Digital Designer

Troy architect William Massie uses his computer to create some wildly inventive- and highly cost-efficient- houses.



Digital Designer

 

Computers are the key to

William Massie¡¯s astonishing homes

 

by Valerie Havas

 

These days, home computers are as commonplace as microwaves and color TVs. We use them to send e-mails, scan the day¡¯s headlines, help the kids out with their homework. But if Troy-based architect William Massie has his way, computers will play an even more prominent role in the American home. Massie¡¯s firm, massiearchitecture.com, uses computers to design extraordinary houses ¡ª and to fabricate many of the requisite building blocks.

 

His work has been lauded by architecture critics as well as by the media. Esquire magazine named him one of ¡°the best and the brightest,¡± admiring the way he wields computers to create astonishing yet affordable buildings ¡°with undulating roofs, flowing interiors, and surprising plays of light.¡± In 2002, Massie won the prestigious MoMA/P.S.1 Young Architects Program competition for his design for an ¡°urban beach¡± featuring shade created by PVC tubing and steel, and wading pools fashioned from foam cloaked in rubberized truck-bed lining. (The candy-colored pools reflected the light and colors of the daytime sky and appeared to glow at night.)

 

Massie, an associate professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), uses personal computers ¡ª ¡°big dog PCs and a Tablet PC the size of a laptop¡± ¡ª to create his architectural drawings. When plugged into the proper machinery, the computers can even direct phases of the construction process. For example, they help custom cut panels used as walls, roofs, and floors. ¡°The panels are ¡®edited¡¯ by our CNC [computer numerically controlled] milling machines,¡± he explains. ¡°We use the machines to cut out a window or door.¡± The milling machines also make forms into which concrete is poured to create architectural elements like supports and arches. Lasers and water jet machines directed by the computer also cut steel according to the architect¡¯s drawings. ¡°The high-pressured water cuts by blasting away the material,¡± he says. ¡°If you put an apple on the machine, it would cut it perfectly.¡±

 

But this isn¡¯t all that Massie¡¯s computers do. For a home that he built for himself in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains of Montana, he used a Global Positioning Survey (GPS) map and GPS computer modeling to situate the house and to determine its geometry. The result, a home that blends exceptionally well with the surrounding landscape, won Massie a Progressive Architecture award from Architecture Magazine in 2000. ¡°Because of GPS and advanced computerization, it¡¯s possible to make a building have a relationship to its immediate landscape in a way that wasn¡¯t possible before,¡± he asserts.

 

Massie also finds inspiration in the auto and aerospace industries. ¡°They have been using CNC machining for some time,¡± he notes. ¡°What I¡¯ve done is adapt some of the same processes to architecture.¡± Though the techniques may be similar, the goals are naturally quite different. ¡°I¡¯m not interested in making buildings fly, but in trying to make them more beautiful,¡± he laughs.

 

Massie¡¯s work has been described as ¡°customized prefab housing,¡± an assessment he says is accurate. That said, his work bears little re-semblance to the traditional prefab house in terms of appearance or building technique. ¡°We¡¯re trying to do prefabrication in a very different way, by prefabricating components rather than whole buildings,¡± he explains.

 

After the building components are designed and manufactured, they are turned over to a contractor, who fits them together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. A relatively small house may involve six or more pieces.

 

Massie¡¯s unique work methods can dramatically reduce the price of a custom-designed home. Here in the Hudson Valley, Massie¡¯s firm designed what he calls ¡°a modernist cabin¡± for an artist in Columbia County. Made primarily out of concrete, glass, and plywood, the 1,600-square-foot home cost just over $200,000 to build, he says ¡ª about the cost of a more traditional house. Of course, the house, an orange boxy structure nestled in a cornfield, looks anything but traditional.

 

In Montana, Massie built a stunning four-story silver tower for some British clients. Factoring in the price of the land, septic system, and Massie¡¯s fee, the sleekly futuristic, 2,000-square-foot home cost in the vicinity of $260,000. His Big Belt House, actually several buildings, cost about $200,000 total.

 

¡°By going right from the computer drawing to fabrication, we reduce the extraordinary cost of doing something complicated, like curvature,¡± Massie states. One area where costs are slashed is in the formation of concrete. Although concrete is relatively inexpensive, forming it comprises most of the cost. By ¡°machining out¡± the panels, Massie makes the whole process more economical.

 

¡°Massie,¡± declared BusinessWeek magazine, ¡°is a sort of poor person¡¯s Frank Gehry in that, like his famous counterpart, he designs his daring curved structures on a computer.¡± However, unlike the internationally acclaimed architect (who designed Bard College¡¯s undulating Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts), Massie uses humble, inexpensive PCs to do his design wizardry.

 

Comparing his work to Gehry¡¯s, Massie says, ¡°He¡¯s more interested in the primary, formal look of a building.... The thing that continues to be a guiding idea in my work is the building¡¯s relationships to light and the landscape. I¡¯m interested in the curved surfaces being the place in which light resides.¡±

 

Massie, 40, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in ¡°about as traditional a colonial house as you can imagine,¡± he recalls. Behind the traditional facade, however, was ¡°a beautiful all-steel, modern kitchen with all the conveniences,¡± an inspiration, perhaps, for the forward-looking architect he would eventually become. He studied architecture at the Parsons School of Design and received a master¡¯s degree from Columbia University. After working in New York City for a number of years, he moved to Montana, where he taught architecture at Montana State University and built up his small architectural firm.

 

Massie returned east about a year ago, driven by his desire to find an environment that would be supportive of his work in computer numerically controlled machining. ¡°I was looking for a school that would be interested in my research,¡± he recalls. ¡°I came back to teach, do research, and practice.¡± He relocated his firm to a site a few miles from the RPI campus, in a building that was originally an old bell foundry. ¡°We have a roughly 10,000-square-foot shop and about a 5,000-square-foot office above it,¡± he says.

 

At RPI, Massie¡¯s colleagues include a number of other architects specializing in technology-based design. ¡°RPI has an extraordinary history of supporting technology and technology research,¡± he explains. ¡°Architecture at RPI is connected in the best possible way to technology.¡± The entire field, he suggests, is undergoing something of a sea change. ¡°It¡¯s a very exciting time to be doing architecture, because the infrastructure of architecture is changing.¡±

 

Massie¡¯s firm is in the process of building a home in Spencertown, Columbia County, and he¡¯s currently looking for a piece of property in the Troy area so he can build a home for himself. (He still owns the Big Belt House, though he¡¯s not sure how often he¡¯ll get to use it, given its location on the other side of the country.) Although his firm has primarily designed houses to date, Massie hopes to tackle larger-scale works in the future. ¡°I¡¯d love to do a municipal building, a firehouse, that sort of thing,¡± he says.

 

So, if any Hudson Valley communities are seeking to build an extraordinary building at a less-than-extraordinary cost, they should give William Massie a call. He can be reached at 518-274-0303. ¡ö

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