Atoms are the new bits, and its relation with architecture

Ponoko, Production chain 2.0
Ponoko, Production chain 2.0

Last weekend I had the chance to spend the afternoon with a group of entrepreneurs and , editor for Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail and Free, two books that define the new economies of the Internet (highly recommended if you haven´t read them yet, specially Free)

Chris did a little speech on his new research, which immediately made sense to me from an architect’s point of view. At this point, it is more than clear that the bit revolution turned our world in 360º, and thanks to the connected world it seems that the technology development curve is more steep than ever. And now, many rules of the online world are being adopted by the physical world, and according to Anderson “atoms are the new bits”.

First, it was the media revolution. Information became democratic, collaborative, the tools became free, and everyone is part of it. But how do we take this to the World (World 2.0?)? Actually… it´s happening and very close to our profession:


Google Sketchup: $0.

Download (and share) a house/building at the Open Architecture Network: $0.

3D printing of your prototypes: not $0, but the cost has fallen dramatically over the last few years. You can upload your model and get a 3d print in the mail via Shapeways, or you can even share and sell your designs for 3d printing at Ponoko.

A 3D printer costs pretty much like a plotter ($750) and you can even build your own.

And this is how the production chain starts to democratize, changing industry business models in a radical way. All of this influenced by what we saw on the web revolution.

But this goes beyond that , which is now pretty much standard on any architecture school, it has more to do with being part of a disaggregated, collaborative and democratic production chain.

Anderson gave two very good examples: A guy and his son wanted to do Lego scenes of his favorite video games, which include guns. Lego has banned guns on their kits as part of their policy. So, this guy decided to model their own and 3d print them for his personal use. But then he noticed that people were actually interested on these small guns, so he started to make more and more and sell them over the Internet with worldwide distribution. Now he runs Brickarms, his own company. He is part of an industry, and all he needed was a 3D modeling tool, a 3D printing system… and his motivation.

DIY Drones
DIY Drones

In the same way, Anderson is building an interesting project: DIY Drones, a community of hobbyists (almost like pros at this time) who are sharing and building unmanned aerial vehicles. The same ones the army is using in the Middle East, the same ones that cost billions of dollars to design and test. He even got a call from the Pentagon to be consulted on this, and you could say that DIY Drones is a new actor on a big industry.

Facade elements at
Facade elements at

And if you need to scale, you just take your model and find a chinese supplier at Alibaba, who will do anything we need in the amounts we need, and it could even be the same factory that does pieces for Sony or Apple.

Now, back to architecture.

A few days ago a friend of mine told me how his young brother who is still in middle school was very happy to have learned how to model and modify objects on Google Sketchup, something trivial for the new generations. And they could print their models if they want. And that won´t be something “new” for them, it will be something normal.

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Gramazio & Kohler's robot
Gramazio & Kohler's robot
Ondulating brick wall done by Gramazio & Kohler's robot
Ondulating brick wall done by Gramazio & Kohler's robot

What if we take this to another scale? What if we had Gramazio & Kohler‘s robot? What if we could make our own robot?

And what if our clients do it? What happens to the architect?

We have a lot to learn from this, and we should be the ones spearheading it. We should embrace this production methods an explore them fully.

The romantic view of the architect behind his drawing board was once endangered by CAD, and still a lot of people criticize 3D for not being “sensible” as the hand. I respect that, but this new revolution has nothing to do with improving the same workflow, it is something completely new in its conception.

This new world will be played with new rules, and we should be open enough to adopt them (or even define them) to be a key actor on their development instead of getting on the wagon when it is too late.

Client? DIY.

Cite: Basulto, David. "Atoms are the new bits, and its relation with architecture" 11 Dec 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 26 May 2015. <>
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  • Nick

    This is a great piece of theory we can all take to action quickly.

    It’s the kind of thing I think all Designers in New Zealand could do. And the UK/developed markets too. For too long we have tried to compete on mass production – something we just cant do with the BRIC nations growing so fast.

