There is a rich and tested way of designing and building structures evident in vernacular buildings in every region of the world. These buildings have been built for hundreds of years and are still built with the knowledge of craft from their predecessors. However, in the post-digital world these traditions have been diminished by a desire for new form making over new processes that build on the craft tradition. This dilemma has informed the research to seek new ways of blending the use of digital technologies, while preserving tradition.
The Presidential Undergraduate Research Award made possible for me to focus my research on the craft tradition of wood shingling in Romania. The initial explorations were further developed during a one-week workshop in Bucharest, Romania where nine students from Lawrence Tech collaborated with five students from “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism. The workshop was hosted at Nod Makerspace, a newly open studio in a former cotton mill, where artists with different backgrounds practice their work. We felt extremely welcomed there, and the similarities between their work ethic and ours provided a perfect environment for conducting our research in that space.
As a precedent, we visited the National Village Museum “Dimitrie Gusti”, where we analyzed the different types of traditional wood shingling. After identifying certain conditions that each one of the students was interested in, we faced the challenge of making them using digital fabrication. The various explorations and iterations drove us to the outcome – a prototype that responded to most of the set limitations but also took advantage of new digital tools. We identified that by using parametric software we could modify each shingle to respond to most shapes. Editing the script allowed us to limit our shingle fabrication to three shingle types varied by shape that controls the shingles ability to curve along a surface.
Using the prototyped shingles the students spent the final 2 days of the workshop fabricating the shingles on the CNC from solid pine boards. The shingles assembled into a final prototype that demonstrated the potential for the process.
The objective of my research project was to better understand the tools used in digital fabrication, and to build a digital tool at LTU to take to Polis University in Albania. Once I received the Presidential Undergraduate Research Award, I began to educate myself on the many different ways I could go about designing a 3 axis computer numerical control (CNC) tool. I conducted a literature search, read digital fabrication blogs, and sought out the expertise of the people around me in the makeLab and professors at LTU.
The design process of the CNC machine began with hand sketching in a notebook, and a digital 3D model using Rhino software. The digital model constantly evolved over the first few months until it reached a point where I could begin prototyping the machine. I started by milling components out of medium density fiber board with hours of cutting, testing, revising, and re-cutting. The time spent prototyping paid off during final production, which went efficiently.
The most difficult task of the research project was figuring out the logistics of actually getting the machine to Albania. It was a constant tug of war between maximizing the cutting power and size of the machine, and also being able to fit within airline restrictions (the only affordable shipping option). The machine also had to be extremely reliable since the availability of replacement parts is close to nonexistent in Albania.
The machine was designed, built, broken down, packed, and flown across the world to Albania for a digital fabrication workshop in the beginning of July 2015. The next 12 days were spent educating students on the machine, going through the computer programs needed to run it, and eventually running the machine. 15 students from both Lawrence Tech, and Polis University ran the machine for more than 30 hours without any problems. The machine was then left in Albania for future students to use.
The research grant turned out to be a twofold learning experience for me. I was able to educate myself, and successfully build an advanced tool that now opens up design opportunities for students in Albania. Facing the challenges of designing, prototyping, and building the machine gave me great respect for the tools we have at Lawrence Tech. The second learning experience was the workshop itself. Watching the Lawrence Tech and Polis University students be introduced to digital fabrication and the amazing projects that came out of the workshop was exciting to see. This research project was invaluable to my education but more importantly, it has helped educate others and will continue to do so.
By Josh Thornton, Brandon Pawloske, Marc Hopkins and Eric Meyers
Initiating the concrete + rubber band project, the group decided to look at concrete flexibility based on changes to the mix; such as replacing water with liquid latex, and casting rubber bands within the concrete. After allowing the concrete to cure, the casts were subjected to bending stress tests and while the idea of replacing water with latex made the cured casts very brittle, the rubbers bands added a degree of flexibility that lead the group into different, smaller tests regarding rubber band layouts and their relative strengths when keeping the broken concrete in position. After finding a grid pattern of bands that worked, the team began to question the typical ways that concrete is used, and developed a rubber band grid that allowed ample flexibility. From there, the group worked on creating a mold that would allow easy and quick reproduction of modules by creating a tool to quickly apply concrete to the new surface by spraying onto it.
