-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
Filed under: makeLab Enterprise
The following is a written reflection by Paul Wright. Paul is an entrepreneurial business degree student who was embedded in the makeLab over the last few months.
I was given a great opportunity by Dr. Karen Evans to apply my entrepreneurial business degree, coupled with my decades of automotive prototype build experience, in an innovative new program idea she hatched with Professor Jim Stevens. The problem with many architectural and design students is they have a lot of creativity, but lack in practical business experience. Karen knew “just the guy” to send over to help. The plan was to put LTU’s School of Management students with the School of Architecture students to give insight into how to make practical things.
I was assigned to be Jim’s teaching assistant for a diverse group of talented students in his makeLab class. I was immediately hooked on what he was doing with the makeLab digital fabrication studio and knew I could help. I sensed a little bit of apprehension on the part of the students with this unusual arrangement. Because I was a much older student, they didn’t seem to know what to make of me and what I was doing there. Eventually the process of mutual creative discovery helped lower subtle social barriers and things started happening.
We first learned how to turn digital designs into executable code and use the CNC machine to make simple things. The immediate gratification of moving from an idea floating in your brain to something you can hold in your hand is inspiring. In my past life in the automotive prototype engineering business, it could take a very long time to get to this point. The process moved slowly from drawing by hand, to hand machining and fabricating parts. Now just about anyone can do it with home-built machines and a laptop computer. Younger students may seem blasé about it, but for me this revolution is, well, revolutionary.
Once the competency projects were completed without anyone losing any digits, teams were created to handle the five project ideas created by Professor Stevens:
- Eric Rito, Randy White and Saif Alawzi chose the task to design and build a new podium for the A200 Auditorium.
- Randall Rozier and Chris Davis chose the “Inventibles Challenge”, where the students were to create something using unique items from the Inventibles.com web site.
- Sara Rugglio chose to design and create something that could be marketed on the etsy.com web site for the “Etsy challenge” assignment.
- Three architecture students from China; Wei Wang, Youyou Chen and Jing Xu; banded together and produce a CNC produced design element that would interact with existing lights.
- Nick Catalado and Azubuke “Zubby” Onoye chose to design and produce dinner table chairs for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Affleck house.
I was assigned to work with all the teams to make sure that financial and manufacturing limitations were kept on track. I would show them how to procure materials at economical prices, how to reduce waste, and maintain manufacturing feasibility.
One of the first projects that I saw needed help was Sara’s. She wasn’t sure what exactly she needed to make because that purposely wasn’t defined. She had an interest in fabrics and Jim suggested combining that with resin casting, a process she wasn’t familiar with, so there was some resistance at first. She was encouraged to just “make things” with it to see what could be done. Initially, she tried making a wood mold with the CNC machine, but the result did not produce a useful direction so that was abandoned. She then used an ice cube tray as a mold, and the results were much better. She found some long and narrow silicone cube trays at IKEA, cut and applied fabric to the resin in the mold, and the end result was interesting enough to explore further.
Her idea for the final product was to string the molded pieces together into a “blanket” that could be used as a decorative window or wall treatment. The resin magnified the fabric pattern, which was found very attractive by everyone in our informal focus groups. There was also some exploration in embedding LED’s into the mold to illuminate the fabric design. I assisted with the electronics and research. After testing, the artificial lighting had mixed reviews. The biggest problem was the complexity of embedding almost 100 LED’s plus the routing of the wiring detracted from the elegance of the basic design element. Sara was getting frustrated with the progress and time was running out for further development. She abandoned the electronics and decided that natural light would be the better choice. Sara then turned her attention to experimenting with weaving fabric and casting the molds in sand to keep the shape more consistent.
Ultimately, she ended up with different shapes for the individual pieces, but despite all the temporary setbacks and frustrations, I think she made some creative breakthroughs. She has a real eye for design, that once she gets past the road blocks of inhibitions and resistance to unfamiliar processes, she can really do great work.
The Inventibles Challenge team had its share of dead ends, too. They selected several items from the site, super-stretchy plastic, a wire spring that changes length with the application of electricity and moldable plastic. Chris and Randall tried a number different ways to combine all the materials. As with Sara’s project, their solution was to abandon complexity and focus on simplicity. The Nitinol helical wound wire had the most interesting properties with the ability to lift a heavy ViceGrip™ off the ground with just a little bit of voltage. They decided to build an interactive ceiling exhibit that would use cast weights suspended with Nitonal wires behind a stretchy fabric. It would be activated by a motion sensor as students walked by. The effect was intended to be eye-catching and intriguing.
