In 2012 the makeLab  developed a chair for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House using a milling technique that results in plywood that can be rolled and bent.  Building off this knowledge students: Mike DiGiovanni, Greg Wood, Ghantous El-Tayar developed the next iteration of the chair.


The team began with looking at the opportunities inherent to the material.  It was identified that the wood was behaving like “fabric” in that it bends and twists to conform to the metal frame.  This behavior was in conflict to the materials thickness of 5/8″ given there is no need for the additional thickness to preform.  Reducing the material to 3/8″ was found to be optimal in that it didn’t fail when milled (as 1/4″ did) but was still rigid enough to withstand the weight of the sitter.


Further examination also showed that if wood could bend beyond 90 degrees the chair could potentially fold.  By chamfering the slots in the bending pattern the team was able to achieve the +90 degree fold.  This result lead the team into a path of research to discover the optimal way to create a locking hinge that is low-cost, light weight and congruent with the stainless steel tube frame. Refinement of all of the components resulted in a wood folding chair, a chair more suitable to a formal setting unlike most of its folding chair counterparts.

photo credits:  Lisa Franzoni and Joe Donelko

A Lesson on Process: Casting Aluminum

“The manner of doing things is often as important as their result” – David Pye

This is especially true in the makeLab where the process of making is celebrated. This semester, makeLab students were asked to focus on dissecting the “making process”. The students engaged in a series of three exercises, each one using a different fabrication process: forming, removing, or joining. The exercises also required a different performance criterion for each process: the ability to bend, provide transparency, or reflect light. One of the groups, made up of Laura Saler, Nate Jemison, and Rob Gurchie, set out to demonstrate and document the forming process of casting aluminum. The group chose aluminum for its performative ability to reflect light, its low melting point as well as its rapid availability in the Metro Detroit area.

The group first rendered the formwork for the aluminum casting in the digital modeling program 3Ds Max, then translated the file to PartWorks and milled the formwork from extruded polystyrene (this was the easy part).  

Then it was time to melt the aluminum. In order to do this, the group needed a Kush head pressure tool to aid in pouring the molten aluminum into the formwork, a kiln to heat and melt the aluminum, and a crucible to fit inside the kiln and hold the aluminum. After researching these tools, the group found that it was uneconomical to purchase any of them. Just two day shipping on the crucible alone would have been $70.  And there was a time factor. The project had to be completed within the week. So the group set out to make their own tools.


Laura: “There was definitely value in making our own tools. We were able to customize the tools to meet the needs of the project, and we achieved the same results we would have expected from more expensive commercially made tools.”

For the group, tool making was a constant trial and error process. In order to make their own tools, the group members used other tools, mainly the CNC machine and TIG welder, which they had never used before. This added more uncertainty to the project, but the group accepted that failures would occur before any successes. Each failure pushed them to keep experimenting. As Nate put it, “we failed until we found a way to make it work.”

For example, one issue the group ran into was with the kiln’s insufficient heat production. In order to heat the kiln, the group initially inserted a pipe into the side of the kiln and connected this to a propane torch. Before actually melting the aluminum, the group performed a dry run to remove any impurities from the crucible and to further cure the kiln. During this test, the group discovered that the heat source was unevenly distributed within the kiln. The single propane tank was not strong enough to fuel the kiln. With only two days left to complete the project, the group added an additional tank on the opposite side to provide sufficient heat. After making this and a few other adjustments, the group was successful in melting their scrap aluminum pieces in the kiln. The molten aluminum was then poured into the plaster-covered sprue, connected to the top of the foam formwork. As the aluminum solidified, the foam melted, leaving behind the finished result.

During our interview, the group mentioned possible ways to improve on their process if they were to attempt something similar again, which made me realize the most important part of this exercise was not the outcome, but the process building up to it. It was a learning process, a trial and error process, an inventing process, a hands-on making process. And it all came from the simple idea to cast aluminum.

The No-Title Project

-I apologize in advance for the length of this article.

