Turning algorithms into architecture
KvalhoTalks with Fabian Scheurer | Managing Partner of Design-to-Production
Welcome to KVALHO TALKS – a series of interviews and discussions with experts, innovators and entrepreneurs within the AEC & real estate industries.
This time we speak to Fabian Scheurer, Managing Partner of Design-to-Production – a pioneering company in digital construction, helping architects and planning experts and manufacturers to find more freedom in design. Fabian shares with us the details of his 10 year journey into digital construction.

Our guest tells us how he uses technology to create a competitive edge for his business, create value for his clients, deliver exciting projects and, importantly, move the industry forward. Fabian also shares his views on what's happening within the AEC industry today and what comes next.
Enjoy reading KvalhoTalks with Fabian Scheurer and learn how he and his company contributes to the digital transformation of the AEC industry.

Could you please tell us about your company – Design-To-Production – and how the idea of creating it came about?
Our company – Design-to-Production – is 10 years old, but honestly, it still feels like a start-up. It was founded in 2007 as a spinoff of the ETH, where I worked as a research assistant at the CAAD Chair between 2001-2006. During this time, I had been involved in three projects where we created digital fabrication data created from a 3D-model directly for the CNC machine of a local carpentry. This was the "aha" moment when I realised that there is a missing link in the digital chain between the construction idea and its fabrication, which was – and still is – inhibiting an efficient digital process. During this time I also got to know Arnold Walz, an architect from Stuttgart who already had been working on large scale parametric models for projects like the Mercedes Benz Museum designed by UNStudio, and we both realised that we were working on two ends of the same problem. That's how Design-to-Production was born.

How did you spread the word about your new company and its pioneering services?

Via networking mainly. We were very lucky that in the 2 years within the University (ETH) I already had the chance to do some "real-world" projects and could spread the word by writing papers and presenting our experience at various conferences. Certainly, it was also a good idea to team up with Arnold Walz in Stuttgart and appear a bit bigger than the two of us actually were.

Does your background in architecture + IT help your unique selling proposition?

Definitely yes! Architecture is our language and IT is our mind-set. If you like, our business model is mainly based on our enthusiasm for great buildings and a large portion of laziness. It's really helpful to have a degree in computer science when you want to avoid repetitive tasks: we are constantly trying to rationalize the boring stuff out of the planning process – or at least delegate it to our computers. But even after 10 years I am working on the perfect elevator pitch. It still takes us time to explain what exactly we do in a simple and understandable language. There is no name yet for what we do. The profession just started developing in parallel to the discussion about digitalisation of the construction industry and especially within the discussion about BIM (Building Information Modelling).

What we do has always been a kind of BIM + Industry 4.0.
When is the best time in a project process to involve you?
The ideal moment would be just after the schematic design. From our experience this is the most efficient and effective point of entry, leading to the least overhead and a successful project realisation. In non-standard, complex-geometry, pre-fabrication projects many questions need to be asked (and answered) at an earlier planning stage. To come up with geometrically precise reference models and a clear design-to-production concept, hands-on experience is needed, but tender regulations often prohibit contacting fabricators at this stage. This is where we could come in handy – but unfortunately, we are not often asked to enter projects at these early stages, and then we have to rush things after tender.
You have been cooperating with such renowned architects and architectural offices as SANAA, UN Studio, Zaha Hadid, Shigeru Ban, and Renzo Piano. Which of these projects was the most challenging and why?
The most challenging so far is the one I unfortunately cannot talk about yet. It's a Shigeru Ban project in Switzerland. We were responsible for bringing about 60 000 façade – and 5 000 timber structure components from design through to fabrication – during 1.5 year pre-tender and 2 years post-tender stage. But after having worked on four Shigeru Ban projects now, I expect him to present us with an even bigger challenge the next time…

You have been using the BIM concept for many years, especially in the project workflow. Can you tell us from your experience if the concept of BIM makes sense?