    Smaller firms or event single entrepreneurs, peering up with others that have the skills they need to produce great work.

    Experts in each area market, design and produce something fantastic.
    Theres even spots to outsource the whole business logistics, accounting and legality side as well.

    I think we’ll see more and more simple online packages for startups (accounting/bookikeeping and marketing), and suppliers pricing for one offs rather than bulk orders.

    One site I’d thought of was to put these two points together. A DIY hubspot where the client has the idea, he picks a skilled designer by resume, who together come up with a good builder and choose the optimum parts for the job.

    Just imagine how your next bycicle, car or house could look!


  • Chris Anderson

    @ArchDaily applies my Atoms are the New Bits speech to architecture, finds much applicability:

  • benjamin

    Great article!!! David can you confirm where you can get a 3d plotter for $750? This sum seems a bit outrageous yet. Thanks and all the best

  • arqshow
  • dpr-barcelona

    We totally agree with you, David: architects should start “taking action” instead of wait for the “perfect client”. We need to think about “the architect” as the new activist, involved in technological, social, cultural and even political issues.

    The article is great, thanks.

  • teddy

    You called for responses to this article–I’ve kept it open for a couple days trying to get a chance to read it. For background, I consider myself of the generation that just expects to 3D print, to 3D model, to get my software for free, and to be able to design a skyscraper from the coffee shop.

    However, I am doubtful that we’ll be printing buildings, or using robotic construction, on Earth, any time soon. My doubt is economic. Some things outsource well, like payroll, whereas others outsource poorly, like Help Desk. When in comes to architecture, and the scale of the city, there is a diminishing return on the investment in these making machines. In China, where building is happening faster than ever before, there is a perfect testing ground for robotic construction; but there is also a wealth of cheap labor. China would rather put its people to work than employ a couple robots. In the US, where we’d geek out over a robot-made house, the cost of the development/research would have to be balanced by large numbers of projects. I suppose that it’s possible, but the next question is do we have the robots to do it?

    Look at a construction site today–humans already use a vast array of machines to dig pylons, pour foundations, raise steel, skin walls, insert glass, all the way down to the hammer we drive a nail with, we have tools/machines to help us every step of the way. To develop a multi-functioning robot, or an army of specialized robots, to do these tasks is an enormous undertaking.

    It’s already happening that the sharing of electronic files streamlines the production of buildings. Simply the ability to immediately share drawings and files with the fabricators allows us to get all pieces on site, ready to fasten. From wooden roof trusses to w/in 2mm accurate steel (in Japan, anyway), offsite preparations and perfecting the schedule and workflow has made a whole new realm of architecture possible, from “mass-customization” to the undrawable Gehry forms.

    On the smaller scale, the rapid, web-based production of consumable design objects like Lego guns is already here. I have friends who have outsourced production over the web of everything from clothes to jewelry. I love it! What you lose is again economic. Every piece you outsource means you’re paying others’ overhead and profit. This is fine to a point.

    Nick’s suggestion above, that design might be outsourced, also already happens. With those Chinese manufacturers, if you’re willing to pay, they will help refine and improve your design for better/more efficient manufacture. They’re the expert makers, so the extra design help may save in the long run. I like the idea of connecting designers, idea havers, and makers though a hub-site, though, and democratizing the access to designers. Companies like Ideo and Ziba are expensive, and very good at what they do. Bring their services to a custom coffee table for a suburban family, or a custom set of plates and silverware for a wedding gift, I think that’s pretty awesome.

  • theChavacano

    Turn the world 360 degrees?

  • emeka_okafor

    Atoms are the new bits,(contd) and its relation with architecture & design? #design #mfa09

  • Kevindoylejones

    RT @emeka_okafor: Atoms are the new bits, chris anderson #design #mfa09

  • KStircker

    This is such an eye opening article. It is so fascinating how houses can be 3D printed. I really learned a lot from this page. Architecture is such an important part of the art world and it is amazing how this 3d printing is such an up and coming part of architecture.