Blox - AU 2019

In 2019, Blox CEO Chris Giattina was asked to present at Autodesk University: a symposium hosted by the software provider that supports the construction and architecture industry. His presentation focused on eliminating silos in the construction process, harnessing the benefits of offsite construction, and how design manufacture construct is the way forward.


Keith Chamberlain, Associate Creative Director of Autodesk:
BLOX is a leader in prefabrication. They started prefabricating hospital bathrooms that leave the factory with all their plumbing and electrical systems already in place. Now they've moved on to prefabricating complete trauma centers and labs. They're working on a 175-bed hospital in Reno, Nevada, that will be 90% prefabricated. This enables them to build a facility in a location without enough labor to meet the demands of traditional processes. Chris Giattina is here to share his work. Please welcome Chris to the stage.

Chris Giattina:
Thank you. Filippo Brunelleschi is the archetype of the master builder. He was a possessor of vision, creativity, engineering, and material ingenuity. He was able to get people to do things they didn't want to do and navigate a political minefield, using strategies that allowed him to stay focused and accomplish his goals. Without him, this project would have looked like this for years. It was Brunelleschi who saw what others couldn't see and possessed the technical chops to make it real.

Why did we replace Filippo with siloed experts focused on compartmentalizing risk? There's some subtext to that, but I love to think of it this way. This is the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1800s, years after Louis XIV established the school. The transition of the architect as a master builder to a generalist was almost complete. You can see the top hats and capes have replaced Filippo's leather apron.

This is my dad, and we're standing at a project site looking at something we're making. My dad is a master architect, a master builder, and really the only one I've ever known. He was an anachronism in his own time because he fought as AIA president and in other roles to keep the architect whole at a time when the profession was moving away from it. His dad or granddad came from Sicily to be a stonemason and found himself a bricklayer at Sloss Furnace, where they made steel in Birmingham, Alabama. My dad grew up making things, and it was impossible for him to divorce the notion of creating something from how it was made.

As a kid at the kitchen table, he taught me the value of being a generalist. The generalist, he believed, was the only one with the skills and knowledge to see something whole from the conception of the idea through to its physical realization. That influenced me significantly. I'm part of architecture, engineering, and construction. I'm a second-generation architect, and I found myself part of an industry that wanted me to think a certain way.

In 2008, some of you are old enough to remember that it was not a great year, and that liberated us to think about what we wanted to do instead of what we had to do or what our profession was telling us to do. So we took architecture, engineering, and construction and overlaid it with another structure called Design Manufacture Construct (DMC). It replaces nouns like architecture with verbs like design and adds manufacturing to the mix. We knew intuitively, even if we didn't yet have the skills to make it real, that manufacturing would be a key component to enable us to make things. Finally, it was a system we knew was a singularity. It wasn't design then manufacture then construct; it was to think holistically about them as one.

DMC's aim is to teach a legion of designers how to leverage manufacturing productivity, which we have to invent as a group, as an industry, so that we can simplify construction. We measure its success on this equation: two by two by two. It has to be twice as good. Everything we touch, we look at it and ask, is it twice as good as the alternative? I'm not suggesting that we always get there, but that is our aim. Does it have half the carbon footprint? Does it have twice the energy efficiency? Does it improve human productivity by two? Then, does it happen twice as fast, measured objectively from the mobilization on-site to the certificate of occupancy? Finally, does it provide twice the value to the user, the owner, and the community? If we can do those things, we felt we would be relevant, but achieving them was really challenging within the existing paradigm.

Some of you know this: it starts with an idea. The existing paradigm moves from an idea to design, from design to model, from model to construction documents, from construction documents to general contractors who parse it out into risk management tools to subcontractors who submit proposals, which go back to the general contractor and the architects. Ultimately, way down here, we use it. Someone gets beneficial use out of it. This conference focuses largely on shortening the spaces between idea and design, design and model, model and construction documents, and submittals. That's not a bad thing, but it won't get us to two by two by two because two by two by two is an 800% improvement. If you pick up all the spaces between these, you may pick up a 5% improvement. To get to an 800% improvement, you have to systemically rethink the entire concept.

What we're doing is going from model to fabrication like many people, but systematically and at a program level. We're not just shortening the gaps; we're removing them. This requires some technology, so we've developed a platform called Weaver. It uses our own software development with Forge and BIM 360 and other tools. It takes manufacturing's raw materials and constraints from design, puts them on the cloud, and creates a digital catalog. This catalog is available to people and is design separated from the means and methods. We want to connect that to factories. BLOX has a factory, a million square feet in Birmingham, Alabama, where we make stuff and collaborate with others to create standard and custom parts that feed back to the cloud, expanding the digital catalog for internal and external customers.

This operates DMC as a continuum, not a singularity. It starts with the idea, design, and model, then moves to raw material for the project or program. Tools convert raw material into parts that operators can assemble, not tradespeople. These parts are assembled into increasingly complex sub-assemblies, panels, modules, and Uber modules that aggregate into buildings. This is our continuum. We're working on the spaces between these to create the intelligence that makes it easier. It's not a straight-line process. We're not just a volumetric builder, though we do volumetric. We're not just panelizers, though we do panelizing. We move raw materials to sub-assemblies and sometimes take parts straight to job sites, looking for an optimal path based on site exigencies.

We apply these to a manufacturing process built around Boeing's 787 Dreamliner method, called chunking. It's a simple, beautiful idea that takes massive chunks built in various countries and assembles them in one place. Our chunk is called an Uber module, 15 feet wide, 15 feet tall, and 60 feet long, the largest allowed by the DOT. We make it in our plant with multiple lines and buildings. This Uber module can have varying levels of complexity, creating open, well-lit spaces. It's part of a building information model of a whole building, like a clinic or freestanding emergency room. The model includes smaller components, such as MEP racks, sub-assemblies, and parts, all working together like Russian nested dolls to make complex things smartly.

Our application called Stitcher aims to put technology in the hands of operators, using a forge platform with a Stitcher overlay to create module-specific bills of materials that connect to our financial and inventory systems. We move from building information to G-code, speaking to machines for bespoke manufacturing. We've used various machines, some basic due to budget constraints, progressing from MDF and fixed jigs to cold rolling and additive manufacturing for jigs and fixtures, and laser and plasma for sheet goods. These parts are assembled into modules, which can be complex and made from a kit of parts, including entire patient rooms.

These modules accrete to a master kit of parts that informs the built world. Adding parts to a digital build allows for quantity reproduction and market impact. This digital catalog, Weaver, makes flat pack steel kits for one, two, or three-story buildings, forming world-class architecture that is operationally efficient, beautiful, and site-specific.

As this plays, I'd like to close by noting that a handful of the world's largest companies are using BLOX to redefine their building programs. We've built a team of insanely smart people—architects, engineers, programmers, manufacturers, and constructors—all working under one roof to solve the very hard problems that will allow us to shift the AEC industry towards a DMC model and make our industry better. Thank you very much.