I am not an engineer nor an artist. I’m not a carpenter, welder, mechanic, graphic designer, nor an architect. And presently, I’m not even employed. At this point in time, after much retrospective, rationalization, post-rationalization, analysis, manual and mechanical labor, and 10000+ steps of stairs, I feel incredibly proud of the permanent Ceiling Installation at The A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Building Welcome Center.  The latter, by the way, makes for a longer than usual title to be given to an equally complicated (overlong) professional project of design. As it stands, the project was never named, but it has become quite the conversation piece around campus, and even garnered the respect or lack-thereof of a nickname. Dialogue has always been welcomed. Such a project as many completed by the makeLab, tends to get our best abilities, the ones that we pessimistically believe we don’t possess, out of us. Thus, I become the engineer, the artist, and everything else inside and outside of architecture.

It’s important to note and to thank in advance all the people involved with this project, from Assistant Professor James C. Stevens for bringing forth the challenge, to my better half, Blerta Lici, for helping (free of charge) during the installation stages, as well as, Wayne Guo for helping one of the days with louver installation. Many people contributed to the project’s design iteration and critique. Prof. Martin Schwartz gave his expertise on lighting, and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Ralph Nelson, shared his view on materiality and design editing. Lastly, let us not forget the unique/quirky, but equally important, input of the average freshmen walking the hallways during the late evenings.

Starting in mid-February my partner, Steve Kroodsma, and myself had been engaged in an unusually challenging and complex project. It was offered to the makeLab early September of last year by the university and the CoAD, at which point, it was presented to my partner and me by makeLab director, James Stevens.  I remember in great detail during our first meeting (of which we’re not supposed to talk about) how the problem was described with great frustration. Alternative solution samples were also presented, which amounted to high costs and bland, boring, and frankly inappropriate installations for an architecture school.  Since the construction of the A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Center, the University Welcome Center has seen many bright and warm days; sometimes, too bright and maybe uncomfortably warmer ones, prompting space occupiers to voice their concerns for the under-utilization of the space. It was uncomfortable to work in, while sometimes impossible to run slide shows through the white projector screen. Such challenging issues required a lot of thought and planning to overcome. Thus, we embraced our “Technological” middle name, and decided to give the school something that will define not only what we do, but inspire others’ ambition for good design.

At the finish line, I’d like to explain step by step the arduous process of designing, planning, constructing, assembling, and installing the baffled ceiling. More importantly, the project highlighted the collaborative nature of our work, and the notion that the correct partnership can yield great results. Tolerance and mutual respect between colleagues is sometimes more important than talent and craftsmanship. Our peers make us better, and make architecture better.

Sketches, drawings, and 120 renderings of the sun simulation in an individually constructed 3D Rhino model, yielded the necessary data to construct a three-dimensional volume that resembled a strangely distorted pancake. Each rendering represented the sun exposure image burn on a selected construction plane selected between the existing super-strut structure above and the suspended light elements 24” underneath it. These images were generated for every hour between 9:00am and 6:00pm (daily occupancy period, when natural light affects workflow), on the 21st day of every month for the current year. The renderings were not only important for identifying the problem, but also for comparison with images generated in simulations of the project’s final 3D model. The accumulated data and sun simulations influenced 85% of the final formal design, reinforcing the makeLab philosophy of bottom-up approach in design. The availability of a sprinkler fire suppression system (implemented with the love and care of any contractor-architect collaboration), required that any installation, in the form of a suspended ceiling, should have 50% openness or permeability to meet the fire code. The success of this project was solely dependent on its performance and functionality, hence, using available construction floor plans and taking new measurements would eliminate further derailment during the installation phase. Yet, even the plans provided had discrepancies and of course no fire suppression system included. To circumvent such problems, we had to avoid the erratic placement of the fire suppressant pipes and elbows completely.  (images below)

During the design phase of the project, we decided to emulate a scenario, where the project does not become a static fixture, permanently obstructing maintenance to the space and building structure. Formal flexibility, practicality, and the ability to disassemble with relative ease were important criteria that fit the goals set for functionality.  Choosing ¼” Low Density Fiberboard as the base material for milling, ensured that components would be light in weight and flexible to bend around corners and obstacles during the transportation and installation phase. One of the main disadvantages of LDF was its fragility. Given the nature of our project, where every piece milled on the CNC machine would be unique in size and shape, damaged components would be unnecessary derailments to the main objective. However, the right partnership and meticulous handling of tasks assured that everything went smoothly and quicker than expected, given the number of people involved. 