Unfortunately the giddiness of the creative process left them ungrounded in the realities of the project parameters. Multiplying the number of weights and wires required more current than the initial single-weight test prototype used. Making the weights move independent of each other added a lot more wiring complexity than the budget or time allowed. The structure size required cross supports that they wanted to be adjustable for varying the effect. This created the problem of supplying current to the cross beams without a tangle of extra long wires to accommodate the distance changes. I suggested using copper conductive tape as a “buss bar”. I advised them on where to get it, and that was the extent of my contribution to this project. It worked out well, but the wire gauge they used for the connections was a little too small for the amount of current they were dealing with. The project was too far along to rewire so they made do with what they had.
The decision to cast the weights using condoms as molds was the most controversial aspect of this project. Coupled with the choice of black stretchy fabric, the effect was decidedly sexual in nature. There was a bit of denial at first that it was not the intent of the project, but there was no getting around the obvious. If the outcome wasn’t the intent, then the design wasn’t well thought out. The decision was made to embrace the outcome, change their design intent to match the result and declare victory.
The final design review dinged them for poor craftsmanship and poor selection of materials. When the project was in place, the light from the window above shown through the thin fabric and revealed the inner workings in an unflattering manner, which removed the mysteriousness of the device. The fabric looked cheap as did the particle board. Because the wire couldn’t handle the current, the movement was slow and inconsistent.
They made the classic mistake of designing solely for themselves without considering the customer, the business case, the mechanics and materials, or details about the site location. Not to be deterred, this was a good learning experience for them. They plan to correct all the mistakes and work on an even better design. I’m willing to bet it will be fabulous!
All teams struggled at some point, but I think the lighting design team had the most difficulties. Part of which was the fact that English was their second language and their unfamiliarity with the intricacies of American culture and local sources of materials. Their initial design looked fairly good on the computer, but didn’t translate well when built. The first basic shape was a tapered plywood square that would be replicated on the CNC. These ¾” thick pieces would be screwed to a thin sheet of plastic to make a bendable light shade.
While the CNC can produce the same element over and over, it seemed inefficient to me to turn a big piece of wood into a lot of little pieces, a big piece of scrap wood and a pile of sawdust. The end result was awkward to assemble causing a great deal of time consumed assembling them together. Even with cheap labor I would have still sought an easier way to execute the project. After fabrication, the interaction of the squares didn’t give the effect they desired, so frustration was setting in. I suggested they look to nature for elements that nested together. That sparked some creativity and they end up with a four leaf clover design that made more sense.
There still was the problem of making the parts from wood. I think they weren’t comfortable with searching for and testing alternatives, so they limited themselves to what they could find in the supply room. Another thing that hindered the process was that the location for displaying their project wasn’t considered carefully. At one point it was going to hang from the ceiling under a light in the stairwell. The School ‘s refusal to allow drilling holes in the light fixture precluded that. The team decided they were going to suspend the design from strings that tied to the exiting light fixture to get around that problem. But they hadn’t actually measured the size they would need to completely cover the area or calculated the amount of materials needed. Once we did that, it became readily apparent that they would have the equivalent of a 4’ x 8’ sheet of ¾” plywood hanging, literally, by a few strings over student heads. By not considering the site requirements they made the same mistake as the Inventibles team. The solution was to change the site location and instead of hanging the project, they placed it on an in ground landscaping light outside the architecture building. The effect when lit is very interesting.
The A200 Podium team had their preliminary design work done fairly quickly. They matched the theme of the auditorium and captured the customer’s needs in the initial design. The computer design became a small-scale model, and after some revisions it seemed like this was going to be a slam-dunk, except for one small detail: One important rule of program management is that when it comes to procurement, you have to identify your longest lead item in the bill of materials to be sure everything is ordered in time for the required date. About one week before the project was due and in the middle of construction, they came to me about the source for the LTU blue laminate I had located during the planning session. I found the web site again, but the special color material would be coming from Wisconsin, IF they had it in stock. If not, then it would be at least weeks for special order. Oops.
Out of necessity, they had to paint the inner cabinet rather than use the much nicer smooth laminate that was originally planned. The project had a good start but typical project setbacks ate up time and the podium wasn’t completely finished on the review day. I think they realized they would have benefitted from more disciplined program management techniques.
The last project is the Affleck House chair project. The task of building a set of chairs for the Affleck house was no minor undertaking. The design had to be compatible with the “Usonian” design of the house. Not only did the chair need to be considerate of the design intent, materials, and mass, but it had to in no way replicate any existing element. The chairs needed to be stackable, have the necessary frame rigidity, and have a comfortable seating surface and angle.
