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The S.O.B. and The Hardhat

 There are those not embarrassed to be called sidewalk superintendents: the millionaire in his unstructured blazer, the local loafer in his peppermint cable knit, the schoolgirl in her pleated skirt.

Nancy Cheng unfolds new forms of construction

Arms folded over authoritative chests, the sidewalk superintendents follow an I-beam as it’s hoisted to the 52nd floor, while a hardhat emerges before them like a god from a cage, wiping his brow with his forearm, while two flights up a visored welder sports a halo of smoking embers.

In the humdrum of existence, what a welcome show this, one involving great skill and courage, and all for free— men, women, and machines nonchalantly producing marvels of engineering.

Then what makes today’s construction industry so painfully slow and inefficient, out of sync with the BIM-driven world of design? Where might synergy begin to occur between architecture and construction, 2 + 2 equaling 5 because that’s what’s needed to meet the building requirements of our exploding global population?

The zig-zag accordion pleat, center, represents the kind of pattern that can be easily molded over forms with one direction of curvature. The other two always have a convex side, so they naturally form cylinders, and the right one can create a sphere. Visit Origami Magic Ball

According to an article published in The Economist this August, referencing a McKinsey report, “American builders’ productivity has plunged by half since the late 1960s… Construction holds the dubious honor of having the lowest productivity gains of any industry.”  This was true, according to the article, even when the accelerating costs of regulation and materials were taken into account.

So, there you have it: Apple’s headquarters two years behind and two billion over budget. In the UK, 60 percent of buildings running late. How about your projects?

Cheng’s bubble tank tests shapes and textures.


The Economist blames two factors slowing projects down, both compelling: the first is the use of cheap labor instead of capital investment in automation. Given construction’s boom and bust cycles, this makes a kind of sense. While you can’t fire a debt, you can always dismiss a worker when things go south.

The second factor is lack of consolidation, of efficient firms pushing out the laggards: 730,000 building outfits, averaging ten employees each in the U.S. alone, with almost every project subject to widely varying codes, with designs customized in a way that “makes it harder to reap the benefits of scale.

So, is there hope? Clearly. Bank on significant synergies about to happen between design and construction involving 3-D printing, active materials, robotics, CNC routing, the burgeoning Maker Movement coupled with artificial intelligence.

Nancy Yen-wen Cheng headed up the national American Institute of Architects’ Technology in Architectural Practice group in 2004, as well as the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) from 2009-2011.

Cheng is currently a leading researcher working out of the University of Oregon’s architecture program, where she will be department head starting in January 2018. She cites Concrete Canvas as one commercially available example of this sea change, where high-tech design can work seamlessly with the high-tech (read: highly-efficient) construction of the future.

You just roll out this impregnated fabric, according to Professor Cheng, soak with a hose to activate, and voila, a water-proof, fire-resistant layer of concrete ready is ready to use in 24 hours. Imagine what you could design with some “live hinges” printed into the fabric as well, along with an artificial-intelligence plug-in that knows all the local codes.

When the College of College of Design at the University of Oregon purchased a CNC router in 2006, Prof. Cheng took a RhinoCAM workshop to explore how to put it to use. There she tested out the Flamingo renderer for Rhino to see if she could capture the plant-like forms and colors of glassmaker Dale Chihuly, whose work continues to inspire her own.

The question remains for Cheng, and researchers around the globe is this: what shape this should this material take? What form would make construction more efficient, with better structural support, airflow, aesthetics, acoustics, rainwater collection, natural lighting, and waste reduction?

Like the Pritzker-winning architect Frei Otto, who famously found minimal surface forms by with soap films,, Cheng is exploring the possibilities in folding and cutting, draping and stretching fabric, “Origami on steroids,” as she calls it. “The elegant transposition of 2-D into 3-D.” Such elegance will consequently transpose the construction industry from one-offs to a mass-customized, plug-and-play model.

“Now it’s a matter of how to get the most out of a single sheet. Folding is super-efficient in that way, no waste. Now how can we cut, pierce, and fold to allow for natural light and cooling, for example?” says Cheng. Researcher David Correa has prototyped an AM (Additive Manufacturing) technology for printing thin wood fiber composite sheets with joints already in place. CNC routers could make the perforations

In Cheng’s Oregon, there’s plenty of wood scattered on the forest floor that could be ground up efficiently.  Cheng is working with the Tallwood Design Institute at Oregon State on how wood-cement composites could be used for 3D printing of architectural elements. The composites could be created from factory scraps or damaged trees, as clearing forest debris could reduce fire risk and provide rural jobs.  The composites could contain sensors, as Hewlett Packard has successfully used inks that conduct electricity with its Multi Jet Fusion platform to 3D print strain gauges. See

“The product could make for a lot of local jobs,” says Cheng.

