Innovation doesn’t always mean employing new technology—it can also mean renewing and refining methods known for centuries. That was a theme of RECORD’s Innovation Conference June 8, the magazine’s 18th such gathering and its first in San Francisco. More than 200 architects converged on the Mission Bay campus of the University of California, San Francisco for a day that began with architect Diébédo Francis Kéré showing how he made skylights for a school in Burkina Faso from slices of clay pots, and ended with Allied Works Architecture founder Brad Cloepfil displaying a model for the National Music Centre of Canada made of slices of a trombone encased in plaster. In both instances, there was innovation in form-making, but not a computer in sight.

Editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan set the tone by noting that architects are increasingly expressing a desire to “return to work produced by hand – to a feeling of craft.” Adam Marcus, the principal of Oakland’s Variable Projects, said digital fabrication has made it easy to customize building components. But another way to achieve variation, he says, is to rely on the hand, thereby “introducing risk into the process of making things.”

The day’s program was titled “Architecture and Making in the Post-Digital Age.” Brian Mackay-Lyons, the founder of Nova Scotia’s Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, came out swinging. “Is the digital era over already?” he deadpanned. As for innovation, he said, “a lot of it is just style or fashion.” Mackay-Lyons, who designs oceanfront buildings in his native Nova Scotia that echo vernacular forms, found soulmates at the conference in Jesus Edmundo Robles Jr. and Cade Manning Hayes of the Arizona firm DUST, who showed a house near Tucson made of rammed earth. While designing another house, in southeastern Arizona, the men lived on the site to get to know it. “We were visited by coyotes, crows, and border patrol drones,” said Robles.

Natural materials were on view throughout the day. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture showed more than 100 tests he conducted to get the right texture of concrete for his Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. But those tests were something of a first-world luxury. Kéré, who was born in Burkina Faso and practices in Berlin, has no choice but to build with found materials and local labor in his hometown in Africa. Along with mud, he uses rebar to weave roof structures, and leftover rebar for chairs and desks, one of which has entered the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the show The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community runs through September 26).

Another material the speakers work with is light. Sharon Johnston, of the Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee, described efforts to bring light – but not too much of it – to rooms at the Menil Drawing Institute, now under construction in Houston. A series of devices modulate sunlight to a tiny fraction of its natural intensity.

The ultimate tribute to the handmade may be a project of Jennifer Luce, the founder of San Diego’s Luce et Studio, who was chosen to renovate the Mingei International Museum in that city’s Balboa Park. Asked to define Mingei, she said, “beautiful utilitarian objects made by unknown artists.” It is a lovely definition, and one that – except for “unknown” – would fit the scores of projects shown during the Innovation Conference