I'm here in Vegas covering Autodesk University 2011, and this year Autodesk has made an interesting shift: There is a notable emphasis on DIY and individual creation, not just corporate ventures. Their choice of keynote speakers illuminated this exciting direction, and I've been stealing time out of the packed conference schedule to transcribe the talks given by a couple of them.
First off, I was thrilled to discover Jeffrey McGrew taking the stage. McGrew is the co-founder of Core77 fave Because We Can —we've posted on their projects here—and told the story of how he went from beleaguered CAD jockey to running a successful, fun, and profitable design-build firm with his wife Jillian Northrup. Here's the tale, in his own words. (I was not able to adequately capture the slides accompanying his talk, but you'll get the idea.)
In the '80s, AutoCAD ushered in an era of powerful, affordable and disruptive CAD. By the mid-'90s it was pretty much the standard. Also by the mid-'90s, I was a broke college student. I was tired of framing houses in the Arizona desert [while enrolled in] architecture school. So I rashly dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco. Because I knew AutoCAD pretty well, I was able to ride that larger wave of disruption right into a decent job at a firm. Then in 2001, along came Revit and I fell in love. I got obsessed with it, I got really good at it, and I surfed that [wave] all the way to a great job at Gensler. I got my California architect's license, got a real career and made many friends along the way.
Now during this time I was introduced to digital fabrication. Seeing the amazing things that people were making with CNC tools, laser cutters and 3D printers was very inspiring. I wanted to make amazing things this way too, but at the time the machines were very expensive and exclusive. Way out of reach for a rank and file architect and BIM guy like me.Then along came ShopBot, a new company making affordable, entry-level CNC routers. Now my wife and I, being a hands-on kind of couple, decided to take a chance and just buy one. We'd actually never used any sort of CNC machine before, but it was forgiving to learn, cost less than a used car, and was well-supported. We figured out how to make it work with Revit, learned all about digital fabrication, and then we started making things for ourselves, and then for friends, and then our friends' friends, and then next thing you know we're having to quit our day jobs just to keep up.
So for the last four years, my wife and I have run a small design-build studio together. Its goal is to make the world a more interesting place. that's why we named our company Because We Can. Digital fabrication has given us creative freedom, a way to earn a living, and the ability to change the world. We can make our ideas real on our own terms and see what happens. We've delivered on dozens and dozens of projects. Everything from Jules-Verne-themed office spaces, to more residential and modern interiors, to whimsical marketing kiosks, to fun products we sell online, and soon, entire buildings, furniture included.
We've even helped make crazy art for Burning Man. All using digital fabrication and BIM. Again, it's the same story: Powerful, affordable, disruptive technology creating new opportunities. 3D printers, CNC routers and other computer automated tools once really expensive and difficult to use are now so affordable and accessible that anybody can use them. As a matter of fact, that 1980s copy of AutoCAD and a PC to run it on, when you adjust it for inflation, it costed more than many of the tools we use today.
Digital fabrication has empowered us to be able to design and build almost anything. We not only get to be architects, but we also get to help build the project too, creating more value for our clients, and making more money for ourselves. We don't even make drawings most of the time, unless we have to for [the permit process]. It's just Model, Export, and Make.
Sometimes our team consists of just my wife and I together, doing everything from design to fabrication. And heck, sometimes it's just one of us alone, making our ideas real. We don't need any help, as the machines are doing most of the work. And it's amazing how fast we can make things with these tools.
We've collaborated with some artist friends of ours on their Burning Man project, these wonderful 50-foot-long serpent art cars. We'd run out of time and we needed a pair of tails for them ASAP. So we modeled the shape in Revit, the sheet metal in Inventor, and had all the parts cut out by a CNC plasma torch. Everything slotted, TAC-welded and bolted together perfectly. The whole project, start to finish? Two tails in a little over a week.
As we're empowered, we're sharing that with those around us. We did an office remodel for a videogame company. We enabled them to design their own desks. We made a single prototype desk, and turned that into a flat template. We gave that to the client's in-house art team and had them draw over the top of it. That template had areas not to change, of course, but otherwise we told them to go to town. And boy did they! We got back pirate ships, giant fish, sea monsters, all kinds of crazy stuff. And we gave them back desks—each one totally unique, but each one the same affordable price.
Digital fabrication lets us make things that want to be built. We can make things that only fit together the right way. Things that almost assemble themselves. We can make the designs more interesting and delightful because frankly, the CNC machines don't care how complex things are. We can make things that are so personal and appropriate that they'll be loved and never thrown away. And we can make them safely, affordably, on-demand, with very little materials, using a small team of people, close to where they'll be used. It's better for the environment, it's better for our clients, and it's better for us.
Now I originally became an architect because I wanted to build great things. But I got stuck, pushing CAD lines around to draw yet another bathroom plan, or debating BIM standards endlessly, watching myself growing more and progressively bitter. We all went into this industry wanting to make stuff, just to come out not making much of anything. But then along comes digital fabrication. This powerful, affordable, disruptive technology. Suddenly we can all make stuff, all the stuff we've always wanted to make. And find lots of people to make it for.