Raised in Harlem, at age 12 Larry Sass hopped the subway to Brooklyn every weekend to visit his Uncle Lawrence, a graphic artist, who owned shelves of architecture books. Sass sat for hours turning the pages, dreaming of beautiful buildings and designing for the world.
Now, Sass is leading a revolution in architecture. Director of MIT’s Digital Design Fabrication Group in the Department of Architecture, he is one of the few researchers in the world using computer models in the design and construction process, rather than using hand-drafting and hand-manufacturing. The process is called digital fabrication, and the project combines CAD technology with computer-controlled machinery to build an entire house.
“I’m trying to make houses the way they make cars, computers, and cell phones — with machinery — because it’s faster, cheaper, and better,” he says.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost 100,000 units of housing. “You can’t manufacture that many houses by hand. You need an industrialized process,” says Sass, who designed a digitally fabricated house for New Orleans that was featured in a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008.
Sass’s vision is to create a custom-made house where the manufacturing and assembly are so easy that you can order a house online and the parts can be delivered and easily assembled on-site. You’d choose a home design online — Victorian, Georgian, Colonial; then choose moldings, cabinets, or staircases. A computer would sort through the data and generate plywood shapes to be cut. And a precision notching system would hold the parts together by friction, so you wouldn’t need nails or screws.
“Most technology is designed for the top 10 percent of the Western world,” Sass says. “I want to develop methods for the other 90 percent to participate in the design process so that buildings will reflect their interests.”
Often, he says, the West dictates to the world the style of house to live in, and most often, the style is modern. “But someone in Ghana doesn’t want to live in a modern house. People know their own style and culture. Haitians love gingerbread housing; so if you’re going to rebuild Haiti, you can’t ignore the iconic, architectural symbol of their country.
“To me, this story is about empowering people to build their own neighborhoods. I want people to design and participate in the production of their own homes, so they can have what they want.”