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!



Mud + Laptops – lessons from India


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.

DSC07449 mockup

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 

Digital Vernacular Workshop at Sushant School of Art & Architecture

India Trip

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.

Click here for more information

POLIS 2013 workshop

Post by: Nicholas Cataldo & Christopher Davis


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.



Down Time

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.


makeLab International Collaboration


The makeLab team recently completed an international design competition for  the New Central Mosque of Pristina. This was a huge step for the team since it involved communicating with multiple overseas teams. The makeLab participated with POLIS University of Albania and an Italian firm, IT3, along with Italian architect, Antonello Stella. Although the teams were assigned specific responsibilities, the design of the mosque was discussed by all members and the conceptual approach took weeks of continuous communication with all groups. The makeLab began initial design concepts two months ago and generated iterations for the Italian firm to utilize during the design process. The makeLab team kept in contact with both teams through weekly video chats. The frequent communication allowed the group to maintain a strong relationship with the firm despite the challenge of working long distance.

Early in the design process, the design team set out to incorporate a screen that both responded to sunlight and highlighted the religious aspect of the mosque. The team began by designing small scale iterations of the screen in order to determine what pattern and material would be feasible for the design. The screen’s pattern was determined through analysis of the sunlight and existing site context. Renderings of the structure with the screen were produced in order to generate discussions about the screen and how it related to its counterparts. Once the design phase was complete, IT3 sent a digital model to the makelab team, who then constructed a physical scaled model.  In just three days the makelab team milled out and constructed the polystyrene model. The 1” = 500’ model was fabricated using the makeLab’s CNC to cut sheets of styrene. Upon completion, the model was shipped to Albania for the final submission along with renderings and drawings completed by IT3 and POLIS University.

This overseas design challenge was a healthy challenge for the makeLab. The three teams’ rigor and dedication proved to be vital to the success of the project. Regardless of the distance between the design teams, all were able to work in a cohesive manner to produce a strong and comprehensive design for the competition. The success of the project and the ability for the process to remain fluid and efficient opens new doors to the possibility of more international projects to come.

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International Design Process [US + Kosovo + Albania + Italy]

blog reimaged

After the rapid expansion of the makeLab within Lawrence Tech over the past 2+ years, the team has extended its reach to an international level. First, through teaching workshops in Albania, China, and Paris and now working as part of an international design team. The makeLab is engaged in a design competition for the Central Mosque of Prishtina, Kosovo with Metropolis, a design studio located at POLIS University in Tirana, Albania, and architect Antonello Stella of Rome, Italy.  The makeLab has quickly become immersed in the conditions of Prishtina and the typology of the mosque. Currently, the team is utilizing CNC technology to provide design iterations that are to be constructed and reviewed by the teams in Italy and Albania through the use of online video meetings. As the deadline approaches, the team will be shipping out components of the project to Kosovo where the final submittal will take place. This process in itself has demonstrated makeLab’s ability as a studio to produce products internationally.

Over the coming weeks, makeLab will continue to meet online with both firms to exchange ideas, strategies, and concepts created at both locations. makeLab’s exposure to working in an international team has proven the potentials of global practice.

POLIS students working in makeLab


This semester the makeLab has two visiting students from POLIS University in Tirana, Albania.  Enis Pakashtica and Njomëza Krasniqi are both graduate students at POLIS and will be in-residence at the makeLab this semester.  They arrived at LTU due to the newly established cooperation agreement between Lawrence Tech and POLIS University.  Their first couple of weeks have been busy with simply settling into a new country, new colleagues, and the unique culture of the makeLab.  This semester will be a busy one for Enis and Njomeza, who will be participating in two design competitions, assisting in the coordination of the AlbaniaNOW exhibit, attending a field trip to New York, and most importantly continuing work on their graduate thesis.  We will end the semester by returning together for the makeLab workshop in Albania and Kosovo in June.

Please help me in welcoming them.

