Ronald Rael, Nicholas de Monchaux, and the Bakar Fellowship
“One thing that I can say about design is that we innovate by default, we’re constantly innovating,” explained Associate Professor of Architecture and Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture Ronald Rael. “And our innovations are probably always something that can be put into the commercial sphere for the social and public good. It’s great that the University has recognized design and given us the means to research in this capacity.”
Rael was speaking of the Bakar Fellowship and Spark Fund Award, of which he and Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Nicholas de Monchaux are both recipients — the first within CED to have been so honored.
Established in 2012, the Bakar Fellows Program at UC Berkeley supports entrepreneurial faculty to mature and commercialize innovative research in Engineering, Computer Science, Chemistry, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Architecture. In addition to the fellowship, recipients are awarded a two-year Spark Fund grant. It differs from entrepreneurial seed fund programs at other universities in that the program also aims to carve out a role for entrepreneurship for the public good. “I would hope that Ronald’s and my work both are exemplary of that particular goal which also resonates with the values of CED,” commented de Monchaux.
Additive Manufacturing on an Architectural Scale
As a 2015–2016 Bakar Fellow, Ronald Rael is advancing innovation in additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D printing) for the built environment. His research builds on years of exploration and development in transforming waste materials into viable architectural systems that are sustainable, intelligent, responsive, and reparable to the environment. Among numerous other achievements, Rael established the PrintFARM at CED which in 2015 produced the first powder-based 3D-printed cement structure, Bloom.
In his Bakar proposal, Rael hoped to demonstrate the architectural potential of additive manufacturing, exploiting other alternative materials and techniques to produce a full-scale prototype 3D printed “house.” Now complete, the “Cabin of 3D Printed Curiosities” uses 3D-printed materials including ceramic, chardonnay grape skins recycled from Sonoma, coffee, cement, and bio-plastic for both the interior and exteriors. According to Rael, the structure will be “a living laboratory where innovations in 3D-printed building components can be tested for real-world application.”
In addition to the house, Rael is forging new territory in both software and hardware development. The software seeks new levels of control for large-scale 3D printing and, in a more limited form, can allow for users unfamiliar with 3D printing or 3D modeling to produce customized objects from anywhere in the world. On the hardware side, Rael is working with an industry partner, 3D Potter, to develop a large-scale 3D printer now in the working prototype stage.
Lastly, Rael is collaborating with a Bay Area-based NGO to develop housing for Sub-Saharan Africa. In spring 2017, he and his undergraduate students traveled to Kenya where they proposed designs for additive-manufactured housing using local materials for developing countries.
Expanding Local Code
Nicholas de Monchaux is just beginning to advance his research as a 2017-2018 Bakar Faculty Fellow and Spark Fund Award recipient. De Monchaux’s work stems from his early interest in how emerging digital design methods were impacting architecture. “When I started working here at Berkeley 10 years ago, people were just becoming excited around the application of digital design methods to urban design – that is to say, the shapes you could make with CAD – but we weren’t taking advantage of all the available digital information about the city in those design processes,” he explained.
Coupled with his long-term interest in the potential of vacant spaces to house urban ecological infrastructure, de Monchaux set about developing a means to combine Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) to identify and design thousands of small-scale urban interventions. De Monchaux’s Bakar Fellowship proposal expands the application potential of the concepts documented in his book, Local Code: 3659 Proposals about Data, Design, and the Nature of Cities.
“From locally optimizing solar energy installations to effectively configuring ecological prefabricated housing on many sites, we believe our software can play a key role in a wide range of new, digital connections between how we map the world and how we make it. With the help of the Bakar Spark Fund we believe we can advance this research towards both greater usefulness and commercial viability — and ensure a more just and sustainable future at the same time.”
So far, de Monchaux and his team have migrated the software from a local server to Amazon web infrastructure for scalability, robustness, and greater accessibility. This spring/summer they will begin distributing the tools more broadly for beta testing and further development. De Monchaux plans to make the software available to schools, non-profits, and those doing public interest work in design, and eventually commercialize it for other markets.
“If we understand cities as a metabolism and we are trying to promote healthy resilient cities, then our solutions will look a lot less like radical surgery and a lot more like medicine: networked, distributed, bottom up, and top down,” said de Monchaux. “For me, the software is a means to that end, to give architects and designers the tools to design with and through networks, instead of single artifacts. It is fundamentally how we need to be thinking about cities and landscapes.”
As Bakar Fellows, Ronald Rael and Nicholas de Monchaux contribute to a substantial legacy of entrepreneurship at the University. Ranked one of the U.S.’s most entrepreneurial universities by Forbes, over the last decade, UC Berkeley spin-off companies are estimated to have raised more than $14B (Pitchbook), positively impacting the California, U.S., and global economies.