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Stereotomy Phase 4

Written on 07.12.2017

We are not sure if our result is going to be an architectural piece, an exploration of dry stone and tolerances, or something else entirely. In accordance with that, we are going to make our next script with the ability to create openings, whether they will be under the syntax of “windows” or “reliefs in the composition of forces”.

Working under the trait method gave us our values/parameters/constraints that we do not want to disobey or venture outside as we manipulate our method enough to feed it into a Grasshopper script. The “multi-axis 2D drawings in a parametric work space” manual method cannot be translated linearly into an algorithm – it is too reliant on visualization. However, the priorities the method helped us reach could become the core focuses of the algorithm, and those were about explorations through cross section in working with openings in the vault.

Stereotomy Phase 4

Written on 06.23.2017

This phase is currently underway, and it has Jim and myself sending scripts back and forth and trying to decide on the system that the script will follow. A script has been built for a half-vault with parabolic outline curves with a circular cross section. The initial idea was to make the circular cross section, semicircular and tangent to the parabolic curves, but then the question arose of whether it would be more accurate to study this idea of  “could any form that is a result of compressive boundaries – whether or not they are the same mode of compression – still hold up?” with a circular cross section instead.

We are wanting these forms to be framed by curves that we assign, and then filled by interpolation from Grasshopper/Kangaroo. From the beginning, we have wanted to define these sections through the vault with actual section cuts (being as that was how traits were able to be understood). The hard part is staying true to that while working with such intuitive programs. It is so easy to let Kangaroo do the form-finding for you, however, we now think it makes seemingly obvious sense (now that we have reached this point) for us to form find and Kangaroo to block find.

Stereotomy Phase 3

(work from 01.2017_05.2017)

After the Chartres vault phase, Jim and I started working on separate portions of creating a vault. Jim was experimenting with forms in Kangaroo 2 and I was developing a manual trait process for a vault defined by site constraints of a specific spot in the makeLab. My process focused on finding the blocks manually with 2D drawings in Rhino, and Jim’s process focused on creating an overall form through Kangaroo and Grasshopper. Now looking back on those separate processes that started in February 2017, Jim and I have since realized that we conducted that phase of the research backwards – with me doing block finding manually and Jim doing form finding through automation.

View from left of the finished trait in a parametric workspace

However, this trait led us to conversations about the cross section of a vault. For the manual trait, I set up a framework of compressive parabolic boundaries in Rhino: 3 parabolic curves stretched to the ends of the site constraints, and then tilted up to form a 3D outline of a vault. A plan was given based on precedent.

Boundaries in plan before parabolic curves are tilted 90 degrees

From there, a trait was developed that was heavily reliant on visualization. Because we created the trait in a parametric workspace instead of a 2D one (on paper) but we were still only using lines (rotated, projected and folded), we were able to see the process unfold – a system of instant assurance that we had made the right move mid-step: an advantage that the 12th century masons and architects didn’t have. That advantage was unique to our process – the advantage of visualization. Utilizing parametrics to manually solve a method that is only comprised of 2D drawings was a hybrid system of traditional knowledge and modern tools.

3D view of the trait with 3 of its 6 orthographic projections. At this stage, we had found 5 of the 15 blocks.

In the terms of it structurally staying together, we speculated that as long as the panel of blocks stayed within the “thrust line” of its boundaries, the vault would stay together. And because a vault does not technically have just one thrust line – in reference to Philippe Block’s dissertation: “Thrust Network Analysis: a method for understanding three-dimensional funicular systems”- we had wanted to test its structure through making instead of through digital analysis since the structure was so small and virtually risk free.

Finished vault in the site it was designed for.

Stereotomy Phase 2 snag

When we finished the Chartres Cathedral vault panel, the project became confused. The Chartres Cathedral is a known vault form made with bricks in a known configuration. The gothic rib vault did not need a trait and it did not require us to design a brick pattern or a form. The bricks were simply stacked- they did not have a configuration that required coordinate finding. We grouped the bricks and created blocks, but that was not true to the form. At the time, we did not understand the difference between finding a form and finding a block, and for the Chartres vault panel, we found neither.

