Factory Town: Manufacturing and Innovation Hub in North Adams, Massachusetts

Introduction

Twenty years ago, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened its doors, transforming a remote, disused factory in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts into one of the most vibrant and important centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the world. In doing so, it completely overturned a prevalent narrative that major cultural centers need to be associated with large, ‘global’ cities. Further, it revealed and enhanced the sublime and epic spaces of two centuries of production, as the architecture of the former factory has, for many visitors, become as important to the destination experience as the art contained within it. As a corollary to this inspiring example, we will consider a site in proximity to MASS MoCA as the location for a contemporary manufacturing and innovation hub, one that seeks to connect the surrounding urban and rural context to experience the equally sublime spaces that emerging methods of manufacturing require. At a time of fraught discourse over the ongoing economic crisis of rural economies, we will investigate and experiment with new models for creating places of production, ones that learn from history in terms of what remains aspirational. In the mid-20C, the factory that now houses MASS MoCA was a fully functioning center for highly innovative manufacturing, but it also housed a local radio station, an orchestra, a vocational school, a research library, a daycare center, a medical clinic, a cooperative grocery store and several sports teams. For our part, we will explore concepts for a 21C Hub, one that allows for the coexistence of many large and small programs, that by their many intersections, create compounding social and personal value for the city’s residents and its visitors.

Background

The act of making reflects the very core of our culture and the values of our civilization. Within the contemporary context of manufacturing, the forces of global logistics, driven by ever lower production costs and consumer demand patterns, are driving places of production towards increasingly instrumentalized spaces, as human existence is reduced to the last functions that cannot be supplied through robotic means. Yet, we are also living in a moment of profound transition in the culture of the built environment process, whereby new manufacturing and automation methods will radically transform the way we design and deliver future products, buildings and systems. This studio will playfully examine and project the role of architecture in defining new hybrid places of innovation and social connection through the rapidly shifting landscapes of fabrication. Within the context of disused industrial landscapes that typically proliferate in cities such as our site in North Adams, Massachusetts, we will experiment with new concepts for places of production that respond to a range of social desires. We will investigate ways of simultaneously supporting emerging material cultures, from the granularity of the maker culture movement with its novel methods of collaboration, assembly and distribution, towards larger scale production that harness the range of emerging automation towards reconfigurable micro factories. Most importantly, we will take the opportunity to fundamentally question our relationship to production within society. How can emerging methods and organizational concepts enable the kind of individual and collective creativity that has previously all too often been suppressed by organized places of production and assembly? In turn, how can the sublime and often epic spaces of production be accessible to the city, in order to connect, inspire and participate in multiple collateral programs, from education, to exposition and public art?

Context

The global AEC* industry is ready for change. At a time when the built environment process is responsible for the majority of climate change effects and toxic non-renewable resource consumption, it is the only industry that has actually lost productivity in recent decades while costs continue to escalate. Like it has in so many other areas of society, the tech industry is poised to occupy the vacuum, as it has inevitably recognized that incremental adjustments will not bring truly transformational change. Rather the entire process of how we design and deliver buildings needs to be holistically readdressed. Through the program of an innovation and manufacturing hub, this studio explores ways in which design architects and engineers can get out in front of the tech industry with new paradigms that inform future models for manufactured building modules and systems. We will explore the potential to develop models that actually enhance design creativity and control, rather than the dystopian potential to render designers into recipient specifiers and curators of preconceived products and systems. Uniquely, we will incorporate design modules with ecosystem-of-systems integration, whereby materials and structures are integrating off-site to intelligently perform and evolve towards distributed self-sufficient systems for clean energy, water, waste and food systems.

This advanced design studio explores the frontiers that are opening up across multiple design disciplines as a result of the ongoing revolution in data-driven biocompatible manufacturing processes and related fields. As the flight of manufacturing has left rural economies and former factory towns across America desolate and without regional economic viability, we now have an opportunity to reimagine ‘economies of making’ on some of the most fundamental levels. This leads us to several questions: 1. How do we want to produce materials and systems in the 21st century? That is, what criteria need to inform new value structures that support a range of scales of engagement? 2. What are the new programmatic modes and values that inspire and drive us in the wake of the ecological destruction wrought by 20th century throughput material economies and planned obsolescence? 3. What do people who work in places of production and manufacturing need in order to more fully participate and creatively contribute to industrial processes that previously consumed human lives with repetive, robotic work? 4. How can we leverage automation processes to transform these expectations, and transform the ‘factory’ into a social place of wonder and discovery? 5. How do we connect the excitement of innovation to the local context, such that the town can enjoy the lofty and often sublime spaces of production? 6. Finally, how can we connect and merge with synergistic programs, such that the formerly isolated behomoth factory of the modern era can be reimagined as a framework of interconnected activities and economic scales from small retail and entertainment to other institutional programs that are more loosely connected, but galvanized by the places of production in their midst.

Site

We will design an Innovation Hub for the center of North Adams, Massachusetts, that will connect to and galvanize the regional base for bio-based prefabricated and modular construction and manufactured products. The project will examine the program as a potential future model for post-industrial towns and regions that look towards utilizing the inherent assets of their regional locations to reduce the carbon footprint of building lifecycles, while capitalizing on urgent global imperatives to convert building systems manufacturing into clean, carbon neutral industries. This hub will generate hybrid collateral programs by proposing new concepts for blended adjacencies between major manufacturing, and emerging models for maker spaces, educational programs, and demonstration/retail spaces that strongly connect to the multiple cultural programs and support spaces.