Integral to the manufacturing process was the idea of casting a module with rubber bands in it, breaking those casts on specific break lines, and finally using those new modules to form our wall. Due to this process, a sizeable amount of time was used in the development of a mold that was reusable, and allowed for quick and easy setting up of the casts with strung rubber bands and placed inserts for our pre-determined break lines. After quite a few iterations, a final mold was developed that allowed over 8 casts to be produced per day, and reset within a reasonable time even with only one or two people working the molds.
The second major task that was decided as a necessity to the project was the development of a shotcrete gun. After researching the available commercial stucco sprayers, an initial design was agreed on and prototyped using a garden hose handle and PVC piping with minimal success, but was quickly iterated with a second design that also held marginal success. The final iteration, which ended up being very similar to the first, ended up working very well and sped up the application process of the concrete to our test modules quite significantly, while remaining extremely inexpensive adding a high design value.
Assembling the wall was quite the task. While the first course of the wall was easy to lay out and support, the remaining courses to lay down were troublesome. The development of a framework was not completely thought out, and looking back, a processes of using the CNC machine to cut out an exact form that acts as support for the wall would have been a much better route to take. The framework that was created was attempted to be used, but did not end up helping the process in any way, and a make-shift supporting element was used to help support the 3rd, 4th, and 5th courses of the wall during construction. Success thorough failure was the lesson of our formwork.
The design of the wall was conceived in a way that could display the strengths of the concrete modules, allowing them to curve in multiple directions (without a series of complex molds), and also remaining thin, strong, and freestanding. Construction went relatively quickly when supporting elements were determined, as well as the use of pre-combined modules that improved the strength and stability of the wall during construction. Finally, spraying the wall with concrete throughout the construction process increased the strength further, and allowed for one side to have a relatively smooth finish, while the other displayed the modules and broken grid patterns.
It was only a couple of years ago when we built our first suitcase CNC and took it to Albania. Since then, we have shifted our focus to tools that stay, as apposed to tools that travel. Our second CNC machine is now in Kosovo with a third installed in January at Sushant School of Art and Architecture in New Delhi, India. As our focus shifted so did the technology. The first suitcase CNC was built for the rigors of travel. It was in a hard roadie case and required almost no setup. This allowed for minimal time as we moved from workshops to demonstrations in multiple locations. When tools stay the requirements change but the idea of maintaining the tool becomes the challenge. We shifted the design from one that was nearly fully custom to one that was almost entirely open-source. CNC tools were installed this summer in Bolivia with the International Design Clinic (IDC) and in Albania at Polis University using the ShapeOKO design with the new tinyG control board. The tools are now able to be maintained by the host institutions with the advantage of open-source knowledge and components. We benefited immediately in Albania from this support community. The tinyG control board, the hardware and the control software had communication issues. After a couple of days of troubleshooting the tinyG forums assisted the makeLab and the students at Polis University in Albania in resolving what was only a minor firmware issue. This first hiccup was the perfect test for a support network that is necessary in emerging regions that do not have the “benefit” of a service contract for digital equipment.
The ShapeOKO was modified this year to use a larger router for cutting dense material and with larger aluminum rails to increase cutting size. Both tools also have the advantage of upgrade. With the evolving open-source design, students and faculty can update components cost effectively as the technology changes.
After troubleshooting, the tool ran smoothly in Albania with the students able to produce projects within the first few days. Four student projects explored different avenues of digital fabrication. One project studied material performance through removing “lines” of material and heat bending extruded PVC along a digitally cut “jig”. Others saw potential in surfacing material that would interact with the landscape, creating a connection between soil, plants and geometry. Joint taxonomy and transparency were also explored leveraging the tools ability to cut precisely when needed but allowing for improvisation in the final form.
