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This is something that has been discussed before here, but I couldn't find any recent posts about it, and I'm interested in hearing if folks have any novel ideas. I'm in the process of applying to M.Arch programs, and am coming up with my short list of schools. I also am currently working in a fab shop, running and maintaining a lot of different CNC and prototyping machines, and this is something I would definitely be interested in continuing with/focusing on during my architectural education. I was wondering what people think are the best schools in terms of equipment in the fab lab, student access to that equipment, and opportunities to integrate that kind of work into studio/the curriculum. I'm not necessarily a huge evangelist for CNC (I've also worked in more traditional wood and metal shops, and love that), but I really love to build things, imagine it will be easier to do a CNC project in studio than to hand-build a walnut secretary, or weld a gas tank for a motorcycle.
I know MIT has the Center for Bits and Atoms in the Media Lab, and is known for this kind of thing, and Columbia seems to have a "Laboratory for Applied Building Science." I've also heard good things about U. Michigan and Rice, but its been hard for me to tell whether a school actually has a good fabrication program, or whether they are just promoting it on their website because digital fabrication is trendy/attractive to students.
Does anyone have first or second-hand experience with this stuff?
I might be biased but the University of Houston has quite possibly the nicest, most under-utilized shop in the country. Since you already mentioned Rice (I never really saw anything great come out of there in terms of digi-fab), check out UH if you decide to go to Houston. UH is also a designated Rhino-Fab lab so you get extra resources, cheap software and they put on all kinds of demos twice a year.
If you want to get really crazy I think Michigan has a couple 5-axis machines and then of course Sci-ARC has their robots.
...7 axis KUKA Robot
I would argue UMich has some of the best resources in the nation. Take a look at their digifab page on the school's website. And it's not just the architecture school, but the adjacent schools can as well provide excellent resources to students outside of the architecture school. Plus, there's is no overriding dogma presiding. The interest and passions you have can easily be coupled with an appropriate professor to be challenged and nurtured. Of course, an education is only what you make of it, but they definitely have the best tools to make that happen.
I'm a research assistant in the UMich FABlab, feel free to drop me an email if you have any specific questions. Digital fabrication has been an area of personal interest for some time and I like to think that I can talk intelligently on the topic.
I gave the tours to the incoming students this year so I can give you the basics on our space up-front. For equipment we currently have:
Of course we always have plans for expansion in the works, but its not my place to be discussing those at this stage in the game.
I can't make comparisons against every school, but from my experience we have a fairly liberal access policy compared to other programs. The space of the lab is open 24/7, and I'm sitting in my office off the lab writing this. Students are allowed to run laser and ZUND jobs and have access to the metal and wood shops after basic orientations. Only trained student shop assistants run the 3-axis, waterjet and 3D printers. Access to 5-axis and KUKA is limited to coursework taught by or associated with the lab's director Wes McGee.
We also have a MSArch program in Digital Technologies (which I completed earlier this summer) that is heavily integrated with the lab. If you have a BArch already its an option if you'd rather that over a MArch.
I'll plug SAIC in the same category. Last I knew there were 3 CNC machines on campus, with an entirely new lab scheduled to open right about now. However, there are nine wood, metal, and digital fab shops on campus, with all of the above mentioned resources, plus a robotics lab, a foundry, plasma cutters, three complete furniture shops (30" planer anyone?), and a host of other making resources. The MArch curriculum also gives you the room to devote an entire course every semester to these kinds of pursuits.
Another thing to look at when examining schools is who they have for faculty that are involved with design computation and if they are integrating that with the fabrication facilities. I'm of the opinion (and I wouldn't be surprised if others were to disagree) that design computation and digital fabrication are two sides of the same coin, and that current work that is considered progressive in the field has the two systems communicating to one another. Its not enough just to have access to the latest and greatest tooling regardless how nice it is.