Choosing the correct color to paint the custom louvers was a stage of much debate in the makeLab and outside, as it represented more than just aesthetics. The appropriate color, would ensure the absorbance and diffusion of direct light, as well as, keep contextually  in line  with the space.  A different shade, tint, or hue could possibly create a darker than desired environment.  In conjunction with the new structure’s lower than original ceiling plane (8’ from the floor), a darker color would suppress/shrink the volume and possibly diminish functionality during presentations and formal events.

Manufacturing of 171 individual puzzle-like pieces yielded 66 different louvers that had to be glued, sanded, and painted, in limited working space. To be noted is the louvers’ characteristic for never giving away the final design form or application as they lied in the basement hallways beside student activity and curiosity.  During the drying of louvers, hardware was assembled through a simple mechanism that Steve and I came up with to exponentially cut down time (and minimize human casualties). (video below)

The installation phase was surprisingly easier than expected. With a little help (again many thanks), we were able to adjust for miscalculations during the planning phase and improvise on space limitations. The final product will ensure that no matter what aesthetic impact the ceiling has, it will first and foremost accomplish the goals we set.

We never uttered the words “it looks cool” (although it did). We never shared our project as an artistic expression of our post-undergraduate employment frustration (although it maybe was??). We never intended to make architecture without meaning (although meaning has its own viewing platform within the public, and thus, it morphs). Someone, somewhere, even started calling our ceiling “the cloud” or even “the hills?!?”. Anyhow, that innate ability of architecture students to ridicule the unusual or the new (even when it looks repetitious), had me thinking about something that I generally don’t come across too often. It emphasized the possibility of letting a project reveal itself to the public, rather than through words and diagrams. Here is an opportunity to observe the success (or failure/redundancy) of a project through its performance. The people who will never read this blog entry are the final critics perhaps. The possibility to discard preconceived ideas, and allow first impressions to fuel the curiosity is what I took out of my undergraduate education. This project is what I leave behind. 

Designed & Built by

Pandush Gaqi & Steve Kroodsma

Dining Chair inspired the wRIGHT way

MakeLab’s role as LTU’s digital fabrication lab found the perfect challenge in the design of a new dining chair for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Affleck House. Designed by Azubike Ononye and Nicholas Cataldo the chair needed to respond to the unique setting of the house. The Affleck House, being one of Wright’s “Usonian homes” which were designed specifically for middle income families, seemed to be the perfect source of inspiration for the chair. One of the major factors that drove the design was the issue of maintaining a low cost while producing something worthy enough of being in the Affleck House. Aside from cost issue, another factor that governed the design was the idea of mobility, which required the design to have a stack-able property.

Based on the requirements stated above, we decided that the chair had to be cut from one sheet of 4’ X 8’ birch plywood and started out small scale on the laser cutter, incorporating the twisting, stretching, and bending properties of plywood explored by Nicholas Cataldo and Kyle Gonzalez in the fall semester of 2011. This gave us the opportunity to explore other potentials and gave us a sense of the structural framework for the chair. It was amazing to see Professor Stevens turn into a mathematics tutor as he was converting model dimensions to actual dimension. That gave us something to laugh about when we discovered that our initial model of the chair had to be tweaked because in reality we couldn’t fit two cuts on one piece of 4’ X 8’ birch plywood, which would have a huge implication on the cost. We also discovered the surface area of the wood cutout was a lot and would have a negative impact on the stack-able character of the chair because of its dead weight. We adjusted our model by removing the arm rests which were initially part of the design, and introduced a slant cut to the legs of the chair to remove some of the dead weight. Another challenge we encountered was double milling the wood piece on the CNC machine. We had to improvise by creating an jig, which was screwed to the machine to avoid a shift in the X and Y axis when the piece was flipped. Then we were left with the metal work which involved cutting the steel tubing, bending it with a tube bender, inserting the stainless steel dowels- at the joints of the chair to ensure firm connection, and finally welding these joints.