We look forward to 2015 when we can install more digital tools!
The makeLab’s 2014 India workshop successfully concluded January 11, 2014 in New Delhi. Four students attended the workshop from the makeLab at Lawrence Tech along with 10 students from our host University, the Sushant School of Art and Architecture. Together, we explored the design and construction of masonry dome structures covering material explorations, digital form-finding techniques, generative and algorithmic design. The students were forced to think beyond the now conventional unidirectional digital-to-physical workflow to methodologies that explore ideas of contingency, tolerance and error, which allow digital tools to interact with the “messiness” of manual fabrication and non-industrial materials.
To accomplish the complex form of the dome Prof. Ayodh Kamath developed a Rhino script capable of not only determining each masonry units placement in the dome but one that would work in unison with the mason. A domes plan, when changed from the geometric primitive of the circle, presents multiple formal challenges: First, the dome could not be built by a mason using the standard reference points and mortar-makeup that allows for experienced “by eye” construction. The brick units did not follow a pattern recognizable to the builder, architect or mason. The script was no small task given that most scripting is done with the assumption of form finding as the primary goal and not as a tool to interact with a tradesman on-site. The script therefore required that the mason place each masonry unit with a center measurement taken from three stationary points. This data would be called out, entered into the script with the result being the top two corner measurements from the stationary three points. Once the mason and the architects found their cadence the process moved smoothly determining the angle of each unit.
Our second challenge was to use digital tools to perforate the dome by milling portions of the bricks surface away to allow light. To do this, the makeLab needed to build a new suitcase CNC (our 3rd). This new machine was capable of cutting traditional Indian mud bricks and was transported via checked luggage to our host City and its new permanent home at Sushant. The machine and the process was successful but came with significant challenges. The bricks, made by hand, were not standard. The 6x12x3 inch blocks could deviate as much as 2” in any direction. The density of the bricks could also change depending on where they were located in the pile, the amount of direct sun they had received or simply by the humidity. During the milling process we also uncovered foreign material in the clay such as plastic bags, glass and bangles. These variables are not something normally encountered in digital making but we found them liberating, forcing us to improvise or more precisely – to practice India’s Jugadd innovation. The project grayed the lines between the craftsmanship of certainty and the craftsmanship of risk. Masonry units where designed digitally, milled digitally and modified by hand afterward or at times during the milling process.
The workshop and its context in India has reaffirmed the makeLab’s position that digital fabrication’s potential lies within the vernacular and lessons of the past. India gave us intense fluid actions at all times that at first glance seemed like chaos, yet with closer examination we realized it was only movements forward.
Photos by makeLab, Prof. Steve Rost and workshop participants
The makeLab will conduct the Digital Vernacular workshop from January 6-11, 2014, at the Sushant School of Art & Architecture (SSAA) in Gurgaon. Participants from LTU, and SSAA will conduct a critical analysis of digital fabrication and associated emerging technologies for architecture.
This workshop will explore the design and construction of masonry dome structures covering material explorations, digital form-finding techniques, generative and algorithmic design. In the workshop students will be forced to think beyond the now conventional unidirectional digital-to-physical workflow. Students will be introduced to design methodologies that explore ideas of contingency, tolerance and, error, which allow digital tools to interact with the “messiness” of manual fabrication and non-industrial materials.
Participants will engage with generative design software coupled with the digital fabrication hardware of the suitcaseCNC system. The suitcaseCNC is a fully functional 3-axis milling machine costing under USD 1000, designed to fit into a rolling case approved for easy transportation across the world. It was designed and built without the use of experts with low cost, non-proprietary components.
This workshop will be conducted by Professor James Stevens and Professor Ayodh Kamath of LTU. Professor James Stevens established the MakeLAB as a digital design and fabrication studio within LTU. The MakeLab has taken the suitcase CNC to workshops around the globe – in Albania, Kosovo, and France, Turkey, and Bolivia, and now to India. The suitcase CNC is a vernacular digital fabrication tool that can be built and modified by its users. Digital Vernacular skills are thereby developed through the machines portability and its ability to “act” and “teach” in a vernacular way. MakeLab has set out to seize this opportunity by disseminating its knowledge and practice.
