Sunday, November 25, 2018

Rhombic Dodecahedron Stool

This latest chapter in a fascination with folding has been challenging. For several years now I've been interested in using CNC technology to create folded plywood objects.  Initially this involved applying piano hinges to pieces of plywood to make furniture.  You can see examples of this here and here

Over time, this method of cutting piano hinges and screwing together the joints with the hinge leaves felt complicated.  You had the many faces to cut and then you had the many hinges to cut. For something that was suppose to be automated, I felt like I was working on a methodology that was pretty involved.  The table design worked well for the most part because of the glass top that allowed one to peer down into the bristling interior.  I liked the clean star-like radiating lines but when I made the chair, the object felt too mechanical.  It was felt like a Frankenstein chair for a would-be Frankenstein.  It also wasn't all that comfortable.   

It was pretty clear what the simpler solution was...if possible.  I needed to "weaken"(but not break!) the plywood joints enough to steam bend them.  This would capture the wonderful simplicity associated with origami and create more supple and fluid shapes.  Undoubtedly this would come with a structural and mechanical price.  How far could one bend the steamed joint?  How strong would the joint remain after this bending? I didn't know if the thinness required for steaming would also render it too weak to support my weight. Would it break the first time someone sat on it? I'm happy to say it feels pretty strong after all the faces are connected.

The term "thick origami" is a phrase that has been emerging recently and in many ways the piano hinge furniture represents the clear geometric challenges associated with this way of constructing things. The plates, instead of all pivoting off one side of a cutout, pivot off the convex side of the fold.  This complicates the geometry of the cutout substantially. 

But this most recent furniture example is more challenging than objects made with this purely hinged approach. This stool - and hopefully future builds - does NOT exploit the use of fabric hinges or pivot hinging and their clear points of rotation. 

These "pliable sheet" builds hope to account for the anticipated deformation that occurs at steamed joints and compensates for this in the initial flat geometric layout. I've made several efforts to collect data in this regard. More data collection is in the works as I am working toward a strong 90 degree bend.

It is an exciting time to be working on this. Fabrication methods are evolving quickly in ways that strive to take advantage of both the structural and esthetic characteristics of the CNC approach. There are a lot of techniques to get comfortable with. Some examples of this:

What is the most efficient and accurate way to do a flip mill of a sheet of plywood? 

How does one tighten up the tolerances on the CNC machine when accuracy begins to degrade?

In parallel with these challenges there were, and remain, many questions about how to best modify the plywood to accomplish a good fold. Larger angles of folding remain a challenge and there are tradeoffs in seam width and depth with respect to flexibility and strength. This initial project was chosen, believe it or not, for its simplicity.  While the shape might appear somewhat complicated but it has this going for it:  All the dihedral angles (the angles between the faces) are 60 degrees.  

This made the initial folding ritual less complicated and did not impose too much stress on the joints.  Having said this, my first pass at this stool had several joints crack due to inadequate steaming.  I got discouraged and thought about giving up. I want to thank my son Jesse for telling me he could use one in his bedroom if I was able to finish it. This gave the thing purpose beyond the abstract and vainglorious desire to solve some large abstract design challenge.  There have been big improvements from where I started out, but the whole thing is definitely a work in progress.  The challenge of a good reliable steaming mechanism for the joints continues to be a large focus. Both the CNC and steaming techniques can use improvement.

Stay tuned for future pliable geometry.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Looking Back at a Greenhouse Built Twenty Years Ago...

Joyce Gross was kind enough to share with me some recent pictures from her wonderful garden in San Leandro.  She inherited a greenhouse I designed and built over twenty years ago and she graciously sent me some recent pictures of the building as it stands today, newly renovated. A thank you to Michael McGee as well for doing the much needed repairs. It felt like an appropriate time to revisit the project.  If you get a chance, check out her blog too.  

It was a turbulent time in my life.  I still hadn't taken the architecture exam and wanted desperately to finally design and build something meaningful.  This little project, so modest in scale, remains large in my mind.