Stereotomy Phase 2

(work from 09.2016_12.2016)

Our second study of trait-making focused on a portion of the gothic rib vault in the Chartres Cathedral in France. This work was done with help from the students of the Fall 2017 Intro to Digital Fabrication class at LTU. The plan for the project, beginning in September 2016, was to (a) develop a trait for the vault, (b) develop a Grasshopper script of that trait method and (c) let the script generate blocks to be milled on a CNC. The vault was completed in December 2016 and stood about 7’ tall. The vault was collapsed in February 2017 and took about 45 minutes to clean up. Multiple findings arose from this project that all exposed our lack of understanding of the true use of a trait. It became clear at the completion of this research phase that it takes a full iteration – from manual trait to script to physical blocks to assembly – to tweak a student’s understanding of the stereotomy definition. We reached our main goal for the project about a month after we started it, which was to feed the manual trait method into an automated script, which then produced blocks for us in digital space. In real space, producing the blocks with a CNC uncovered the true difficulty of that process: how do we make blocks efficiently through digital fabrication?

Below is the manual trait we developed for the panel of the Chartres Cathedral and fed into a Grasshopper script.

Below is the panel made from the Grasshopper script and RhinoCAM.

Intro to Stereotomy

(explanation of work from 08.2016_09.2016)

This is the first blog post in (what we hope!) is a series of many updates on our research with the topic of stereotomy. The first few posts will just be recapping what we have accomplished so far.

“Stereotomy, which means the cutting of solids, was a seventeenth-century French rubric under which were gathered several existing techniques including stonecutting…” (Evans p179). The basis of stonecutting was the trait. Traits were orthographic layout drawings produced to ensure the precise cutting of the stone blocks that comprised a gothic vault. Traits are created through two inputs – a site and a plan- to produce one output: coordinates of each corner of each block in the vault.

To discuss stereotomy, it needs to be noted that the subject is inherently a revolving process. It is not linear (which has made it difficult to put into a GH script) but instead looping. As inputs create outputs and then those outputs inform new inputs, the process is a revolving feedback loop of information.  In order for the process to be manipulated, it must be very precisely understood – not necessarily the steps, but more the motion between them. The definition is something that can be easily found, but understanding this system includes realizing the instincts that informed every decision when it was first being developed.

The first step in this particular system is the reoccurring iteration of perception. Before progress is made, a student’s interpretation of the process needs to be repeated. There is no opposition to the notion that in order to study a process, the concept and priority behind it must be understood. Instead, the discrepancy lies with the length of the required depth to understand. The first step takes time, because there is no way to understand a lack of understanding, until the process is complete.

This research is centered around the application of these trait drawings to modern algorithmic programming. Our first step was to learn the process through a trait for a trompe that was pretty well explained in Robin Evan’s chapter of the “Projective Cast” called “Drawn Stone”. The trompe was an important piece in the overall project because it shaped the way we thought about overall form and the way smaller elements aggregated to form a larger whole.  The conceit of the trompe was to infill a space sectionally in such a way that allowed circulation below it and served dwelling within it.  As Evans states, “justification for the employment of difficult traits was that they allowed architects to adapt to circumstances, making it possible to join new building to existing construction…” (Drawn Stone, 183).  The trompe was studied through our modern system of analog methods: by putting multi-axis 2D drawings in parametric workspace (Rhino 3D). This allowed us to visualize the moves that the trait was designed to two-dimensionally represent: rotation, folding and projection.

The first image is what traits looked like when they were 100% necessary: with 15-20 drawings superimposed on top of each other in 2D. The second image is how we solved this trait, with help from Evan’s explanation. The two images are showing the same process, yet the second is utilizing today’s tools to find the same result. This was the first step in developing our own manual method to later put in a Grasshopper script and it was completed in September 2016.


Digital Shingling – Romania 2015

Post by: Andreea Vasile

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.








Tools that Stay – Albania 2015

Post by: Brendon Veldboom

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.

Concrete + rubber bands

Fig 1

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.

Fig 2


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.

Fig 3


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.

Fig 4

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.

Fig 5

Fig 6


Fig 7

Tools That Stay


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!