Pushing up in Albania and Kosovo

The Academy likes to take credit for the successes of alumni – it validates our efforts.  We state specific data referring to job placement rates and earned income.  What we do not tout is the spirit and tenacity of our students.  This is because it cannot be easily measured and does not fit nicely into a statistician’s spreadsheet.  As faculty members, we can only witness it through the actions of our students.  This “spirit”, “entrepreneurial drive”, or even “grassroots effort” has become cliché in academia.  Regardless, it is exactly what built, and continues to build, the makeLab.  I was only able to succeed because I intrusted the students, gave them ownership and removed barriers when I could.  The rest was their own doing.

This same energy is very much present in the students of Albania and Kosovo.  Unfortunately, the economy, corruption, politics, and of course the continued aftermath of the war has slowed the support of this new-found youth and energy.  There are exceptions of course, POLIS University , Urban Plus , and many others I have yet to meet, fight for what the students need.  Despite the lack of formal support, the young designers are not discouraged and are pushing up ideas from below.  With architecture web portals such as , a message, and more importantly, a dialog about design is maintained.  Illegal architecture, an experimental architecture network, operates in much the same way and asserts in its name that all design in Kosovo is, in one way or another, illegal.  This spirit is also seen in the beautiful film Utopian Tirana by Ajmona Hoxha, Blendina Cara, Elis Vathi, and Klodiana Millona.  The short film is crafted by expert technicians but it captures the beauty of Tirana while showing the suppressed imagination of the young designers that dwell within it.

I witnessed their vitality first hand in the coordination of my lecture in Kosovo.  The lecture held at the University of Pristina was proposed, organized and implemented by Illegal Architecture and (+ countless others).  They requested and received funding from the US Embassy and secured the venue at the University of Pristina.  They marketed the lecture on the web, print media and even a morning news show interview.  My accommodations and transportation was coordinated in a way I would normally receive from an established institution.  All of this was done even when met with resistance from above.

The night of the lecture the students where nervous, they wanted everything to be perfect, I was calm – it already was.  The excitement they felt when the room filled to capacity and extra chairs were brought in was evident.  I say all of this because the significant moment for architecture in Kosovo happened before my lecture began; what I had to say was only informational.  The young designers who came together to make an event happen that they wanted was the significant event.

These students will become the future leaders and architects of the region.  I will return and help when I can, but I hope one day it is  just to have a salep and reminisce.

Yep, we did that – CNC running smooth in Albania

It is official.  You can build a CNC, carry it on a plane halfway around the world and cut architectural components.  Today, the machine ran for hours and cut nicely with only a few hiccups.  As significant as the machine is and what it represents for our ideas about the digital vernacular, it is not the most important aspect.  What is however, is giving students the opportunity to make their projects digitally for first time.  The intensity in the room suddenly changed and the outcomes where no longer imagined, no longer meaningless; they were real and included all of the benefits and shortcomings of each design.

Today was a good day for makeLab.

suitcase CNC


The more we work within the context of what we call Digital Vernacular the more our decisions become clearer and our actions more intentional.  This academic year has seen many accomplishments, but without a doubt it has been the year of machine building.  Our design logic informs us that if a tool is to be vernacular, one must be able to make it on their own, with out the need for corporate or extensive outside expertise.  We blogged over the winter about the completion of the laser cutter, but this spring we have focused our efforts on designing and building a CNC machine that will fit inside a suitcase.  This is driven by one of three hallmarks of the vernacular – access to tools.


The question was asked: could we build a 3-axis CNC machine that could be checked on an airplane and carried anywhere in the world?  This of course would demand that the machine be less then 50lbs, stand up to abuse, and be easily setup and broken down.  Not an easy task.  As I write this, I am sitting in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and the Suitcase CNC  is presumably under the plane that will take me on to Albania.  Over the next two months, the machine will visit and cut out projects in Albania, Kosovo and France.

For anyone hanging around the makeLab, you know that this machine could not have been built without Natalie Haddad.  Many long days and sleepless nights to get this done.  Please take time over the summer to check in on this blog and our facebook page to see where the CNC (and I) may be traveling and what we are making.