At the time, mass customization hadn't taken off yet. I remember driving over to the Simpson Strong Tie plant a few miles from my house in San Leandro. I had a floppy disk with a DWG file on it for the plant manager. They didn't usually work with other people's files but if I wanted to bring it over, he would try to use it to cut out what I wanted.

San Leandro use to be called Cherry City before it became an industrial center and the Broadmoor area, where I grew up with my Dad, Grandmother and sister, still had a few larger lots with vestiges of this older agrarian time.  Our backyard still had a concrete slab where the barn use to be. The barn was before my grandmother - a school counselor and music teacher  - got ahold of it. She kept many of the old trees and added others.  There were cherry, lemon, orange, persimmon, plum, peach, tangerine, fig and apple trees all in her backyard.  I'm certainly grateful for the "advances" in our environment today, but looking back that situation seemed "abundant."

I haven't seen the neighbor, who hired me to do the greenhouse, in many years. He was an interesting man.  A physicist who worked out in Livermore, he was very open to experimentation.  He use to joke that he didn't understand why architects didn't treat building more experimentally.  "Why don't you build a prototype that could be rebuilt after we see the flaws?" he would ask.

I've always liked that observation of his. It exposed a basic difference between architecture and so many other technological undertakings.  Cars, airplanes, bicycles and other devices have such explicit functions but architecture in many ways is constantly being adaptively reused.  It not only tends to exist in time for longer than these other things, it also can change its function over time. It is not unusual for the hypothesis of the experiment (e.g. "let's build a one bedroom house") to change over the span of this experiment we call construction.  So many buildings get additions or remodels over the course of their lives. Cost aside, this in itself, tends to discourage a sense that a rebuild would improve things substantially. You get one crack.

For whatever reason stars aligned.  The neighbor hired me to build a greenhouse for his orchids. I was coming off a painful divorce and wanted a physical task that would keep my mind and body occupied.  My grandmother had a bunch of old panes of glass from a disassembled greenhouse that use to be standing in her backyard so I designed a greenhouse around adaptively reusing these old panes of glass.  We reused all her old glass in this greenhouse design.

Greenhouses are simple and elegant structures comprised predominantly of structure, "stops" (to hold the glass in place) and the glass itself.  Because the budget was so tight I designed an assembly where both the structure and the glass stop were derived from a single 2x4. Similarly, the CNC metal plates cut by Simpson Strong-Tie allowed 2x2 pieces of wood to span the entire width of the greenhouse.  This created a branch-like clerestory that felt sympathetic with a house for orchids. It still allowed good penetration of  sunlight.

Instead of wiring the greenhouse with electrified window operators we used passive solar "autovents" that utilized a mineral wax piston that expanded without the use of electricity.  During the hottest part of the day, the skylights open on their own. In the evening the skylights close and help keep the plants from freezing during the night.

The whole thing was a function of economy.  So often when this term comes up in design it is  associated with "compromised beauty."  "If only we had a larger budget, the design could be so much nicer."

For me, the design experience of this greenhouse stands as a contrast to that logic.  The reasons are hard to articulate but I keep it in mind when I'm up against tough economic design constraints. Certainly there are flaws in the design and the limited budget did require working with crooked material and thin glass, but when I consider the more conventional work I've done, it seems to me the ingenuity that the budget necessitated generated something other work might have lacked.

A big thank you to Joyce Gross who has made such a wonderful backyard environment of which this greenhouse is but one part and for sharing her shots with me.  Check out her blog to see some beautiful plants a few more shots of the greenhouse.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

DIY CNC Cabinetry: Cultivating an alternative to the Home Depot/IKEA model.

The Cabinet Carcasses

I've had a small cabinetry project in the works for a while.  It needed to be done on a shoestring budget.  I made the requisite trip to Home Depot and tried to keep things simple.  Three Melamine cabinets in a "U".  One cabinet for each leg of the "U".  The doors would be simple slab doors.  Nothing fancy. For the uninitiated Melamine is pretty much the same thing as "Formica" (or HPL).  Both products are essentially a resin impregnated paper finish covering a "lovely" particleboard core.  Melamine just uses a thinner paper and therefore presents less of an edge at corners.  It is both cheaper and more esthetically appropriate for cabinet boxes and fronts.   Formica is more logically used on countertops for its wear resistance and that is the probable choice for the counters on this project down the road.

