Two Minutes With // Ronald Rael

Hello everyone. We are starting off the semester with our interview withRonald Rael. Rael serves as an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the CEO and Co-Founder of Emerging Objects, a “MAKE-tank” focusing on 3D printed architecture, innovative materials, and other fabrication methods. Check out his studio website or Emerging Objects to see more projects.

Images courtesy of Ronald Rael.

VT: Objects created through digital fabrication appear to be more interactive than typical construction methods allow. What aspects of design create this result? Is it simply the scale at which many of these products are produced or is it a natural result?

RSF/EO: I’m not sure this is true. Traditional materials are very interactive. Clay, ceramics and wood and react to humidity and temperature, for example. But maybe you are talking about typical materials such as gyp-board, asphalt shingles, or stucco. The difference might be that objects made through digital fabrication are often designed to take advantage of a new paradigm that we are not used to—a process that highlights the capabilities for customization, rather than homogeneity.

VT: What comes first, the material or the design? Objects such as Saltygloo seem to become the perfect match of material and assembly. How does trial and error lend itself to marrying a warm weather material to an Antarctic structure?

RSF/EO: In our case, we spend several years designing materials; therefore, material and design were simultaneous. Of course, designing a material is very different from designing an object. After we spent so much time focusing on the design of the materials, we were a bit at a loss about what objects we should design. Because the materials we invented are so new, the objects are only now starting to emerge from our studio (hence our name — Emerging Objects).

It is interesting that you consider salt to be a warm-weather material. Salt is often used in cold environments to melt snow, but forms from evaporating seawater in the hot sun, unless it is mined. Salt caves are a constant 55 degrees and create cool, dry spaces that are ideal for archival storage. The inspiration for the Saltygloo was much more about the ability to take materials from their original context in order to fabricate form and space, much like snow is taken from the environment to construct igloos. The name is more of a play on words, salt y glue, which are used to fabricate the structure. Trial and error are really inherent in all architectural processes as by definition, architecture is typically a unique endeavor with specific challenges and new problems to be solved with each project.

VT: One of your most recent explorations, the Picoroco Blocks, represents the significance of scale in 3D printing. What influences the application, size and structure of your designs? Do you see the future of 3D printing exploring large scale architecture or focusing on installations and interiors?

RSF/EO: We saw three primary challenges presented by 3D printing as it becomes part of the architectural process — size, durability and cost. We feel we have solved the cost aspect for us. Our materials are far less expensive than commercially available powders, which allow us to limit the amount of objects we print, which also solves the second issue — size. Although we are limited by the size of a building component as it relates to the size of a 3D printer, because the material cost is minimal, we can print as many small components as we like to aggregate them to produce larger structures — essentially 3D printed bricks. Since our materials are durable, we do see the future of 3D printing architecture and interiors close at hand. Within the next few months, we will announce a very large architectural structure, which we are currently fabricating.