This thesis explores the implications of wedding contemporary computational design techniques and digital fabrication with notions of traditional craftsmanship. Craft and innovation have often developed simultaneously, with the processes of making and revising resulting in the generation of new tools and techniques. This cycle of making, evaluating, and improving is the hallmark of skilled craft, with the maker’s learning and improving with each new work that is created.
How can this analogue process of making be found in digital design? One way to find it is purposely rejecting an adherence to established best practices and tolerances. Rather than avoid imperfections, they should be embraced: the presence of anomalies in computer-aided design should be intentional, not aberrant. In most digital fabrication and controlled automation processes, the analogue property of materials is merely accounted for, not leaned into. There is, then, great innovation to be had in the deliberate misuse of a tool, provided that misuse is done purposefully and with an understanding of how we are misusing that tool. In the digital age, this deliberate misuse has the potential to unlock great innovations in design and to remedy the potential disconnect between optimized computational processes and the irregularities of human craftsmanship. This "critical computation" is about adapting traditional notions of craft in ways that sustain it through changing technologies. By wedding tradition and innovation, critical computation bridges the gap between the disruption of technology and its improvements. The benefits of such an intervention come in the form of cultural sustainability: innovation allows craft to survive and develop in an increasingly hostile environment.
Wood as a material, and traditional woodworking as its corresponding craft, lends itself well to exploring the concepts of craft and innovation. The organic and structural qualities of wood embrace irregularity: trees organically form complex configurations as response to a variety of conditions and forces. Understanding material possibilities and experimenting with their uses have a pragmatic function beyond exploration. In a changing world, the manner in which materials such as wood grow and are harvested may be subject to change. Species of wood accustomed to growing in one type of climate may change when forced to adapt to new climatic conditions, or perhaps even disappear altogether. This lack of certainty in the future implies an urgent need to conduct material experimentation. Wood possesses innate strength and tensile characteristics, while also being prized for its aesthetic characteristics. This juxtaposition of wood’s irregular elements with precisely controlled processes serves as the primary generator for innovation.
The design project portion of this thesis proposes a design center that would host programs to teach novel construction methods as part of a larger effort to elevate the importance of craft and to sustain the local ecologies of a rural community. Situating the proposed design center in a working forest system provides an ecological component to the design project and its program. Deforestation of the Atlantic White Cedar has led to degradation of the forest system and ground conditions. Less desirable species take root in the absence of the White Cedar. This provides an opportunity: woodworking projects can work in tandem with current targeted felling and thinnings, making use of wood as part of the reforestation efforts.
Eschewing uniformly engineered members, the center employs wood in its natural, irregular state, both as part of its output and its architecture. In craft such as shipbuilding, specific species of trees were grown into desired forms in order to be used for specific components. This manner of craft is the inspiration for the key design process of employing wood members “in the round.” The use of non-standardized materials allows for greater material usage, but it does increase the complexity of the design process, an issue that is ameliorated by employing computational methods.