Absolutely, BIM makes sense. The discussion about BIM has changed significantly over the past 20 years and it completely went away from the central, monolithic BIM model to open BIM and a cloud of connected models. We are no longer discussing BIM as a tool but instead we talk about it as a method. It's no longer just about the software but is about the smart setup of a project workflow. Up until recently the digitalisation of the building industry mostly meant replacing the pen with the computer. But the workflow itself has not changed for the past 100 years!
To exploit the full capability of what digitalisation can do, we need to change the way we work, including the tender and procurement processes. We also have to develop new business models, employment models etc. These all together are challenging. The multibillion EUR construction industry contains hundreds of thousands of companies which, in the majority of cases, are rather small and therefore rather resistant to change.
Do you have any ideas how the change could happen?
By doing it. By finding clients – the early adopters – who are not afraid to take some risk (which, by the way, leaves them with less risk during the process in general). Probably also by having government changing regulations (like in the UK, Germany and Scandinavia) in favour of having more digitally planned infrastructure projects for example.
BIM is a good idea, but its potential can only be really used when we change, adapt and optimise the workflow processes.
BIM is a good idea, but its potential can only be really used when we change, adapt and optimise the workflow processes.
Who are the early adopters in the construction industry?
Actually, the geometrically complex "non-standard" projects are the low hanging fruit in this respect. There, the complexity is clearly visible at first sight and it quickly becomes obvious that manual on-site production is maybe not a good idea. Producing 18 000 running meters of timber beams, curved in space, to form the roof of the Centre Pompidou Metz for example, would have been impossible without digital pre-fabrication. Therefore, the fabricator needed a precise digital fabrication model, and at 1,800 bespoke components it was also rather obvious that nobody wanted to model them by hand. So, a parametric model was created, that generated all the intricate details automatically. Still, we only came into the project after the timber contractor had been handed an imprecise 3D-model of the beam axes, which left us re-doing the basic design surface as a first step – five years after Shigeru Ban had won the competition.

Now, of course all building projects are complex, not just the 0.1% curvy "Formula One" projects. As soon as foundations and structure, building envelope, MEP, interior fittings etc. need to be coordinated on a reasonably big project, there always are more interdependencies than an average brain can't handle alone. But while it's "all or nothing" in the non-standard projects, in standard projects you are often still confronted with someone cutting off the BIM-discussion by saying: it's always been like that, so why change?

Currently we hear a lot about digital transformation of the AEC Industry. How do you apply the concept of digitalisation to your company?

There is no black magic involved, but we are breaking a few rules. For the free-form projects for example, we use one of the cheapest 3D modelling programs available on the market (Rhino from McNeel), and we exploit it by extending its abilities with our own tools and plugins we program, often project-specific. Over the years we have developed an efficient workflow and a handful of "design patterns" and we learned how to handle large scale parametric digital 3D models with tools that were never built for that. This pragmatic, hands-on "hacking" approach of cleverly re-combining existing tools adds much to our internal productivity. But the main trick is to care about the digital interfaces to the world outside of our company. We are plugging into the other project partners' workflows and provide digital information in a way they can use without additional effort – be it 3D-models, raw tables of data or even ISO-G-Code for their CNC-machine if necessary.
How does Design-to-Production stay on top of the game and what is your vision for the next 5 years?
We managed to find a sweet spot at the very beginning of the digitalisation in AEC. Now finally everybody is talking "BIM" and we are trying to transfer all the ideas that we developed within these "Formula One" projects to the 99.9% standard projects on the market. For us, this is not so much about technology, we have a pretty short (but radical) wish list in this respect: getting rid of files and e-mail as soon as possible. But most of the needed technology is there and it works, maybe some of the existing tools need to be re-combined in a smarter way. But in the long run it is really more about the process, workflow, management and influence that comes to the building industry from the outside.

How will construction look like in 2030? In which areas do you see opportunities for improvement?

I think, and really hope it is going to be an industry by then. Up until now, construction is mainly craftsmanship. Nothing against good craftsmen, we are highly depending on them, especially in our non-standard projects.

"Industry means having standardized processes and workflows in place and deliver reliable quality.''

This doesn't mean that we will have standardised buildings all around us. It means that we have to come up with more efficient controllable ways of planning and building. Let's not forget that in some EU countries – like in the UK – there is already a concern about a shortage of skilled construction workers. This is a signal that changes and adjustments in the industry are required. Otherwise, in an ageing society we will have a problem to attract workers for the hard work on construction sites in 20-30 years from now. The naive approach would be to replace them with robots, but at present those also still prefer working inside a climate-controlled factory hall rather than outside in the rain! So maybe, we have to rethink the whole working model.

Is this particular issue already being addressed?

In the last years the whole discussion around digitalization in the AEC industry has tremendously picked up, eventually including the big decision makers. Interesting publications are popping up, like the "Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model", "Shaping the Future of Construction" by The World Economic Forum and BCG or "Imagining construction's digital future" by McKinsey. I think the diagnoses are already sinking in and interestingly, many of the proposed cures are suspiciously close to what Design-to-Production has been doing for the past ten years.

INTERVIEW BY JOANNA DEMKOW-BARTLOMÉ