Even at Home Depot, these three stock cabinets were $2500.

Cabinetry can be tedious work so I'm not ungrateful for that pricing. But the Shopbot in my studio was the obvious alternative. What could be done with sweat equity for a fraction of the cost?  It also felt like the hardware quality could be improved on. The Blum Metabox system was used and I ordered these components, as well as some good drawer pulls at   This greatly simplify the assembly process and helped to ensure good operability.  So far the project is looking like it will cost somewhere around $700 in parts.

The milled panels

It is worth noting that there is an MDF (medium density fiberboard) alternative to particleboard for the core of these products.  For this application it felt unneccessary and would have sourcing the material more challenging. I still used my friendly local Home Depot for the raw Melamine sheets.

Thus far the cabinet carcasses (or boxes) are complete.  I used Confirmat screws to assemble the boxes and was relieved to see I could attach the panels to each other by hand quickly and easily.  The CNC toolpath writing is primarily useful for locating door and drawer hardware, which can be unforgiving with a lack of precision.

It is also important to get your cutting speed right since Melamine has a real tendency to chip.  A lot has been written about how to avoid this on line.  I found a compression bit really helped to minimize this although it is my single biggest concern on the project. If the drawers and doors turn out okay, the process will be posted on Instructables in the future.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Pollarding a tree? Make a Wattle Hut!

There are a lot of Mulberry trees on our street.  For years, at some point in midwinter, most of my neighbors get out there and pollard them, leaving the few remaining branches to remain with their denuded cauliflower stumps.  Without being entirely sure why we do this but not wanting to be the pariah of my good neighbors I have gone and done it too.  I think the previous owners of my residence were field workers and they did some interesting braiding with the branches. I've always liked this little flair of non-conformity.  That creative branchwork has been something I wanted to riff on further. While there are many shallow justifications for pollarding online I've been unimpressed by their rigor. The whole thing feels a little like cropping a dogs ears or something. Since I didn't really know why we were doing the cutting to begin with, I wanted to imbue this ritual with more meaning.  Today my boys and I got out there and finally made a small wattle hut.  A coupe notes on the making process.

1. To trim the tree correctly you have to cut the branches relatively close to their base.  
2. To do the wattle correctly you have to recut the base of the branch so the associated curved element segment is eliminated.  This allows you to work with a fairly straight "bow-like" piece.  

3. I thought it might require more than one tree to make this structure and I stock piled three trees worth of branches before starting. Ultimately, I think you can do it with just one.

Anyway, if you want to lighten the load to the dump and your looking for something useful to do with your pollarding you might try this (or something else!).

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Grasshopper Routine for Generating Folded Plate Forms

A routine for generating folded plate structures was recently completed here at the studio using the parametric Grasshopper software.  A few examples are depicted above.  This routine is intended to facilitate the creation of folded plate forms for various architectural uses.

These forms are becoming increasingly easy to build due to mass customization and computer milling, but it is my sense that the forms are still largely avoided in the built environment simply because the design process is so tedious.  After recently completing a few origami-inspired furniture pieces, seeing the St. Loup Chapel and enthusiastically reading a recent paper about origami and folded plates (by Hani Buri and Yves Weinand) I decided to take a crack at simplifying this process.

The forms in this routine are generated by simply sketching two curves on two perpendicular planes with the two curves sharing a common point of beginning.  As curve B sweeps along curve A it reverses orientation at each new line segment. This generates a complex array of alternating origami-type "mountain" and "valley" folds.  The geometry of these forms is complex enough that not all curves will be initially deployable but after a bit of editing, the user will quickly develop an intuition for how the curves can be modified to function properly.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Origami Table

Mixing memories of childhood origami with "folded plate" structural ideas, has been a rich vein of inquiry for me.  So much is happening with prefabrication and panelization right now. It feels like a good time to be riffing on this.