From a business perspective one of the great features of the chair is its “value flexibility”. I call it value flexibility because the materiality of the chair can be changed to meet different value targets without changing the design itself. For example, the birch plywood used for the chair could be exchanged for a higher quality piece of plywood, thus increasing the value. So ideally the same design can fit different calibers of clients from lower to middle to the upper class.

In addition, the dining chair design provides us with the opportunity to explore TIG welding and metal works. Thus, the material syllabus of the makeLab was expanded. The makeLab not only utilizes wood, plastic, resins, and concrete but also metal and its related fields.

Fabricated CMU

This semester graduate student Josh Wagensomer has explored the potentials of fabricating custom CMUs that respond to a specific design condition.  The challenge was to design a new film archive in New York adjacent to High Line.  Josh took a unique approach in that film archiving is traditionally a very introverted programmatic feature.  The unique conditions required to archive physical media limits the accessibility the public has to the process.  This project explores how this unique condition can be rethought to create a more engaging space.  The dichotomy of this relationship is explored though the simple juxtaposition of two programmatic events: promenade and safeguard.

The concept of an inside-out vault captures the necessity of security while allowing visual access to activity of archiving.  Therefore, the process of archiving becomes as important as the physical archive.  The process here becomes the Automatic Retrieval System – a computer controlled method of retrieving physical media from high-volume storage units.

Utilizing an iterative process of digital and physical exploration, a concrete screen wall is proposed to divide the public promenade from the Automatic Retrieval System.  The thin concrete units utilize a cable tension lateral bracing system and parametrically determined perforations to control the visual access from the promenade into the archive.

Only a few spots left in the April Workshop

If you are interested in signing up for our April 13th-15th workshop you need to do so soon.  We only have a few spots left.  We also have updated and clarified the schedule below.  Register at


Friday April 13th: 6pm – 9pm: Review fabrication, assembly and operation of a mini CNC mill.  Introduction to the makeLab, equipment and processes.

Saturday April 14th:  9am – 6pm: Fabrication of a PCB board with one light sensor that activates an LED.  Each student will fabricate and program the same board with assistance from the instructors.

Sunday April 15th:  9am – 12pm: Finalize and demonstrate boards.  Students will use remaining time to experiment.

Note: The workshop will be held in the makelab at Lawrence Technological University.  Maps to the makeLab™ are available from the “map to makeLab” link on

Defining the Digital Vernacular

Over the past two years, the makeLab has explored many veins of inquiry into digital fabrication, parametric design, and making.  This year the team has been seeking ways to move beyond the novelty of the technology.  This is to say, we do not feel it is enough to just make inventive “things” without a larger consideration of their legitimacy within the built world.  It is important to understand that innovation will not come from ignoring methods of the past, but only through a higher understanding of these methodologies and where new digital tools align.

Bulloch Co. GA, Photo copyright Brian Brown,

Vernacular, as it relates to architecture and design, is defined by material abundance, skill, and access to tools.  As J.B. Jackson observed in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984), the architecture of farmers and wage earners was transformed with the settlement of the New World.  The abundance of wood, paired with knowledge of woodworking tools, spawned a vernacular revolution that has been carried out to the present.

