Crafting Innovation // Brent Higgens


Material driven workshops are the key to design innovation. What we know through experience about building materials dictate how we utilize them. When someone mentions steel, we think of large steel wide flanges, soon to be hidden and never seen again. Wood reminds us of something stained and coated, to demonstrate the natural beauty of the grain. However, when we limit ourselves to these preconceived ideas we miss out on opportunities to make our architecture innovative. Not necessarily in the sense of conceptual innovation, but in terms of a broader understanding of the physical nature of materials. What is innovation and why is it important? Innovation is a new idea, device or method (1)  . According to Blaine Brownell, author of Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture, innovation implies novelty and positive change (2). In architecture, innovation is the key to positive problem solving; without innovation we fail to evolve. The question that remains is how do we push ourselves past these initial preconceived building material ideas? One answer: through material workshops.


What is a material driven workshop and how does it stimulate innovation? Material driven workshops must consist of two parts: developing a complete understanding of a material followed by experimentation. To completely understand a material one must learn the new and old processes, methods, physical limitations, and properties of the material through hand performed work. Once the material is understood, new processes, methods, uses and connections can be explored through physical mockups in the experimentation phase. The active learning process, established through the physical crafting and experimenting of the material, allows us to develop the understanding necessary to use materials in an innovative manner (3).

By working with the material we begin to understand its limits, which allows us to begin to push the boundaries of its limitations. Typically this can be costly, involves engineers, and years of research (4). However, by prototyping we can discover new ways of using materials quickly and affordably. One could compare the prototyping process to making architectural models in order to experiment with design. According to Anna Lindgren, partner of Front, it is important to push the boundaries of new materials, but sometimes common materials are the ones that have the most interesting outcomes (5). A prime example of this is a table that Lindgren made out of branches under high pressure. What would usually be a byproduct of lumber and turned into mulch was instead fabricated into an elegant piece of furniture. Although pushing the limits of familiar materials was not a primary objective for the Design+Make studio this year, we’ve begun to discover how to utilize old methods in new ways.


Design by Pressure – pushing the limits of a material


Photo courtesy of Dry Stone Conservancy


Photo courtesy of Front Design Group


Mocking up the charred wood in the prairie

Through material workshops, old methods can be tested and applied in new ways through experimentation. For the Design+Make studio an example of this is Shou-Sugi-Ban, an ancient Japanese wood charring technique. The Preston Outdoor Education Station consists of wooden platforms in the tallgrass prairie, an idea that does not seem ideal due to seasonal prairie fires. However, with the introduction of Shou-Sugi-Ban to the project, an old method is applied in an environment where it previously was not used. Mocking up the platforms and testing the wood charring in a potential prairie fire situation brings innovation to the way that wood can be treated in the tallgrass prairie.


A third way that material workshops can lead to design innovation is through mockup iterations that lead to simple, elegant details. In any project, material experimentation and innovation leads to aesthetic details. In the Rachofsky House by Richard Meier, the square tubing handrails were milled down to be a perfect square because naturally metal tubing has rounded edges due to the manufacturing process (6). In the Design+Make studio there were several aspects to the wooden platforms that underwent mockup iterations. The first was the spacing between boards, second was the pipe size and the third the process in which the spacers were created. Through this iterative process the platforms’ assembly became something that was elegant, simple and innovative.

Final iteration of platform assembly

      (left)  view of underside of assembly

      (right) view of spacers from above

Innovative design inspires positive change (7). When we focus in on a material, it is not what is known that is important, but rather what is left to be discovered or reapplied. By understanding and experimenting with our design materials, we can begin to push their limitations, re-apply methods, and create elegance that produces positive change. This allows us to make tables from twigs, place flammable wood in a burning environment, or create simplicity and elegance in a system that creates wonder. Innovative design begins with material driven workshops.

(1)  “Innovation.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed March 6, 2016.

(2)  Karana, Elvin. “Material Driven Design: A Method to Design for Material Experiences.”

(3)  Michael, Joel. “Advances in Physiology Education: Abstract.” 2006.

(4)  Aagaard, Anders. “Architectural Design and Representation.” 2015.

(5)  “Material Tendencies: Front.” Architonic. Accessed March 6, 2016.

(6)  Gibson, Michael. Tour of the Rachofsky House. 2013.

(7) Karana, Elvin. “Material Driven Design: A Method to Design for Material Experiences.”

Written by Brent Higgens