E-GROW | Master of Moulds 
Established in 1997, E-Grow International Trading Co. provides architects with 3D fabrication services and building materials. The firm has been involved in a series of projects that includes the interior of the Guangzhou Opera House (Zaha Hadid Architects), the exterior of the Zhixin Hybrid Office in Chengdu (MADA s.p.a.m. and Patterns) and three Shanghai projects: the rather awkwardly shaped columns of the Giant Group Campus (Morphosis), the UAE Pavilion for Expo 2010 (Foster + Partners) and the interior of the Oriental Art Center (Paul Andreu).
When I sit down with the company president and the chief of design production – Jerry Ku and Julian Wang, respectively – they mention EMBT Shanghai, which solicited their services the day before, and an upcoming Skype call with architect Jeffrey Inaba about his installation for the foyer of a new concert hall in Stavanger, commissioned by Public Art Norway (KORO). Inaba’s project is an exception to the rule, however, as most of E-Grow’s work takes place in China. Fabrication services include digital modelling, detail drawings, project management, manufacture and installation. Ku and Wang also own a couple of patents, one of which is for a wax mould that is used to cast digitally designed building panels. They also distribute their own glass fibre-reinforced gypsum, concrete and plastic panels.
During the conversation, we discuss a range of E-Grow’s current projects, among which a twisted balustrade for the Barker Residence in Hong Kong (davidclovers), the Galaxy Soho Showroom in Beijing and the Egyptian Pavilion for Expo 2010 in Shanghai (both by Zaha Hadid Architects). And we talk about materials, such as aluminium sandwich panels, metal shingle cladding, and metal cladding for double-curved façades.
How did you come up with the idea for digital fabrication in wax?
Jerry Ku: Prior to 2006 we did moulding in a traditional way, using MDF for simple geometries. Around that time, Zaha Hadid arrived in China. One of her architects, Simon Yu, showed me Rhinoceros 3D. I had never seen it before, and I thought it was amazing. I started thinking about how to work with the parametric shapes that this program allows and about how to construct moulds on a 1:1 scale. After all, who can afford to make panels for a project that requires a different shape for every piece? I tried using ice, which is cheaper than MDF but starts melting at 0°C. Then I thought about wax. The melting point of wax – about 45°C – is also too low, but my wax supplier managed to raise that number to 90°C, allowing me to produce cheap moulds that can be reused and recycled. When I was convinced that it worked, I registered the patent.
Julian Wang: Wax is perfect for parametric design, as it can be moulded quickly and is recyclable. It’s also to our advantage that China has low labour costs, since making a different mould for each panel is extremely labour intensive. They have to be made by hand, carefully and precisely. After use, we melt the wax. On average, only 2 per cent is too dirty to reuse. We have 12 CNC-milling machines in our factory, each of which produces up to three moulds a day. Using the traditional method, we would need three days for one mould.
China is known for its competitive culture, in which patent infringement is rampant. Have you encountered this type of problem?
Jerry Ku: You have to understand that a registered Chinese patent is better protected here than its foreign counterpart. The bulk of the pirated stuff is related to objects and methods from overseas. Patents are very important for the profession of architecture. They are part of the reason why Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, for example, were awarded the Pritzker Prize. No one in my opinion, combines architecture with mechanical engineering and industrial technology better than Gehry. My role is not only to supply and install but also to invent technology, to integrate it into building practices and, ultimately, to help architects realize their designs.
When you started the company in 1997, what was the idea behind it? And how has the company evolved since then?
Jerry Ku: I am originally from Taiwan. In 1997 we were involved mainly in the construction of drywall, curtain walls, glass fibre-reinforced gypsum panels and metal ceilings. The metal ceiling at Taiwan International Airport is an example of my company’s work. I relocated to China because it is the biggest market in the world. Our first project here was the blue metal ceiling for Shanghai Pudong International Airport Terminal 1, designed by Paul Andreu. We had five months to cover 160,000 m2. Instead of building the scaffolding from the ground up, we used sliding scaffolding. Later we did the ceilings for Norman Foster’s Jiushi Tower near the Bund in Shanghai.
You also did the interior of the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid Architects (Mark #29, page 112). The exterior of that building is poorly finished and is already cracking in some places, but the interior turned out quite nicely. Can you explain the contrast?
Jerry Ku: The quality of the execution was terrible. I think Zaha also realizes this. In some cases, though, the architect cannot be blamed. Most of the time, poor quality is the result of a client’s relations with suppliers of material. This happens all over China. People are not always trustworthy, but the good thing is that machines can be trusted.
Do you have any influence on the actual design of an architecture project?
Jerry Ku: Sometimes we do. Take Guangzhou, for instance, where Zaha Hadid Architects created everything in Rhino without considering the Chinese building practices used for concrete structures. Based on an on-site survey, we built another Rhino model that showed four points of conflict – places where the undulating panels would collide with the concrete walls. I told Zaha’s project supervisor, Simon Yu, to change the concrete or redesign the panels, which they did. Sometimes architects focus so much on the effect of forms that they forget the structure itself. After receiving the Rhino files, we made 4,000 different moulds for the Guangzhou job in four and a half months.
Do you encounter problems during installation as well?
Jerry Ku: Sometimes. If the problem is too big, we use a special joint cap as a patch. Our panels can also be adjusted to compensate for accumulated installation imprecision, so we’re always in control of the final result.
Is there a difference between working with foreign and Chinese architects?
Jerry Ku: I prefer to collaborate with foreign architects, because even the more famous ones are modest. Most Chinese architects think of us as a supplier – and under their control. They do not know what it is to cooperate. In my opinion, cooperation should be a win-win situation for both parties involved.
How do you see E-Grow developing in the next few years?
Jerry Ku: Parametric design will continue to evolve, but we have to realize that 3D design software is only a tool. Even if you don’t like the resulting structures, you have to learn the skill. If you don’t, you have no right to criticize the outcome.
Don’t you appreciate the projects you’ve been doing?
Jerry Ku: I do not like parametrically designed buildings. But this is the future. Everyone in China’s architecture schools has to deal with it. Besides, in recent years many Chinese architects have gone to the AA, to Harvard, to Princeton and the like. When they return to China, they still do not know how to get such a structure off the ground. I foresee a big market for this type of architecture in China in the coming decades. Without keeping up with current practices, you can’t succeed in business. I also believe that parametric design will eventually eliminate the need for blueprints, because every section – every 10 cm – will be unique.
Julian Wang: In our material research, we focus on composites, such as a glass fibre-reinforced alpha gypsum that is lightweight and very strong. We also used glass fibre-reinforced polymer in, for instance, Zaha’s furniture for Neil Barrett stores in Hong Kong and South Korea. We research coatings as well, including the type of chrome paint that is normally used on cars. And we are conducting experiments with nano-ceramic paint, used for rockets, which can perform at a temperature of 1200°C. We want to apply it to moulds used to cast double-curvature glass. In theory, a mould coated with this paint will produce glass with a silky-smooth finish. Essentially, our core technology is the mould. We can cast any shape and texture in it, with any malleable material: aluminium foam, Corian, glass, whatever. The key is speed and precision.
Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Illegal Copying | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man | #26 (June-July 10)
Deshaus: Slow Down | #28 (October-November 10)
JR | City Faces | #30 (Feb-March 11)
Major Forces | Sun Jiwei | #31 (April-May 11)
Preservation Playground | #35 (Dec 11-Jan 12)
(back to movingcities publications on China page)