makeLab™ blog

Fabricated CMU by Jim Stevens
May 5, 2012, 9:39 pm
Filed under: makeLab design

This semester graduate student Josh Wagensomer has explored the potentials of fabricating custom CMUs that respond to a specific design condition.  The challenge was to design a new film archive in New York adjacent to High Line.  Josh took a unique approach in that film archiving is traditionally a very introverted programmatic feature.  The unique conditions required to archive physical media limits the accessibility the public has to the process.  This project explores how this unique condition can be rethought to create a more engaging space.  The dichotomy of this relationship is explored though the simple juxtaposition of two programmatic events: promenade and safeguard.

The concept of an inside-out vault captures the necessity of security while allowing visual access to activity of archiving.  Therefore, the process of archiving becomes as important as the physical archive.  The process here becomes the Automatic Retrieval System – a computer controlled method of retrieving physical media from high-volume storage units.

Utilizing an iterative process of digital and physical exploration, a concrete screen wall is proposed to divide the public promenade from the Automatic Retrieval System.  The thin concrete units utilize a cable tension lateral bracing system and parametrically determined perforations to control the visual access from the promenade into the archive.


POLIS Workshop 2012 + POLIS Study Abroad in USA by Jim Stevens
April 21, 2012, 7:28 am
Filed under: makeLab @Large

makeLab will be returning to POLIS University in Albania this summer to conduct two workshops.  One workshop will occur on two consecutive weekends starting 22-24 June with the final weekend 29 June – 1 July.  The week between we will also conduct a workshop from 25-29 June.  Additionally, we are very excited to announce that POLIS University and Lawrence Tech have signed an agreement permitting student exchanges between the Universities.  This will allow graduate students from POLIS to study with the makeLab in the USA.  See the attached brochure for more information or you can email me at if you have questions.

Weekend Workshop Wrap-up by Jim Stevens
April 19, 2012, 1:04 pm
Filed under: makeLab @Large

On the weekend of April 14th makeLab hosted a weekend workshop on “Designing Electronics for Architecture” where participants where exposed to the steps necessary to designing, programing and fabricating their own circuit boards. The initial task seemed simple enough, fabricate a board that controls a single LED with a light sensor.  Although many struggled with the micro-soldering, the system gave us insight to the potentials of this technology in architecture.

More significant than the new knowledge was thee realization that what we where doing touches most disciplines in design, building and technology.  Most exciting for us at the makeLab was the cross-campus representation from many different departments.  The Department of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics Engineering and Management where all where represented in addition to Architecture.  It was obvious that the energy, ideas, and possibilities are endless when working in a trans-disciplinary studio.

Finally, makeLab would like to thank Mercedes Mane, the visiting instructor, for the workshop.  Mercedes is an electrical engineer with background in controls, hardware design and embedded programming and a volunteer at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab.  Mercedes made the weekend fun for all and we hope to do it again.

Only a few spots left in the April Workshop by Jim Stevens
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 by Jim Stevens
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 by Jim Stevens
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 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

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