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.
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