Defining the Digital Vernacular

Over the past two years, the makeLab has explored many veins of inquiry into digital fabrication, parametric design, and making.  This year the team has been seeking ways to move beyond the novelty of the technology.  This is to say, we do not feel it is enough to just make inventive “things” without a larger consideration of their legitimacy within the built world.  It is important to understand that innovation will not come from ignoring methods of the past, but only through a higher understanding of these methodologies and where new digital tools align.

Bulloch Co. GA, Photo copyright Brian Brown,

Vernacular, as it relates to architecture and design, is defined by material abundance, skill, and access to tools.  As J.B. Jackson observed in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984), the architecture of farmers and wage earners was transformed with the settlement of the New World.  The abundance of wood, paired with knowledge of woodworking tools, spawned a vernacular revolution that has been carried out to the present.

It was the accessibility to tools and the material that changed the vernacular, not the architect or the corporation.  Much like the recent democratization of information brought on by the Internet, the democratization of manufacturing and mass customization has brought digital tools within reach of builders, makers, and architects.  This accessibility can be seen in the wage-to-tool cost ratio over the past 100 years. In 1922, a carpenter could expect to make $1.00 per/hour (Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters) while a circular saw would cost $285 (1922 Hibbard Spencer Bartlett & Co., p179) making the ratio .35%.  Comparatively, a carpenter in 2010 earning $19.00 per/hour ( can expect to pay around $10,000 for a new 3-axis CNC ( with a ratio of .19%.  With a ratio as low as .19% it is easy to conclude that the wage-to-tool cost ratio puts digital fabrication technology within reach to the vernacular trades.  This data is further reinforced when considering that only 15 years ago the ratio was easily above the 1922 ratio of .35%.  In 1996, Ted Hall, a professor at Duke University was frustrated that the entry level CNC cost approximately $30,000.  Motivated for the need for a low cost machine, Ted founded ShopBot Tools. that today still provides low-cost, high quality CNC technology to individuals, educational institutions, and industry professionals.

Given the significant drop in digital fabrication equipment over the past decade and the low entry level skills required to run these tools, we can now say we have an opportunity for a new Digital Vernacular – one that is not intended to seek new form-making, but one to improve and inform traditional vernacular methods of the past.  It will be the responsibility of architects, carpenters, and master craftsmen to insure the quality of design and making so it does not desolve into high-volume, low-quality results.

3 thoughts

  1. You present very interesting and very relevant data here and your conclusions are most insightful. What will be very interesting to see will be the way the digital fabrication tools will interact with existing skills and work-flows once it enters the vernacular, especially since a lot of academic usage focuses on the novelty of digital fabrication technology, as you have pointed out.

    Unfortunately, from what little experience I have of working with fabricators using digital tools in manufacturing and construction, there appears to be a lot of inertia in changing existing work-flows. The mind-set I often see is people who have invested in the “new and expensive” equipment are afraid to take “risks” with the way they use their investment.

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