Applying the Digital Vernacular


In the makeLab, there is a firm belief that form generation alone is  not a viable design solution. Rather, we are pushed to learn from the tried and true practices derived from generations of study and implement them using digital tools. This is what Jim Stevens refers to as the “digital vernacular” and is the basis of a design challenge using traditional, vernacular building types from around the world. The project objectives included a thorough study of the cultural and economic context, skill level of labor, materials, established construction processes, and aesthetic characteristics of each building type. From this study, a digital vernacular detail reflecting the methodologies and ideas was created via digital tools.

For this project, Ryan Asava, a second-year graduate student in Stevens class, studied the Toda hut. This building type originates in the Nilgiri plateau of Southern India, where the Toda people have perfected it for over a thousand years. The Toda people form pastoral tribes, who often leave their huts to accommodate the buffalo grazing periods. As a result, their dwellings are often left unattended, and incur damage as well. The Toda hut itself is a pent-shaped structure created with native materials of lashed bamboo sticks and fasteners of rattaen, the pliable stems of the bamboo stalk. Overall, the Toda hut is a simple, yet refined and extremely effective building type for that culture and location.


The ideas that Ryan derived from this research informed several goals for his detail: simplicity of assembly, ease of replacement, accommodation of same forces, and composition of common materials. He was most inspired by the use of lashed bundles of sticks, the primary component in the Toda hut. The significance of the lashed detail is that it creates a 360-degree fulcrum and resists structural forces in all directions. To apply this, he began to design a singular construction piece by mapping out the X,Y, and Z forces that it would resist. This singular piece, when replicated, would also need to form the arch shape similar to that of the Toda hut.


Through a series of mock-ups, and varying ideas, Ryan created multiple interlocking pieces out of three laminated sheets of  ¼” plywood. The laminated sheets allow for pockets to aid in the interlocking of the members. In terms of forces, the fulcrum created in the piece resists the X forces, while the interlocking of the pieces resists resulting Y forces. The Z forces are resisted by a combination of two pockets and tabs: a tab at the ends of the piece that fits into a pocket of the adjacent piece, and the center (hook) that goes into a pocket as well (see figure below). The pieces themselves are put together using friction-fit joinery, rather than any sort of fasteners, and the only glue used was for the laminating process. Since the pieces are friction-fit, the size and tolerance was very important. Ryan realized just how important it was when he accidentally forgot to compensate for the proper tolerance while cutting his pieces on the CNC machine. This problem was fixed in the post-processing, however, via a Dremel tool to ensure the proper fitting of the pieces. Once put together, the resulting architectural detail was extremely successful in fulfilling Ryan’s original goals.

The significance and success of this project is immense because the fully constructed arch holds a large amount of weight and is truly vernacular in its simplistic manufacturing, construction and native materiality. The singular piece also makes it easy to replace, and requires a low amount of skilled labor to produce and assemble. As a constructed arch, it has relatively low embodied energy largely because plywood is readily available in this region, no metal fasteners are needed, and little post-processing is required. This project proves that a well-designed yet simple piece can have great implications in construction.

In a broader context, this project also upholds many of the principles of the makeLab. We believe that digital fabrication should never be approached with the assumption that a new software or machine suddenly will suddenly create good design simply because it is new. Or, that as a westernized culture, we have the “right” building practices for every location and application. Rather, this project exemplifies that a careful and humble study of other traditional practices, cultures, and history is what aids us in using new tools appropriately. Because a digital tool at the end of the day is just that: a tool. Without the appropriate ideas, research, and historical precedent to apply those tools to, it does nothing.


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