Professor Ayodh Kamath is a graduate of the SSAA and is now a faculty member at Lawrence Tech. He researches design and construction at the intersection of the manual and digital. Specifically, he looks at how the latest design and construction technologies can learn from and collaborate with vernacular traditions to produce a socially and ecologically relevant architecture.
The Winter Pavilion
By: Breck Crandell, Jad Chedid, Michael Neal
The pavilion was born out of a list of goals. For the group, it was their very first endeavor with digital fabrication. They were familiar with makeLab and its projects, but unfamiliar with the tools, processes, and software. Taking existing skills (hand craft, energy, and ambition) and limitations (digital fabrication experience, time and finances) into consideration, the group set the goal to create a space that provided coverage for smokers during the winter season.
The original pavilion designs were so complex that given the time constraints at hand, there would have been no chance of success. After a mid-semester review, it became painfully clear that the design needed to be simplified. The initial discussions aimed to create standardized pieces held together by unique connections. Trial and error showed that standardized shapes would inevitably lead the project to look as if formed by a repeating pattern. So, in order to achieve a dynamic design, the team opted for the inverse: unique pieces connected by a standardized connection.
Responding to financial constraints, the team began a material search. In a classic scenario of being in the right place at the right time, the group was granted permission to salvage a storage unit worth of materials which they were encouraged then to reuse and repurpose. The connection pieces, fabricated using the CNC, are reclaimed acrylic scraps from a project elsewhere on campus. The only material purchased was a fabric-like material that was waterproof, weather-resistant, and durable. At the suggestion of Professor Stevens, the group took a risk and ordered an economy-size roll of plain white Tyvek house-wrap.
The general idea was to trim down reclaimed lumber to a manageable size of 2×1” boards which were used to create geometric frames. They took advantage of newly developed software skills in a program introduced only weeks ago. Each individual frame that formed the pavilion was designed and modeled in Rhino. The Tyvek was then stretched it across the frames to create unique geometric shapes that would form an organic whole. The result was a “happy accident.” The Tyvek succeeded in all the necessary parameters, but it also engaged extremely well with light. When backlit, the material revealed figural transparency. In early prototypes, they realized that silhouettes of figures within the pavilion would be projected through the walls. The hinges were another “happy accident” because the acrylic material was formed from recycled milk jugs giving them a frosted white color that absorbed and reflected light, complimenting the aura of the pavilion.
Due to the size and scale of the project, the team entered a repetitive production mode which incorporated a healthy balance between digital fabrication and physical labor. The bulk of the work was done in a familiar and comfortable fashion by hand with tools that were well known. Meanwhile, use of the unfamiliar CNC was optimized to give the most value for the least amount of runtime. This meant that two-thirds of the group constantly built frames while the remaining member always fabricated connection pieces using the ShopBot CNC. Altogether, production all of the necessary pieces of the pavilion was completed within ten [±] days.
During the assembly process, multiple issues were encountered. Assembling an eight foot tall and twelve foot long wall within a room with a seven foot door left the team trapped. Dismantled and moved, it was during the reassembly process outdoors that it was first realized large amounts of fabric stretched taut across frames built a massive kite. In a desperate effort, the studios of Lawrence Tech were searched to recruit any able-bodied student willing to brave the cold. A barn-raising ritual ensued, and the four walls were erected in a matter of hours. Due to the cold and commodity of time, volunteers left and the team was left alone to complete the pavilion. After donning Carharts and braving the coldest all-nighter to date, the pavilion was completed by sunrise. Within hours, word had spread and smokers throughout the university migrated towards their new-found shelter.