Professor Stevens picked Nick’s flexible plywood as the core design element. The “Pli-wood” process is documented elsewhere on the site, but it incorporates a milled pattern that allows the wood to flex and bend while maintaining compressive strength. The process was confined to the curved areas and the flat surfaces were kept intact, except for CNC milling of tube retention slots and curved seating area. The project would showcase remarkable makeLab achievements in a practical way.
The first step was the requisite CAD 3D model. That was quickly accomplished and ideas were bantered back and forth. The approach to fabrication was considered early on. We wanted to try to minimize material costs and cutting waste, so it was decided to eliminate the arm rests early in the design process. This allowed two chairs to be made from one, standard size 4 x 8 sheet of Plywood. The tubular frame looked simple in the CAD model, but my experience saw issues with bending stainless in so many tight curves.
The next step was to make a scale model. After some issues with deciding on the exact scale to use, welding wire was bent to make a replica frame, and balsa wood was used to stand-in as plywood. The lab’s CNC laser cutter was used to cut the miniature pli-wood pattern into the balsa wood.
From the scale model process, improvements were identified, and the optimum material sizes were estimated. It was thought that ½” diameter stainless tubing would be the ideal size. This allowed a minimum of 15/16” radius bends while maintaining enough rigidity for a 300 pound person. 304 seamless tubing was specified for corrosion resistance, low maintenance, and the ability to take a pleasing natural, polished, or brushed finish. ¾” birch plywood was selected for the wood. No fasteners were required but we needed 3/8” stainless dowels to ensure straight alignment and strength for the welded joints.
A secondary project was undertaken to set up TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding station in the makeLab fab room. I helped with getting all the necessary equipment together and up and running. Then I gave Nick some TIG welding lessons, and after a short time he was ready. Fortunately, he had prior experience with wire feed and stick welding, so he wasn’t exactly a total novice and adapted quickly to the new technique.
The stainless tubing was expensive, but the material was perfect for the application and Usonian theme. Nick was able to find a wholesale source for the tubing which cut out all the middleman costs. The savings were a whopping 70% less than retail. Nick had wanted to build each chair using only one standard 20’ section of tubing, but reinforcements required after the full-scale prototype added a few feet to the BOM. We could have special ordered longer 24’ sections, but since the 20’ length was a stock item, it was deemed more prudent to just order an extra length. The project came in under budget, and the full-scale prototype was on time.
At this time the chair is still being refined, but the end result is sure to be fabulous. I imagine guests and visitors to the Affleck house will take notice of the unique design and strike up a conversation about it. Professor Stevens envisions it being so notable that people will want to buy a set. We discussed making and selling copies online. The funds would be used to help expand the makeLab into new frontiers. This could lead to designers, engineers and business students working together to run a working mini-business laboratory.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to take part in this pilot program. I have looked forward to every Tuesday and Thursday class session. I think that once you get the makeLab spirit in your blood, you can never get over it. I plan on hanging around this summer to see how the projects turn out and what’s next. This is what education should be about. Teaching theory and practice in an interesting, meaningful, and practical way.
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.
Filed under: makeLab Enterprise
The past month has been very busy at the newly established MakeLab 2.0 Enterprise. Natalie Haddad, Steve Kroodsma, and myself to a lesser role, have been building a new CNC machine that will be exclusively used by MakeLab 2.0 Enterprise members. Such endeavor has been possible through the influence and the support of The Coleman Foundation. The mission of implementing entrepreneurship within the student body has come to light in MakeLab’s expansion to the new quarters. The hard work of all who have been actively participating and giving their contribution shows clearly in the construction progress of the new 7’x12′ CNC-machine (5’x10′ operable).
The process is somewhat slow but thorough. It involves precision and detailing, such that it may perhaps surpass the accuracy of the original ShopBot CNC-machine at the lab when complete. So far, the table bed and supports are complete, with the assembly of the gantry coming soon. The PC that will run the CNC was donated and assembled by Steve, while being retrofitted into a wooden box (tower?). The new machine will include also a vacuum table, facilitating further the production phase in all future projects.
My colleagues and I would like to thank Assistant Dean and Director of Graduate Studies, Ralph Nelson, for his contribution to the MakeLab with the tools donation, guidance, and support for the enterprise. Special thanks to Director James C. Stevens for making it all possible. Lets keep making good (great?) things!
By: Pandush Gaqi
Design | Mill | Build
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.
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.