A former student and assistant to Harvard Design School Dean Bill Mitchell, Cheng learned early on to connect Palladian and other classical systems to computer design and to make those computations intelligible to all, from hard hats to homeowners, humans of every stamp. Concentrate on the human experience of design, Mitchell urged, without fetishizing high tech.

Surface into Form. Cheng’s 2017 Shape Dis-place workshop, using stretched and draped fabric. With collaborators Marziah Rajabzadeh and Mohsen Marizad.

To this day, Cheng and her GSD classmates refer to themselves as S.O.B.s, Students of Bill, a network now stretched around the world. “We S.O.B.s are not always the most cutting edge, but we can talk to many kinds of people,” says Cheng.

Stacks of cardboard boxes containing folded and laser-cut shapes fill Cheng’s campus office in Eugene, Oregon, some origamis on steroids still unpacked, hanging on clotheslines.The irony of these delicately folded pieces—ephemeral and practically angelic, holding in their forms the key to the efficient construction of megastructures meant to last for all time—is hard to miss.

“Shapes with accordion-like pleats can be pulled and flexed to make almost anything,” she says. With colleagues Marziah Rajabzadeh and Mohsen Marizad, Cheng found that “certain geometries, like radial geometries with a center-point, can just go out forever. Some naturally form a saddle (hyperbolic paraboloid) i.e.

Other flat-printed 2-D forms when folded are less adaptable, you just can’t fight them. They insist on being two-sided 3-D cylinders, concave on one side and convex on the other—suitable only for shaping tunnels or columns.

“Café Samt & Seide” by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich (1927). Visit Socks Studio

While an undergrad at Yale, Cheng found inspiration in shape-making from an encounter with the Velvet and Silk Café of 1927, a “monumental” curved curtain designed by Lilly Reich with Mies Van der Rohe.  “That space had so much expression, given so little material,”  Cheng recalls. Making something out of nothing became a life’s work.

It was not only the Velvet and Silk Café that impressed her. Frei Otto’s bubble experiments, which caused “generations of designers to look at nature for efficient form-finding,” did as well. She also found inspiration in the heady mix of MIT hippiedom that comprised the Art Farm and its InflatoCookbook. Its theme appealed to her: “All it takes is a little plastic, some tape, and a fan to democratize architecture,” she has written.


It also takes a trial and error approach, hands-on, computers-off, Frei Otto insisted.

Recently, in fact, to visualize how shapes and textures of building façade layers might affect airflow and cooling, Cheng and her team released streams of hydrogen bubbles inside the walls of an acrylic tank. Observing how the bubbles move around the textured surfaces complements the use of CFD, or computational fluid dynamics to simulate wind movement.

Taking a page from the Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook. 

Though tests such as these may not lead directly to an Ant Farm-style democratization of architecture, they may be critical in making the faster-to-build, more efficient EcoDistricts of the future.

Research into bi-metallics and other materials that hold memory informs the current Origami on Steroids research, workshops, and installations. Simultaneously, as if enclosed by an invisible curved curtain, there’s significant work being done by MIT’s Hiroshi Ishii into shape-shifting materials, The Design Institute for Lightweight Structures (ILEK) in Stuttgart, the SmartGeometry of Jane Burry at RMIT, Australia, as well as by the forays of Doris Sung of SciArc into “Living Architecture” and self-curling bi-metals. See our related piece, The Surly Strongman.

Now imagine the job site of the near future. Workers, aided by robots, are folding one of these flat 2-D high-tech materials, designed by Ishii, Cheng, Sung, ILEK, and others. It could be mashed-up scrap wood implanted with joints, pleats, perforations, bi-metallic windows, Concrete Canvas. Instead of taking months and years, construction is super-efficient and effective. Now a building is done in a matter of days. Light, air, structural integrity, aesthetics, local codes, wiring, are all built in.

The Economist will be quoting McKinsey that the construction industry has gone from slowpoke to pace-setter. Sidewalk superintendents will rush up and crane their necks for a better look, because even the mightiest structure unfolds fast, like a bud flowering in stop-motion. By evening the site is broom-clean, with minuscule amounts of scrap.

Cheng, a card-carrying member of the S.O.B. network, known for her comfort in relating to all sorts of people, besides the hardhat, chatting about the day and the one that lies ahead. From the sidewalk, one can just see his arm stretching skyward, displaying in his open palm Cheng’s paper model for the tower itself, her Origami on Steroids.

Cheng’s rippling “Eyelids Study” invites light to play across wavy surfaces, with sine-waves decreasing in amplitude parametrically towards the perimeter.