A while back I did a series of chairs on the Shopbot. Following the 3B chair, I wanted to attempt the more ambitious task of a table.  From a structural standpoint, the chair was relatively easy but the challenges of taking a thin "paper-like" material and making a table was more daunting.

What follows are some excerpts from the design and fabrication process.  There are also a few shots of the final outcome.  I wound up designing about nine different tables before making the one we see here.  We even partially built one of the previous designs before giving up on it as too "floppy".  In fact, this new table is made up of facets from the previous design.  This way of working is easy with hinges and something that makes up for the heavy computer time that is really required to pull off this sort of fabrication process.

The reality is that this way of putting things together is relatively new and there is a lifetime of work with this tectonic. I'd like to see how this might inform some other objects for a bit. In short, while there are still refinements, it felt like a good time to post the results of the work and see what comes of it.  A big thank you to my two amazing sons Jesse and Niles for their help. I also wanted to thank Steve, at Arrow Glass, for supplying the tempered glass top.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Custom Boxes On-Demand

If anyone needs a custom sized tongue and groove box I've written a routine for the Shopbot on Grasshopper that should be able to generate a moderately sized box of any dimensions with a lid that fits snugly on top.  Just give me the three box dimensions and the material and we can make it happen.  The cuts are very precise and the outcome should edify any material that's used from MDF to European multiply plywood.  If the box is on the smaller side we can even use good old fashioned solid lumber.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Community Meeting at Middletown High School on Rebuilding After the Valley Fire

The first post-fire community meeting on rebuilding occurred tonight at the Middletown High School Stadium. I couldn't be late and was rushing. When I came to a traffic jam approaching Middletown on 29 I turned onto a residential street to avoid the blockage. It didn't take much to feel like one was on the backside of a movie set.  The devastation was thorough and complete and reminiscent of the Oakland Berkeley Firestorm.  Burned out cars, and rubble were everywhere.  

It was a moving experience seeing all the people in need of help and the various agencies mobilizing to come to their aid. The first step is the toxic clean up and this can result in a substantial removal of soil and concrete from a burn site.  This excavation can leave quite a depression that requires new soil to be trucked in.  Many homes in the area predate the elimination of asbestos and lead in building materials and its important the soil tests free of these materials prior to the owner's reentry. There is also a real incentive to get these sites cleaned up before too much debris gets blown around.  The rebuilding effort is just starting.

I was honored to be asked by the AIA to say a few words about the rebuilding process to the community and as I thought about my remarks leading up to the meeting it became increasingly clear that people were just getting their heads around a big change in their life. The actual building of a home was a ways off and the practical advice people needed at this point was how to navigate the often byzantine insurance process, show proof of loss and secure a fair payout. For architects this work is primarily confined to the forensic task of documenting the pre-fire condition of the structure and capturing as much value in this description as possible.

PG&E has already run over 100 miles of wire and put 750 new telephone poles in the ground. Leaving the meeting it was heartening to see the main drag of Middletown lit up inside various store fronts.  The people inside these oases of light seemed to be experiencing a kind of community, for all their other loses, that other towns seem to lack.  One saving grace. It reminded me of Greg Brown's quote "This whole idea of intentional community is a bunch of bologna.  You gotta need each other." I'd like to believe people need each other even when they don't realize it but the people of Middletown are under no illusion.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Couple Recent Remodel Projects

This last year has seen several remodel projects.  The two shown here represent a pair of projects near completion.  Often when there is a remodel - even if the building's function is changing - this is also an opportunity to address deferred maintenance, improve durability and increase strength.  All this is equally an esthetic opportunity to improve finishes, compose geometry, simplify form and improve function.