In some ways, North Adams is typical of many post-industrial rural areas. However, North Adams is a also a small town with an extremely illustrious ipast. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, through the Sprague Electric Company, North Adams attracted internationally renowned scientists and engineers to become a major research center that hosted ground breaking studies on semi-conductor materials that would transform the second part of the 20th century. However, as with so many formerly robust centers of manufacturing around the country, industrial production fled North Adams in search of lower operating costs. With the Sprague Electric plant now converted into the vast contemporary art complex, Mass MoCA, new life is breathing into the site, and there is a tremendous opportunity to diversify employment and recapture the formerly robust industrial landscape, this time with a 21st century agenda of ecological and social integration with the surrounding context. The galvanizing presence of Mass MoCA within North Adams is a beacon of transformation, and thus provides the ideal complement for an experimental manufacturing innovation hub, that could further diversify the economy and growth of the region.

As we contemplate the future of North Adams, we propose a studio that investigates some fundamental questions about how we want to manufacture products and systems in the 21st century. We face a global challenge to shift manufacturing and building practices from the current toxic, energy intensive processes towards bio-compatible methods that promote healthy ecosystems and sustainable local communities.

In this regard, North Adams happens to sit in a potentially transformative position to serve as a generative model for future towns and cities. Geographically located with excellent proximity to multiple sustainably managed North Eastern forests, as well as several very large construction and real estate markets, North Adams might be ideally located as a site for future biocompatible manufacturing. We propose biocompatible manufacturing as a term to designate emerging material and manufacturing processes that are carbon sequestering, that are mostly built with biogenic materials (such as timber and post-agricultural waste), that foster net biodiversity and that eliminate as many toxic procedures as possible, including the reduction of embodied energy from lengthy transport routes and the use of fossil fuels.

North Adams, a small city in Western Massachusettes was one time a booming manufacturing town. After a long decline in its economy, its vast industrial infrastructure was repurposed to form MASS MoCA. This studio aims to merge the existential question of what would consitute meaningful manufacturing in the 21st Century, and how North Adams could serve as a prototype for the galvanization of a new type of manufacturing base that is both Biocompatible and inextricably linked to the creative and design industries around MASS MoCA that serve to connect North Adams to the larger region.

North Adams happens to sit in a very interesting location to probe questions concerning the future of manufacturing. At the same time as the 20th Century manufacturing models based on the mass production of mechanical and electrical widgets has long since moved offshore in pursuit of the lowest cost of production, increasingly, in the 21st century, environmnental pressures to produce products through low carbon, sustainable and biocompatible means, is coinciding with an ever greater automation of procedures, that might increasingly neutralize the disparity in labor markets in the manufacturing sector. North Adams is perfectly situated to host a major timber-based manufacturing center on two fronts: to capitalize on both its position within the heart of the North Eastern Sustainable Forestry Industry and also as a potential creative hub, inspired by the presence of MASS MoCA, but layered by the jobs and economic activity that would be generated by the manufacturing of innovative domestic modular architecture, furniture, and household products.

Drawing upon the deep tradition of design in the region going back to the seminal Shaker settlements, which have had a disproprotionate influence on theories of design through their radically simplified and integrated components, the design acumen of the Shaker villages will also be studied as we leverage the most advanced aspects of technology to question means of production, definitions of beauty, and the potential integration of values across societies and fields.

Proposed Travel Itinerary

Saturday, Feb 9th
- Depart for Flight to San Franscisco
- Dinner in SF

Sunday, February 10th
- Breakfast Rountable Discussion: Status Quo
- Group Site Visits with Critical Dissection of the limitations of Contemporary Design and Delivery Systems through the following projects:
* SFMOMA, Snohetta
* De Young Museum, Herzog & de Meuron
* California Academy of Sciences, Renzo Piano Building Workshop
* Yerba Buena Center, Fumiko Maki
- Disperse for Dinner in SF

Monday, February 11th
- Travel to Tesla, Palo Aalto. High level tour of the manufacturing and research operations of the automotive and energy systems company. The company specializes in electric car manufacturing and, through its SolarCity subsidiary, integrated ecosystems power wall solar roof and wall manufacturing. Like many of the automotive giants around the world, Tesla is actively conceiving disruptive models for built environment infrastructure and ecosystems delivery.
- Tour of Apple HQ, Cuppertino
- Dinner in SF

Tuesday, February 12th
- Technology Center Pier 9 – Exploring the future of manufacturing / Configurable Micro Factories / Renaissance Incubator Center
- Uber HQ – ShoP Architects (Tour of construction site)
- Presidio

Wednesday, Febrary 13th
- Leave for Airport / Flight to Seattle
- Seattle Public Library. Roundtable Disucssion and charrette exercise within Library.
- Dinner in Seattle

Thurday, February 14th
- Boeing Corporation - Tour of Ecosystem-of-systems Production and Assembly Methods. Research into novel disruptive systems of the future.
- Afternoon flight to Phoenix
- Dinner in Phoenix

Friday, February 15th
- Katerra: The largest mass timber manufacturing facility in NA; factory built on forested land owned by Cowles Co., which has relatively large forested land holdings within the PNW; facility designed and built by Katerra. Vertically integrated company with Silicon Valley roots; commodity-based design and tech-manufacturing culture as basis for business model, influencing integration of design and manufacturing divisions, with material products intended for application to Katerra building projects, and will also be offered to influence a broader adoption across the construction industry.
- Trip to Taliesin West
- Round table on materials and making with Arizona colleagues

Saturday, February 16
- Flight back to NYC

Site Visit (Date TBD)

North Adams
-Tour MASS MoCA, document proposed site
-Meetings with several civic and community stakeholders

Tour through Troy and Hudson, NY
- Visits to multiple maker spaces and manufacturing start-up initiatives, including Center of Gravity and Evocative, the company responsible for The Living’s mushroom-based building installation at MoMA PS1.


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