makeLab™ blog

Applying the Digital Vernacular by lauralovinglondon
October 17, 2012, 10:20 am
Filed under: makeLab Student Post

In the makeLab, there is a firm belief that form generation alone is  not a viable design solution. Rather, we are pushed to learn from the tried and true practices derived from generations of study and implement them using digital tools. This is what Jim Stevens refers to as the “digital vernacular” and is the basis of a design challenge using traditional, vernacular building types from around the world. The project objectives included a thorough study of the cultural and economic context, skill level of labor, materials, established construction processes, and aesthetic characteristics of each building type. From this study, a digital vernacular detail reflecting the methodologies and ideas was created via digital tools.

For this project, Ryan Asava, a second-year graduate student in Stevens class, studied the Toda hut. This building type originates in the Nilgiri plateau of Southern India, where the Toda people have perfected it for over a thousand years. The Toda people form pastoral tribes, who often leave their huts to accommodate the buffalo grazing periods. As a result, their dwellings are often left unattended, and incur damage as well. The Toda hut itself is a pent-shaped structure created with native materials of lashed bamboo sticks and fasteners of rattaen, the pliable stems of the bamboo stalk. Overall, the Toda hut is a simple, yet refined and extremely effective building type for that culture and location.


The ideas that Ryan derived from this research informed several goals for his detail: simplicity of assembly, ease of replacement, accommodation of same forces, and composition of common materials. He was most inspired by the use of lashed bundles of sticks, the primary component in the Toda hut. The significance of the lashed detail is that it creates a 360-degree fulcrum and resists structural forces in all directions. To apply this, he began to design a singular construction piece by mapping out the X,Y, and Z forces that it would resist. This singular piece, when replicated, would also need to form the arch shape similar to that of the Toda hut.

Through a series of mock-ups, and varying ideas, Ryan created multiple interlocking pieces out of three laminated sheets of  ¼” plywood. The laminated sheets allow for pockets to aid in the interlocking of the members. In terms of forces, the fulcrum created in the piece resists the X forces, while the interlocking of the pieces resists resulting Y forces. The Z forces are resisted by a combination of two pockets and tabs: a tab at the ends of the piece that fits into a pocket of the adjacent piece, and the center (hook) that goes into a pocket as well (see figure below). The pieces themselves are put together using friction-fit joinery, rather than any sort of fasteners, and the only glue used was for the laminating process. Since the pieces are friction-fit, the size and tolerance was very important. Ryan realized just how important it was when he accidentally forgot to compensate for the proper tolerance while cutting his pieces on the CNC machine. This problem was fixed in the post-processing, however, via a Dremel tool to ensure the proper fitting of the pieces. Once put together, the resulting architectural detail was extremely successful in fulfilling Ryan’s original goals.

The significance and success of this project is immense because the fully constructed arch holds a large amount of weight and is truly vernacular in its simplistic manufacturing, construction and native materiality. The singular piece also makes it easy to replace, and requires a low amount of skilled labor to produce and assemble. As a constructed arch, it has relatively low embodied energy largely because plywood is readily available in this region, no metal fasteners are needed, and little post-processing is required. This project proves that a well-designed yet simple piece can have great implications in construction.

In a broader context, this project also upholds many of the principles of the makeLab. We believe that digital fabrication should never be approached with the assumption that a new software or machine suddenly will suddenly create good design simply because it is new. Or, that as a westernized culture, we have the “right” building practices for every location and application. Rather, this project exemplifies that a careful and humble study of other traditional practices, cultures, and history is what aids us in using new tools appropriately. Because a digital tool at the end of the day is just that: a tool. Without the appropriate ideas, research, and historical precedent to apply those tools to, it does nothing.


Dining Chair inspired the wRIGHT way by azubikeononye
May 8, 2012, 6:48 pm
Filed under: makeLab design, makeLab Student Post | Tags: ,

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.

Slip Casting by Jim Stevens
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

‘McDUH’ by Jim Stevens

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

Learning Architectural Solutions by Eluding Restrictions(LASER)….. by azubikeononye

Restriction is a common term experienced within the professional and academic discipline of architecture. The expression of creativity in design is often hindered by these restrictions and as a result, the makeLab aims to promote and encourage the exploration of possible solutions to this problem. Following my interview with Natalie Haddad, a first year Master of Architecture student, I understood how she solved the makeLab’s need for proper digital fabrication machines for small scale work. The following is an excerpt from that interview:

ME: Of all machines capable of bolstering the digital fabrication process, why did you choose the Laser cutter?

NATALIE: I chose the laser cutter because I wanted to build a machine that would be helpful in rapid prototyping of designs on a small scale.

