Chris Sharples of ShoP on Direct-to-Fabrication Design and the Future of Architecture

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode, host Aaron Prinz speaks with Chris Sharples, a Co-Founder of the award-winning architecture firm SHoP in New York City. He discusses the SHoP’s innovative process of direct-to-fabrication design, the early days of founding the firm, and the future of the profession.

This episode is available via iTunes, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.


SHoP has pioneered this idea of modular delivery and direct-to-design fabrication What was the process that lead to your team using this as a primary way of view the construction process? (3:20)

“When we started the practice, it wasn’t so much questioning the processes we used of plan and section, we were concerned whether the contractor would be following our information directly. We noticed that that there wasn’t a seamless relationship between design and the realization of that design in the built environment. We did this on our very first project, a commission for a five acre park in Greenport Long Island. We decided, ‘Why don’t we actually build a very large model of how we would actually build the actual building. We photographed this and made a supplemental book to the construction documents, so when the contractors bid the project, they would look at the pictures. It was almost like what you would see in a typical plastic model kit instruction set. And as we were doing this, we won a competition for PS1 MoMA, and it was for a project that we call Dune Scape… We started modeling it in MicroStation, and we broke the programs that I was just mentioning into sectional experiences, and we started putting these different discrete sections together and we lofted between them. As we lofted between them it started to generate the shape. So, we were working in section and we weren’t working in plan. As we got this supple shape working, we said, ‘How are we going to build this?’ We started thinking, do we create a frame and wrap it in plastic, but it wasn’t creating the experience and materiality that we were looking for. There was a project we were looking at in Ken Frampton’s book on tectonics and culture. There was a chapter on Jorn Utzon, and there was a beautiful section drawing showing a portion of the Sidney Opera House that hadn’t actually been realized when it was first built. Which looked like it had been made by a bunch of popsicle sticks, creating a fanned effect, and we starting looking at that and thought, why don’t we build it literally section by section? We started thinking, lets make it out of 2x2 cedar sticks. Then we went back to the model, and sliced and diced the model into 2x2 sections of cedars of an A-B relationship. What was excited to us about this project, and we didn’t realize it at the time, is that we were going to do everything in model and digital space, and we weren’t going to print plans. We were going to literally print directly from the model at full scale…” 

Can you take us through the early years of SHoP? What were your projects, and what was the moment when you realized that SHoP was going to be able to sustain itself as a firm? (22:05)

“Before we started the practice, we were all just scrounging around for opportunities. Bill, Corey, and I built models for other companies, and we would do as-built drawings. We were hired by the Gap to go out and measure inside malls in the northeast, and we would do as-built drawings. While we are doing that, we are sticking our heads up into the ceiling to understand what the mechanical system is, and what’s on the roof. We were learning about all the stuff that you need to put a building together. Unfortunately, it was in malls… We would work for maybe six weeks, earn enough money, and then do a competition. In that two-year period we did maybe six competitions and we placed in all of them except for one. The first one we did was the Korean American Museum in LA, and we got second place and got 10K. So we said, ‘if we can just win a competition, then we can start the office.’ We knew that’s how Snohetta got started. We only did competitions that had a chance to be built because that’s what we needed. We won a commission to do this waterfront park in Greenport, and Greg and Kim won a commission to do a high-end fashion store in SoHo. We said let’s bring these two projects together and see what happens. We didn’t have a partnership agreement or anything. That’s really how it started…”

What specifically did SHoP do that allowed the firm to grow to the firm it is today, now with over 180 employees? (26:20)

“I think the most important thing to remember is that the practice of architecture in not an individual enterprise. It requires a significant number of people to realize a building, so it’s a collaborative enterprise. When we started the company, we were top heavy. We had five post grads with undergrad degrees in other fields. We had all these different disciplines, plus architecture, to mine from, but there were five of us. It’s really hard to start something by yourself. It’s hard to start something with just two people but when you have a crew of people, you can rely on each other. We are all good at design, but some of us are better at client relationships, or some are better at tackling some level of complexity when it comes to a new type of program, some are good at thinking into the future and where this could all be going. It’s not like you work with your best friend because they are the best designer and you’re the best designer because I can tell you that those relationships don’t last very long… It’s all about sharing information and trust… It’s a group decision and once we make a decision then we all get behind it. Everybody gets behind it. That’s the key to a collaborative…”  

The field of architecture is rapidly changing, and designs are becoming more complicated with advancements in technology. What does the next generation of architecture look like to you? (33:30)

“I think what is really exciting, and we’ve seen this with students coming out of school, is that they aren’t just coming out with basic skillsets. They know multiple software platforms, and they are also very communicative. They know how to get online and talk to somebody, and they are writing scripts. You marry them up with someone, like myself, with 30 years experience, and say this is the problem that we need to solve and this is how we should think about it. They are just going to go to work on it. We have a number of white papers on the subject of material science, on geometry, on fabrication that are all coming out of the shared culture of the skills they have coming out of school but also the experience of the crews that are already here at SHoP. We’ve got people here that are focusing on very specific problems. How do we analyze to run simulations? VR is playing a big role here. Obviously direct-to-fabrication, now we are actually doing, not just direct-to-fabrication on building envelops, we are talking about the whole building. In a way coming full circle back to PS1. The move for us in the next five years is how can we move from a conventional approach to one site construction to a full offsite manufactured approach to how we deal with the built environment… You can see with some of the reports that have come out, just how noninnovative our industry has been the last 100 years. People forget that we are actually service providers, so we don’t have as much control as we think we have over the process. It’s time for us to get back in there and get the control back. We need to play an instrumental role in, not only how we design it and manage information, but how we realize our projects in the real world…”

You mentioned the advancement in technology in architecture. Do you see a time where the architect, as we know it, actually would become obsolete? (37:40)

“I can say that if we don’t make some changes then we will become obsolete. We can become marginalized very quickly because a lot of these large, global companies, are doing this stuff all inhouse, but the way not to be marginalized, as we see, data is more valuable than oil. Data is critical. Our best clients make decisions off of data, and we use data in every aspect of our process. When we run simulations, it tells us information on how the building is going to perform environmentally. It tells us about how much things will cost. We can run fabrication simulations to understand how long it would take to fabricate certain components. The old saying was that if you wanted to price a project you could just weigh the drawings. Here you can actually get a level of precision, and every six months it’s getting better and better and better. I really believe it is about art and technology coming together. We are going to continue to strive to make beautiful, meaningful experiences for people through architecture, but they have to perform. They have to improve the quality of life for people. The only way that we are going to be able to do that is to utilize this technology. I do believe that if we do not want to be marginalized then we need to embrace this even more. We need to accelerate it…”

About this author
Cite: Design:ED. "Chris Sharples of ShoP on Direct-to-Fabrication Design and the Future of Architecture" 04 Sep 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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