This year the makeLab workshop at POLIS concentrated on demonstrating the visceral connection between thinking, making and doing. Utilizing 3d software, parametric opportunities and a suitcase cnc machine the students, were able to directly translate the digital into something realized physically. Making allowed the students to directly identify design challenges, build on iterative success and learn from failures.
Professor Jim Stevens and four students travelled from Lawrence Technological University to Universiteti Polis in Tirana, Albania. With them, they brought a 3-axis milling machine, knowledge of parametric design and fabrication techniques. The four LTU students and ± thirty Polis students were divided into four teams with the challenge of completing four separate projects on one machine in six days. The project was quite simple. As a team, design digitally made formwork capable of producing blocks to build a wall. The unit could be singular or a set of units that could modulate as a whole to achieve an overall volume. Teams worked together utilizing several different platforms and techniques to accomplish this project. Teams used Rhino and Grasshopper; writing scripts to develop their design, to define their project. Some teams defined modular units that would aggregate together to achieve unity in the built wall. Other teams focused on porosity, experimenting with positive and negative volumes. All teams found a unique path to address the project in its context. Several tests were then performed by all teams on the CNC machine. Understanding the level of detail and clarity of surfaces became important to fully understand the capabilities of this specific machine.
Hours upon hours of milling time ensued on the CNC machine to finally complete the molds for all the teams. The most beneficial part of mold making has everything to do with mass production. This allowed the teams to be able to reuse the mold in high amounts with relative ease. Taking proper precautions in preparing the molds was crucial in order to achieve enough uses to get the amount of final blocks to complete the wall. All teams were able to overcome machining time, mold preparation, casting conflicts, and final preparations to come together and have an exhibition in the gallery space at Polis.
We worked in studio Friday-Sunday breaking up the workshop into two weekends. When we were not in studio we were exploring the country. Learning its vernacular conditions, context and forces that create place. With the pleasure of two Kosovarian students and one Albanian student, both of whom studied at LTU, we had our own personal tour guides during our stay. We traveled literally almost across the entire country exploring traditional and new environments, experiencing different towns, enjoying new foods and meetings wonderful people. We developed an idea of place and context as we ventured to the coast and to the inland mountains; from the north to the south. This directly ensnared us into social, urban, architectural, political, cultural and locational perspectives. We were able to experience both micro and macro conditions of Albania through the students we worked with, through the locals we interacted/socialized with and through the country as we traveled. We had an incredible experience.
When we reflected on our journey we realized a huge undertone in all this. DOING, the spirit behind makeLab. Nothing we did could have been accomplished in any other way but to DO IT. The workshop, the experience, the travel, the culture, life, design, it’s all a discipline that requires multiple iterations and hands on experience, making and doing. Simply a fantastic, enriching workshop and opportunity.
On March 15th the makeLab visited The Product Manufactory (TPM) in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to discuss the design/build of a conference room. The room provided a formidable challenge; it needed to accommodate 6 people, be sound attenuating, movable within TPM’s warehouse space, and have two large sliding doors on the short sides. We intended to fabricate it off-site at the makeLab so it needed to be designed in components, or chunks, that could be assembled for testing, disassembled for transport and reassembled on-site. To make things more interesting all of this had to be done on a very tight budget and in 8 weeks.
When designing, fabricating and partially assembling off-site the first step is to determine the maximum size of the chunk. Due to the limited budget, we opted for the largest box truck we could rent. A series of diagrams were produced to determine the best configurations. Ultimately, we opted to assemble the structure on-site and to assemble the large, but lightweight, panels off-site. We did not have a fork-lift or other mid to lightweight lifting equipment, so all chunks needed to be lifted by the team (six people).
Pairing the two primary design limits, mobility and sound attenuation, we devised a stacked component system that consists of Baltic birch plywood for structure and a high density felt commonly used in the automotive industry for noise dampening. The layered felt and plywood was bound together by staggered horizontal rods allowing for compression nuts for on-site “tuning.” The plywood that was layered into the side panels was mostly created using the scrap from the cutting of the larger structural “chunks.” Milled into each structural band is a “wrench pocket” that allowed us to adjust the tension from both the inside and outside of the room.