ME: For the fact that you are not an electrical engineering major, how did you put the machine together?

NATALIE: I found open source plans for building a laser cutter online at Buildlog. The site provided a listing of all the parts needed as well as documentation on how to assemble major components. There was also an extensive forum which helped me to troubleshoot some problems I had along the way.

ME: Plunging deeper into the problems you had to troubleshoot, what were some of the construction problems you encountered?

NATALIE: One of the biggest problems I faced while assembling the machine was that I sloppily soldered the stepper motor drivers onto the board and when I tested them, one caught fire and the other two over heated. Another difficult task was the wiring of the electronics. There is a safety loop integrated within the board. This safety loop controls the amount of power reaching the laser at any given time. Power to the laser will shut off if the cover is opened while the laser is firing, the emergency button is pressed, or if the laser cooling system is not working. The wiring of this connection was difficult but after troubleshooting all the components, I was able to fix the problem and command the laser from Mach3.

ME: Hmm…. Mach3?! What exactly is the Mach3? Is it some kind of software that bridges the computer design to the laser cutter?

NATALIE: Well… The laser cutter runs off of Mach3. For vector cutting, any 2D lines can be brought into a program called Cut2D. The program processes the file and adds to the code so the laser can be triggered on and off during a cut. For raster engraving, Mach3 has a plugin that accepts both bitmap files and jpegs.

ME: if you were to construct another Laser cutter, are there any opportunities you will consider exploiting?

NATALIE: If I were to build a laser again, the first thing I will consider is making the bed larger. The current bed is 12″ x 20″ and it is a 40W laser. I would also make some modifications to the skin of the machine so that it could better adapt to use. For example, better access to scraps that have fallen through the aluminum grate.

ME: Compared to the CNC machine which the makeLab already possesses, is there any major difference?

NATALIE: The laser is a tool that allows designs to be created into prototypes at a smaller scale than the CNC. It also brings new capabilities and allows for engraving, or precision cutting on a small scale.

PLi | wood by nahaddad
December 17, 2011, 2:56 pm
Filed under: makeLab Student Post

The makeLab is not just a place for cutting out squares. It is a place that allows students to understand the characteristics of materials and construction methodologies. Through many iterations of our final project we found that there is a distinct difference between manipulating material and shaping material. In the past we used the machines to cut out predetermined shapes to fit into a predetermined form, but this time we set out to explore the opportunities within a given material…. Manipulating material allows common characteristics to be set aside for new possibilities.

For this project, we started by cutting out rapid prototypes using the laser cutter. The small size of the models allowed us to identify which materials could be manipulated the best. For example, one-eighth inch basswood didn’t respond as well as one-eighth inch thick Baltic Birch plywood. An advantage of using the laser cutter was that it allowed for different cut patterns to be tested easily. We were able to find cut patterns that worked well very quickly and allowed us to move towards full scale versions on the CNC. We used the same ratio of cut depth to cut spacing for the most successful laser cut prototypes. This allowed the full scale versions to be successful on the first attempt.

Is plywood just for sheathing? Seeing an eight foot sheet of three-quarter inch plywood ripple like water, compress by 20%, stretch to 200%, twist 180 degrees, and roll up into a six inch cylinder exceeded our expectations to say the least. The characteristics of this material have changed so dramatically that we need to be reminded of the fact that is still solid plywood.

Nick Cataldo
Kyle Gonzalez

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December 11, 2011, 9:59 pm
Filed under: makeLab Student Post

Azubike Ononye and Michal Freudenthal experimented with a unique set of repetitive elements using the “waffle” method. Every piece of the structure is bound and connected with the rest. This collective was designed as a of bending and twisting, using digital fabrication methods.

To design this 3D form, Azubike and Michal first created a rectangular shape, then copied it to the z-direction and lofted it using Rhinoceros. The material used was Masonite, as it was stiff enough to hold the form, yet flexible enough to perform the waffle method. The 3D model was separated into sections. Once these sections were cut out by the CNC machine, they slid together and held the desired shape without glue or fasterners. This structure is successful in its use of the waffle method. Using this particular method, Azubike and Michal, were able to create a rigid, yet dramatically bending structure.

One of the problems that the group faced while making this model was that they did not estimate its final constructed size. Also, because of the form, they could not use Grasshopper to construct the waffle, so they manually generated it. Azubike and Michal were concerned about the strength of the waffle but the final result was impressive since the parts made strong connections. Althoughthe waffle bends and twists, the shape that it forms is balanced and freestanding. In the end Azubike and Michal were able to perfectly capture twisting and bending.

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