Kenwood Accessory Building
General Contractor: Sonoma Building Associates

Kenwood Accessory Building
General Contractor: Sonoma Building Associates
Glenn Ellen Kitchen Remodel
General Contractor: Chapman Construction
Glenn Ellen Kitchen Remodel
General Contractor: Chapman Construction

Sunday, May 31, 2015

An Old Barn and Parking Lot Remade Into a Family Gathering Spot.

An interesting planning project from last year recently completed up in Geyserville.  The client, working directly with Aquatic Pools, did a great job adapting a run down barn and gravel parking lot into a place for the family to hang out and swim.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bodie: A Lifetime Coming...

Like traveling by rail, going to Bodie California is to situate yourself in a historic place most Americans bypass.  The surfaces of the human landscape here speak of our civilization's frailty but they also speak of the essentially hospitable nature of this western land.  There are about one hundred and forty buildings still standing in Bodie.  Many are from the 19th century. The park service uses a great term to describe the maintenance of the buildings: Arrested decay.  With or without this relatively minor human intervention the place confirms a suspicion:  Figuring out how to impose permanent structures on the land is not a central challenge for California architecture.

In fact one could argue a misplaced obsession with architectural permanence is exactly the cause of our present economic and environmental woes.  Does every drink of water really deserve its own plastic bottle?  To make things last only to use them in a disposable way is perhaps the most wasteful scenario one can imagine. A subtly more worthy and challenging goal is to strive for harmony and craft in our often speculative and impetuous cultural landscape.  If one compares the way buildings are built now with the plank houses at Bodie one can see how things have "advanced".  More parts have been introduced to address things discretely instead of embracing the economy of one element acting as something multi-functional (e.g. a board acting both structural and weather resistive).

When I tell my friends about the Bodie visit, most people have never heard of the place.  The quarter million annual visitors are largely foreigners. It is easy to think of Bodie like an odd French obsession with Jerry Lewis or Marilyn Monroe; an affection that seems somehow misplaced and romantic.  But this is too easy.  Bodie is one of the few remaining monuments from our settler past and it has lessons to teach us about the virtues of a simpler approach.  Many architects and carpenters muse about how things use to be built here.  Go to Bodie and see.  The simple plank house can be seen in all its rich and improvisational variety.  There are over one hundred buildings.

Flattened sheet metal containers acting as battens

Bodie is such a contrast to how europe memorializes its civilization. One can't help but wonder if it is only the distance from our existing civilization - so driven by our free market forces - that has spared this place the bulldozer.

About 70% of all US citizens live in megaregions. Despite the fact that at one time Bodie was one of the post prosperous gold mining towns in California, to visit it now is to venture off the beaten path.  You can't see it from one of the interstates of our megaregions and it provokes the realization that the  interstate itself has a kind of consistent atmosphere despite the specific place it might traverse.

When I was a child growing up in California it was a yearly ritual to visit the Sierras with my father  and my sister for a week or two. A composer and musician, my father would would bring his violin with him on these trips.  When I got older he'd have me bring my clarinet too and I have many memories of meeting people from all different parts of the US and elsewhere coming together around the campfire for singing and music making.  While engaged in this "social camping", the last thing on our mind was to visit Bodie, despite its relative proximity.  No one talked about it.  We went to the Sierra's to get away from civilization and its discontents and Bodie, as a gold rush town, was a symbol of that legacy.  Perhaps for that reason it wasn't a place we ever talked about going while we were hanging out in nature for a week or two.

My childhood home was San Leandro in the Bay Area.  An area called "Okie hill" was tucked up alongside the freeway. This place was more recently known for having sporadic connections to the Hell's Angels, but its name went back to a time in California history when Oklahoma refugees landed there as a consequence of the dust bowl in the thirties.

My father really loved the dust bowl music of Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma folk singer, and he was secretly proud of having taught his son, Arlo, music when Arlo was in high school back in Massachussetts.

When summer rolled around there in San Leandro we would head for the Sierras.  The exodus to the Sierras is a little different than it is now.  Many people aren't aware of the distinction that exists between national park and national forest land.  Even today you can camp for free in many part of the national parks without much paperwork - especially if you're not camping in an "improved" campground.  But most formal campgrounds today require a permit and often a visit to the mountains is preceded by an ironic stint spent in front of the computer making campground reservations.

