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On "FAB" (Winter 2017)

It was so good to read Stuart Kestenbaum (“Craft brew”) on Maine’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts evolving a relationship with MIT, developing new ways to think about things and new ways to make them. This is Haystack’s creative tradition. Kestenbaum mentioned how founding director Fran Merritt partnered with other craftspeople and institutions, including the late Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation. I was there for the program titled “Craftspeople Addressing the Future and the Quality of Life.”

I was a young architecture intern then, drawing and building on the construction site that is Arcosanti still, surrounded by men and women who were exploring traditional materials in a new light and making their pursuit of craft a model of behavior. Haystack’s program offered weaving, blacksmithing, ceramics, glass, and stonemasonry, an example of which still stands at Arcosanti, 43 years later.

In a 1973 letter to potential Haystack at Arcosanti students, Merritt cautioned them to bring “clothing appropriate for varied temperatures (hot days, cool nights), rain gear, a hat for the hot sun, sturdy shoes, towel, flashlight and whatever else you can think of. Stonemasonry and blacksmithing students should bring work gloves, preferably leather. Special note: We are eager to enrich our time together with materials on art and craft of other cultures—books, objects, even folk music. We will have some things on hand and ask that you have it in mind to bring whatever you can to heighten the experience, providing that these things are not too delicate or valuable.”

Haystack continues to pursue a kind of work—craft work—whose very manifestation declares ourselves to be alive. Thanks for reminding us!

Jeff Stein AIA
President, Cosanti Foundation
Arcosanti, Arizona

D.C. Denison’s article, “Economy of scale,” examines the emergence of the maker culture and breaks down some of the challenges the movement faces as it navigates forward. One challenge discussed in the piece is that of funding. Inventors who prototype in maker spaces can create amazing products that have potential to do well on the market. How they find the financial means to execute that leap becomes the next problem in the design process. The obvious solutions for this are platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which present great ideas to the masses and collect substantial funds for makers to take that next step into large-volume manufacturing. They also help expose people who don’t produce compelling campaigns. If your product is not properly represented to potential investors, it tanks.

As an educator, this paradigm comes into play all the time. I teach product design at Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT), where students are always coming up with fantastic concepts. What they lack is money and time to drive their ideas to the next level. Thankfully, WIT has a program called Accelerate that readily funds students to develop their ideas into products and take them to market. Students must prove the validity of their ideas to a committee with a short presentation and a prototype—a far better option than spending months developing a campaign aimed at crowdfunding sites. This program excites me because it helps empower young makers and inventors in a manner that allows them to focus on progressing through school.

Can the maker movement provide a significant impact on the US economy and industry? This can only be answered with time. I do know that fostering the talents of young designers and makers will help advance the conversation. Hopefully more programs like Accelerate will emerge to help the movement gain momentum.

Steven Listwon
Co-owner, Jaywalk Studio
Woburn, Massachusetts

D. C. Denison discusses a number of impor­tant considerations for the future of US manufacturing and the maker movement. His emphasis on “a deeply American source of decentralized creativity” resonates with me as an architect and a citizen. It recognizes that creativity can originate from anywhere and from anyone. It also shows ways to effectively capture it.

What may appear unrelated phenomena — such as open sourcing, crowdfunding, and tinkering with everyday products — points to a new social agreement that has begun transforming contemporary culture. These new attitudes toward collectively shared cultural production are driven by technological developments that are democratizing forms of communication, means of production, and ultimately knowledge creation.

While the maker movement empowers designers through direct engagement in the creating of the built environment, it also transforms the relationship between creators and consumers. Users can not only customize products to meet their personal needs but also contribute to the source design. This significantly shifts the future roles of designers from sole content creators to mentors and facilitators of socially and culturally driven creativity.

As Denison points out, companies that are developing open-source, modular designs as a base for a do-it-yourself movement are noticing this consumer aspiration. Opendesk, for example, allows consumers to download drawings and fabricate furniture themselves or through a network of local fabricators. So-called open making not only helps designers achieve a global presence and distribution but also allows makers to meet customers and customers to have “designer products without the designer price tag.” The net gain of this new paradigm goes beyond revitalization of local manufacturing and provides opportunities for increasing society’s creative freedom.

Andrzej Zarzycki
Associate Professor, College of Architecture and Design
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Blaine Brownell AIA highlights an exciting new material, Zeoform, as a sustainable replacement for plastics in “Organic chemistry.” Plastics, he notes, are too often a blight on the planet across their life cycle, consuming approximately 7 to 8 percent of world oil and gas production and involving vast quantities of chemicals that can cause cancer, adversely affect reproductive and developmental health, and disrupt the endocrine system.

In the “Plastics Scorecard” report published in 2014, our organization estimated that plastics consume annually more than 538 billion pounds of known hazardous chemicals, including benzene and styrene; Bisphenol A, or BPA; and vinyl chloride monomer (used to make vinyl). And plastics, being very persistent, are slow to degrade, grossly contaminating our oceans, where they are projected to be greater in weight than all the fish in the oceans by 2050.

New materials such as Zeoform and Ecovative, a sustainable plastic replacement made from mycelium (a component of mushrooms and other fungi), are exciting sustainable innovations to fossil fuel–based plastics. They derive from abundant natural and/or waste materials, do not require hazardous chemicals inputs, and generate significantly less hazardous outputs (though independent research needs to be performed on the waste products from the manufacturing of these materials). They hold the potential to be safely degraded back into the environment.

An important question for any product, including naturally based polymers such as Zeoform and Ecovative, is: What are all the ingredients in the product? Trans­parency across the life cycles of materials, including chemical inputs and outputs, and clear metrics of biodegradability, will be essential to documenting that these are, indeed, authentically superior sustainable products. Material innovation for sustainability is critical in the building industry, especially in replacing fossil fuel–based plastics with truly more sustainable materials.

Mark S. Rossi, PhD
Executive Director, Clean Production Action
Somerville, Massachusetts

The five profiles in “Material witnesses” offer insight into people who know their craft — and perhaps more important, know how to work with others. Although the essays focused on individuals and their specific materials of interest (stone, glass, etc.), their work is most compelling when integrated within the complexities of broader building systems. The most challenging and interesting architectural moments emerge at the inevitable intersections of different materials. How do materials with distinct properties and associations interface? These encounters have the potential to be moments of crisis (when the logic of monolithic materiality is compromised and collapses) or, instead, vignettes of tectonic poetry.

It’s the work of visionaries like those profiled here that continues to inspire our fabrication research at firms that are pushing the boundaries of architectural practice. Exploring geometric and material relationships by prototyping full-scale architectural elements helps us to produce better design work and communicate it more effectively to our clients, our collaborators, and ourselves.

Parke Macdowell AIA
Fabrication Manager and Associate, Payette