makeLab™ blog

Only a few spots left in the April Workshop
March 30, 2012, 2:02 pm
Filed under: makeLab design

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
March 11, 2012, 8:04 pm
Filed under: makeLab design

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
March 9, 2012, 10:34 am
Filed under: makeLab design

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:

Slip Casting
January 25, 2012, 8:37 pm
Filed under: makeLab Student Post

Slip Casting is a technique used to produce complex pottery shapes that would otherwise be hard to achieve using any other method. What started as mere interest and curiosity about this subject without any prior knowledge, ended up generating some quite interesting results. Brent started out by inquiring about slip casting, then he decided to get more involved and do his own research about the craft. Later on, after gaining enough knowledge about the system which in turn triggered further interests, he developed a system that enabled him to cast almost any shape with the help of the CNC machine.

It all seems simple, but as Brent realized, the process is quite a time consuming one and has some complex variables. Nevertheless, with deviation from common crafty applications of slip casting Brent went on to experiment with the possibilities of producing custom units/blocks that could be part of a building system, giving them an architectural application. The results so far are outstanding. The custom clay blocks  that can interlock and rapidly to form a cladding system. By taking advantage of the CNC machine, Brent was able to generate any complex form by creating molds for casting. Through this process, the customization of the units became easy to achieve.

Where do we go from here? the The whole process has triggered more questions and paved ways for many opportunities. Brent is considering taking it a step further by experimenting with the slip ingredients and forms in order to produce blocks with greater structural strength as well as blocks that allow for simple implementation of reinforcing or insulating materials. I will be looking forward to seeing the next step.

-Fadi Soueidan


Neil Gershenfeld suggests that the fissure between producer and end-user may be chipped away via increase in awareness and application of personal digital fabrication technology. Ideally, through digital fabrication processes, individuals’ discontent with the conditions of their built environment may possess the means to, without reliance on anachronistic ‘manufacturers’, alter their immediate tangible background.

Theory intact, we may observe a practical complement to this position in some Detroit neighborhoods. Dissatisfied with the condition of these environments, and unable to effectively appeal to a viable top-down prescriptive remediation, more than a few citizens have turned to urban homesteading. Disused lots are transformed into premises of farming, congregation, and living, as envisioned and built by those who benefit. The proposed program, ‘Mass Customized Detroit Urban Homesteading (McDUH)’ identifies this philosophical overlap between urban homesteading and digital fabrication, and aims to develop the necessary tools to facilitate urban Detroit neighborhoods’ increased autonomy in revival, production, and maintenance via digifab processes.

Specifically, the McDUH system consists of a template to analyze existing materiality/ formal conditions, determines the ideal corresponding programmatic uses as converted urban homestead components, and assigns the appropriate digitally fabricated ‘kit-of-parts’ typology to accomplish this adaptation.

-Jake Chidester

Pistol Pete, Sarah Vowell, Venture Capitalists and………….Design?
September 27, 2011, 12:30 pm
Filed under: makeLab Enterprise

For the last few days I have been at Oklahoma State University for the Experiential Classroom workshop.  I joined a group of delegates with a broad range of backgrounds, but all with a single commonality: An interest in entrepreneurship and how that impacts our decisions in business and in some cases – design.  As I sat and listened to the speakers, I couldn’t helpbut think of Sarah Vowell, author of the great book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot.  In an interview, Sarah told the story of how she was convinced to play the voice-over role of Violet Parr, the squeaky voiced daughter in the animated movie The Incredibles.  She was asked to play the character and she quickly declined.  Pixar replied with an invitation to their studio in California.  Sara, though hesitant, accepted based on advice from her father where he asserted that she should never pass up an opportunity to observe and learn from people who are the best at what they do – regardless of discipline.   This was the opportunity I had this week as I was surrounded by some of the best minds in the country in the area of entrepreneurship.

What I did not expect from this workshop was to learn something about the design process.  As it turns out, entrepreneurship is more than a sensibility but a process, much like design.  A common theme that was repeated and reinforced is that entrepreneurship begins with an opportunity, not an idea.  It was explained further that most businesses in fact fail because the founders have only an idea (even if it is good).  A common idea is “I would like to start a bar.”  The future owner of this business never bothers to ask the critical questions pertaining to this idea.  Is a bar needed?  Where should it be located?  It is the blind romance of the idea that leads to the failure.  Conversely, when entrepreneurs seek the opportunity first, they can follow a logical process that will tend to lead to success. My readers who have taken my studio will know where this is leading;  the logic given operates in parallel with a solid design process.  Designers fail many times because they have a simple idiosyncratic idea about a design, one that is centered around what they “want” or “like” with no regard to the opportunities of the design criteria or program.  The design fails because the “idea” is not rooted in the preformative opportunities inherent to site, program or environment.

I hypothesize that if both the entrepreneurial process and design process operate in concert, then projects can and will be more successful.  Pairing the opportunity with the design criteria will be a goal for the makeLab as we move forward.

The Coleman Foundation’s impact: makeLab-Enterprise
July 25, 2011, 5:44 pm
Filed under: makeLab Enterprise

It is hard to imagine the makeLab without the influence of The Coleman Foundation.  makeLab was established in response to emerging technologies and the need for a place where students could fully engage in design, fabrication and assembly of architecture.  The Coleman Foundation’s mission of implementing  entrepreneurialism into the academy was a perfect fit for the makeLab, given the fact that all the projects we have worked on have an inherent risk and reward to the outcome.  To this end, the makeLab’s mission statement reflected the Coleman Foundation’s influence:

The mission of makeLab is to use digital fabrication as an entrepreneurial opportunity and to demonstrate the theory and practice of design through technological and manual competences.

 Design is always our starting point. Regardless of technology, we focus on design fundamentals and sound design decisions.  Unlike the traditional studio, projects in the makeLab are created at full-scale.  The “make” implication requires that the students are held accountable to the realities of practice and full-scale implications.  In the spring of 2011 makeLab completed the first projects that tested out ability to design, fabricate and implement full scale projects for private clients.  These projects showed how students can succeed in the academy at real-world enterprise while providing successful design solutions.  With this unique formula, students now consider the cost and risk variables imbedded in all design projects.  The students found that this was not necessarily a hindrance to design but rather another design variable that informed the design process.  The balance sheet became a part of the design equation thus giving the students the full experience of theory and practice.

Parts arriving for the CNC

Now, makeLab will take the next step in fulfilling its mission.  Bolstered by the success of the initial projects a group of students have embarked on a new venture: makeLab-Enterprise.  The project is led by a few entrepreneurial students that are using the businesses plan provided by the Coleman Foundation coursework to expand makeLab’s abilities.  The team has raised private capital to fund an additional CNC machine that will increase capability, productivity and profit.  makeLab will host this student venture at Lawrence Tech in the current (and expanding) makeLab.

In the following weeks the makeLab blog will have student updates on the assembly of the new machine and other developments with makeLab-Enterprise.

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