Despite these "improvements" a few decades ago many of the summer campers were central valley citizens in between residences for the summer. Staying at a national forest campground was an inexpensive way for them to spend time with their kids in between school years without having to pay rent for a month or two.  The camping was free and the streams were stocked with rainbow trout using tax money. Even though the time limit for a stay was two weeks, I remember more than once a family just picking up their stuff and moving to an adjacent camp site to "play nice" with the rules and avoid an annoyed ranger. It was a practical way to make quality time for your children on their summer break. I've always wondered if their might have been some kind of continuation of the itinerant Okie tradition in these loose networks of people that I hungout with for a few weeks each summer.  So improvisational, so unpretentious and somehow so warm and human.  Sharing fishing tips, marshmallows, matches and music; I've rarely felt closer to my fellow human being and nature all at once.  Without exactly knowing why, surely there is something meaningful in the pursuit of a light environmental design that celebrates these two vital aspects of human existence simulatneously.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Chair Design 3B is Available

The latest iteration of folded plywood chairs (chair 3B) came off the shopbot today.  As an architect I've been interested in the indirect ways paper can create form for a long time. A good drawing can be both inspirational and instructive.  Schematic design drawings hopefully inspire.  Construction documents try to be instructive or at least descriptive.  Together these two kinds of drawings aid and abet the execution of many effective projects that would suffer in their absence.  

In the professional world of architecture it takes a lot of hard work to make a rigorous drawing.  A refrigerator that is the wrong width can make the project impractical or costly.  A beam can be drawn too shallow for the distance it has to span.  "Paper architects" are the unapplied ones who make these mistakes. In this sense our connection to paper is often something we try to downplay. Lebbius Woods, a famously theoretical architect, once said rather shockingly: "Architects don't make buildings, they make drawings." ...the truth hurts. There is something "indirect" about the discipline. Some direct ways of using paper are also intriguing.

When I was a kid paper had an entirely different reputation. Making interesting things out of paper was perhaps the most resourceful "MacGyver" thing one could do. Anyone who could take a banal piece of paper (especially the kind that you used for school work) and turn it into something that could fly around the room had gift. Kids who knew how to do that? They were alchemists!

In this way I think making paper airplanes and architecture are the same thing. They both create a substantial leap in meaning with a few carefully considered "creases";  The material is still evident but the new object is no longer called by its material name.  Now it is a "plane" or a "building."

Origami personifies this to me and I wanted to make a series of chairs that recalled this simple alchemy from my childhood. There are many parallels between today's panel technologies (SIP panels, Plywood, Fiber Cement etc.) and these early inquiries into paper. In the recent past I have wanted to incorporate this early origami thinking into my building designs. SIP panel technology, where entire walls are made at a factory, was one way to approach this.  The idea of complicated building geometry being handled in this more precise manufacturing environment holds some real promise.

But there are many other constraints that often overwhelmed these early efforts and ultimately it was more important that the client simply have a functional and beautiful building.  They didn't need a thought experiment.

Nevertheless I do think it is important to dream and often the pressures of executing an affordable project for someone else can make this dreaming seem frivolous; not unlike a paper airplane in the classroom.

In short, I have wanted to reconcile this vitally whimsical world of art and this serious world of construction. I find they are so often at odds. These chair designs try to address the very literal parallels I see between paper and panel technologies with a few inquiries into chairs. Understanding the way this CNC machine works and how the hinges and plywood behave has been a central preoccupation of this endeavor. Hopefully there is still a whiff of origami whimsy about them. I also hope there will be more of this work-in-progress to come. There is no "final design." This chair is made from Latvian marine grade plywood and steel hinges. The finish will likely be a tung oil. With two chair coming out of one sheet of plywood they should be relatively simple and affordable to produce. Please feel free to contact me if you're interested in ordering some. Modifications are certainly possible and even encouraged.

Michael Cobb