Has a building ever placed you in the future? Maybe it was a visual effect: You didn’t know an overhang could protrude 50 feet outward with no visible support, or that a skyscraper could have holes punched through it or that glass could contort like vines. These moments are fleeting, though, because what you are seeing is now. What you are seeing is the trickling down of design from five, ten, even twenty years ago — design that was the future then — that is only now being realized in its glory through the advent of the technical expertise of firms like Front Inc.
Marc Simmons, Front Inc.’s founding principle and professor of architecture at MIT, visited the Stamps Auditorium of the Walgreen Drama Center this last Tuesday to demystify such techniques for a crowd mainly comprised of head-in-the-clouds students of Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
The defined role of most architecture firms in the present day is to conceptualize buildings with minimum specificity — specifics maybe down to, say, the size of window frames and panes — and pass these drawings on to manufacturers for shop drawings with precise dimensions to be made. My education at Taubman College reflects this expectation. That’s not what Front Inc. is about.
Take Zaha Hadid’s Morpheus Hotel in Macau. This is the elaboration, the ambition, the ceremony, the pomp that points us to the future. Hadid’s projects are known throughout the world for their supermodernity; that is, their singular forms that swoop into our view and captivate. Unlike in the U.S. and Europe, growing tourist hubs like Macau have the means and motivations to support such escapades.
And Front has the technical expertise to realize such designs. This expertise manifests itself in the company’s ability to develop an in-house Rhino (3D modeling software) program extension that tracks and lays out all 1.6 million parts. This isn’t drawing done by hand, nor is this drawing isn’t done by selecting the “line” command in Rhino — no, this drawing is automatically generated and laid out by data sheets. Simmons showed images of this software throughout, consistently noting that they were “rhetorical”: They communicate how unfathomably complex the structure is, nothing else.
Front Inc. doesn’t make concept drawings for some manufacturer to interpret and adapt to industry standards; rather, they scrutinize these standards themselves. They run their own calculations and essentially rewrite the rules for how buildings can look and perform. For 2050 M Streetin Washington D.C., the firm in charge of design proposed a façade of several hundred modular panels of curved glass. Glass is hard enough to deal with in glass cubebuildings because it’s a poor insulator, expands quickly and by code must be energy efficient (often giving it an off-putting tint or reflectivity).
So to what ends did Front go so that the designers could have their pristine curved glass facade? Through calculation, they minimized the width of the meeting rail — the metal that joins the glass — beyond precedent. Their precision allowed for a one-pass installation with no adjustments for tolerance, saving time and money by making sure it was done right the first time (all the while doing something that’s never before been done before).
On top of fully designing such details themselves, Front Inc. hosts a mini design competition for all of their projects, paying all willing and able manufacturers to build a performance mockup — an exact replica — of a particular corner of that building. Then they fly out any number of their 40 employees over three continents to evaluate just how perfect these models are. In every case, the project owner pays in full whatever price these manufacturers name to make such mockups. That’s how much trust there is that Front will get it right. And they always have.
In 17 years of some of the most ambitious engineering work in the industry, Front Inc. has a claims record with their insurance company that is 100 percent clean. Simmons has done façades ranging from $30/square foot to $1500/square foot, and the same discipline is applied to each.
“For whatever it’s worth … it’s possible,” concluded Simmons.