The sliding doors on the short ends have a lightweight aluminum panel on the exterior and marker board and pinup board on the inside. Both materials kept the door as light as possible while preventing it from warping or deflecting. An interlocking dovetail sliding mechanism allows both doors slide into LVL tracks. The doors can be pulled out to create a work space on the exterior of the conference room or closed for private conferences.
To take advantage of the existing warehouse lighting, the felt was partially replaced on the ceiling with acrylic that was seated in a milled channel within the structure. The ceiling was held back from the edge of the wall so that light could wash the wall from above.
On May 1st, 15 days prior to completion, we fabricated the first component. Each chunk had two rings of structure composed of 7 sheets of plywood. In total, 53 sheets were cut to create the structure, floor, siding panels, and entry. The arrangement of each chunk was carefully configured to maximize the material and to minimize waste. The structure was CNC’d, while a jig was designed for cutting and perforating the felt. A mallet and dye were used to cut each piece of felt to length in order for the felt to be integrated and layered with threaded horizontal tension rods.
In the second week of May the the team began to assemble the chunks in a makeshift space outside the makeLab (later referred to as “tent city”). Each chunk was built on its side through stacking the felt and plywood in an order dictated by the numbering and lettering designation on each milled piece. As each chunk was completed it was tilted up into place and checked for tolerance and alignment.
On May 12th the chunks were assembled and tested, the doors where milled and assembled (mostly) with the arrival of the box truck at the makeLab. The team disassembled the chunks into components for transport to Illinois.
On May 13th the Team arrived in Champaign-Urbana to begin a long 4 day assembly. The process that was tested at the makeLab was repeated: each chunk was assembled on its side and tilted into place. This time, the wall and ceiling panels where mostly assembled and came together faster, but the finality of the assembly required a higher level of precision than the off-site testing. Each chunk was bolted to the next and the end chunks where modified and fitted with the sliding doors. On the final all-nighter push the entry was completed and the room was pushed into its final location in the warehouse.
There was a focus from the beginning that lessons from past makeLab projects carried forward into the design of the TPM conference room. The word “tolerance” was used quite often during the design and many of the projects details serve as examples of past challenges. The TPM project will now provide new lessons for many future projects. We realize that creating a lightweight, rolling conference room for six people is difficult especially with a limited budget and time constraints. We accomplished the majority of the goals we set out to, and the conference room rolls on the warehouse floor smoother than expected. We even moved it so we could vacuum underneath after completing assembly. The felt does quite well at sound attenuation and the light from the acrylic above is beautiful. The conference room’s size seems appropriate and the table fits nicely. The materials, colors and proportions are a nice complement to TPM’s existing work area. The huge sliding doors move in the track with persistence. Pushing and pulling the doors easily with one finger was a design intent, but it was a construction complication that was not realized. This is a future design challenge that we will attempt to resolve.
On the morning of May 14th I woke (only after a few hours of sleep) to the TODAY show where they were reporting on Generation Y. With more smugness than I would like, they implied that the Y’s are mostly self-centered and lazy. I found this ironic as I went to join my team of Y’s to do another 18+ hour day of selfless work. The project would not have been possible without any of the six members that came to Illinois or that worked in the courtyard under a tent in Michigan spring that consisted of: heat, rain, wind and yes – sleet. There were bruises, pulled muscles, stitches to a finger, and one big hit to a shin, but we all survived, learned and are proud of what we did.
TPM was also on the design team. Normally, we have to educate our clients on the design process, but in this project the client fully understood design with all of its challenges and possibilities.
Over the past academic year the makeLab has worked to document and catalogue a step X step reference for common digital fabrication processes. With the help of students James Cole, Erika Zajac and Nicholas Green the new section is now online. This initial release serves as a starting point and more processes will build overtime.
makeLab step X step was partially funded by the Architecture Research Centers Consortium (ARCC) incentive grant.