. Like the early computer, it is still limited in efficiency by the limitations of adaptive reuse of components not designed specifically for it. As it emerges as a significant application -and hence market- it in own right it will likely evolve an ecology of supporting developers and sub-component manufacturers in exactly the same way the computer did -depending on just how effective its current developers are at pushing the technology into the cultural consciousness. Key to this is that, unlike most other modular building technologies of the past, Utilihab has no pre-determined aesthetic to impose upon the designers that work with it. One look at the photos of the beautiful Bale cottage prototype developed by Tomahouse clearly demonstrates the aesthetic versatility of this building system. This is not a future technology for the fanciful 'house of tomorrow.' This is a high-tech approach to very luxurious housing in the here and now.
In a Post-Industrial context, we have in this building technology a good model for housing based on a broadly distributed and potentially localized production scheme much as we see with the computer. Its potential for cultivating an industrial ecology that could do for housing what it did for the computer -the most costly and complex artifact humans ever produced- puts it far ahead of any other housing technology. But will this potential finally be realized, or will traditional Industrial Age self-interest among its small current community of developers doom it to the same fate as all the modular building systems of the past? Time will tell.
The Furniture Houses:
If T-slot architecture represents the foundation of a Post-Industrial technology for housing, the Furniture Houses of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban present us with a glimpse of what that technology may look like in its ultimate refined form -analogous to comparing the mini-computers of the late 1970s to the personal computer of today. Best known for his novel and elegant architectural applications of cardboard, Shigeru Ban is a designer of the New Modernist school with a preference for very minimalist aesthetics and a fondness for classic open-plan pavilion forms. Some time in the 1990s he made an interesting observation. It seemed that the factory-fabricated shelving and cabinet systems commonly employed in up-scale homes were potentially of a much higher structural quality than the frame construction common to houses in Japan in general and this suggested the possibility that they actually could actually be used as primary load-bearing structural elements in a home design. To explore this concept, he began a series of designs called Furniture Houses (which include some named house designs like the Nine-Square Grid House, Veneer Grid Roof House, and Sagaponac House) where a specially adapted prefabricated cabinetry system is used to make furniture elements doubling as primary structural elements. The result is a series of spacious minimalist pavilion homes formed of a handful of a remarkably small number of physical elements most of which serve multi-duty as shelving, cabinetry, counters, and the like and often integrate many utilities infrastructure elements. In effect the floor and roof of the homes functions like a space-defining backplane -a motherboard- for the other elements in the homes which serve as functional, partition, and structural elements defining subspaces.
This prefab cabinetry system is not actually designed to function as a plug-in architecture system. But the overall designs of the Furniture Houses clearly suggests the way such a system is likely to evolve as the repurposed modular component system of industrial T-slot adapts to the use of more architecturally-specialized components integrating progressively more technology into progressively more pre-finished and self-contained structural elements. In the ultimate plug-in architecture vision we arrive at digitally aware components where the characteristics of furniture, appliance, utilities, and structural components merge into prefabricated user-manipulated units that have largely tool-less integral quick-connection mechanisms and an integral digitally networked sensory elements that allow the house as a whole to track and monitor its structural integrity as the occupants dynamically interact with it. We can thus envision a construction process where the resident himself -with no tools- assembles floor and roof 'backplanes', jacks the latter up with temporary lifts, installs -with digital guidance from live integral computers- plug-in furnishing, appliance, and partition elements doubling as load bearing elements, finishes enclosure with window and exterior wall units, and completes construction with a choice of plug-in floor and ceiling panels, some with integral lighting, heating, power, and digital network fixtures. For solitary person this whole process might take as little as a single day. And all of this would be freely adaptive and demountable. One could pack up a whole house like a deployable piece of furniture. This is housing in the Post Industrial Age."