It was the accessibility to tools and the material that changed the vernacular, not the architect or the corporation.  Much like the recent democratization of information brought on by the Internet, the democratization of manufacturing and mass customization has brought digital tools within reach of builders, makers, and architects.  This accessibility can be seen in the wage-to-tool cost ratio over the past 100 years. In 1922, a carpenter could expect to make $1.00 per/hour (Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters) while a circular saw would cost $285 (1922 Hibbard Spencer Bartlett & Co., p179) making the ratio .35%.  Comparatively, a carpenter in 2010 earning $19.00 per/hour ( can expect to pay around $10,000 for a new 3-axis CNC ( with a ratio of .19%.  With a ratio as low as .19% it is easy to conclude that the wage-to-tool cost ratio puts digital fabrication technology within reach to the vernacular trades.  This data is further reinforced when considering that only 15 years ago the ratio was easily above the 1922 ratio of .35%.  In 1996, Ted Hall, a professor at Duke University was frustrated that the entry level CNC cost approximately $30,000.  Motivated for the need for a low cost machine, Ted founded ShopBot Tools. that today still provides low-cost, high quality CNC technology to individuals, educational institutions, and industry professionals.

Given the significant drop in digital fabrication equipment over the past decade and the low entry level skills required to run these tools, we can now say we have an opportunity for a new Digital Vernacular – one that is not intended to seek new form-making, but one to improve and inform traditional vernacular methods of the past.  It will be the responsibility of architects, carpenters, and master craftsmen to insure the quality of design and making so it does not desolve into high-volume, low-quality results.

Workshop at LTU – April 13-15

makeLab will be hosting a workshop April 13-15 at Lawrence Tech.  This two-day workshop will expose participants to the steps necessary to build their own mini CNC mill. Using this mill, the instructor will demonstrate how to create programmable circuit boards that can be used to control kinetic architectural components.  We are excited to have visiting instructor,  Mercedes Mane, an electrical engineer with background in controls, hardware design, and embedded programming.  Mercedes is a volunteer at the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab.

You can sign up for this workshop at:

Maker Faire Detroit

The annual Detroit Maker Faire was held this past Saturday and Sunday, July 30 & 31st on the grounds of The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. Maker Faire is an event created by MAKE Magazine and was created so that makers of all kinds could put their inventions on display. This included makers, engineers, artists, hackers, and crafters from all over the midwest. It is an interactive event that allows people to enjoy all the work that has been created. Maker Faire began in California in 2006 and has grown to include New York City and Detroit. This was the second time Maker Faire has been featured in the Detroit area and it is definitely growing, 80 percent of the makers attended for the first time this year. makeLab was just one of the 325+ makers at the event. Thousands of people turned out for the event that showcased DIY projects to the local visitors, the event provided workshops, inventions, and hands on activities. The greatest part about it is that the visitors are able to not only interact with the inventions, but they are also able to gain an understanding of how it was made. The event is truly an inspiration for anyone looking to be creative in their own ability. It allows the locals to see how the makers are working and contributing within the local communities.

The show boasted a wide variety of inventions from marshmallow shooters, re-engineered bicycles, robots, and even Gon-KiRin, a 69 foot fire-breathing dragon. A few faire favorites were on display, such as the Life Size Mousetrap and the Coke and Mentos show. There were areas of hands on activities such as make and take marshmallow shooters and Soldering lessons. Forms of alternative transportation were on display. There were 7 passenger circular bicycles, oversized bicycles, a Hostess cupcake, and even a motorized couch was driving around. A Power Wheels racing track was built on site and allowed for hackers to modify their racers to try to beat the competition. Some of the Power Wheels were modified by Arduino controlled LED lights while others were built around boomboxes in the body. This was all on the grounds of the Henry Ford, the museum interior was transformed to hold a retail area of handcrafted in Detroit goods and displayed many creations from young makers.

The Maker Faire was especially interesting as a makeLab member because there were areas that ignited inspiration of possibilities. There were tents which hosted community hacker spaces such as I3 Detroit and the soon to be opened Maker Works. Lots of homemade CNC machines, which included MakerBot’s collection of Plastic 3d Printers. The printers were printing scaled buildings, cars, jewelry, and there was even a working 3d printed drill. Shopbot tools was there showing off two CNC machines as well as a showcase of products built on them.

It was a wonderful event and I would recommend others to come out and join the fun next year.

Natalie Haddad