digital vernacular

Over the years, the makeLab has explored many veins of inquiry related to digital fabrication, parametric design, and making.  Ultimately, we have worked to move beyond the novelty of digital fabrication; this led us to what we now refer to as the digital vernacular.   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.

Vernacular, as it relates to architecture and design, is defined by material availability,  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 materials 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 (see) can expect to pay around $10,000 for a new 3-axis CNC ( resulting in 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 of 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 dissolve into high-volume, low-quality results.

In the makeLab, we practice the digital vernacular through our actions (serious play), our tools (we make ourselves), and our processes (rooted in tradition).


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