The triennial exhibition, Why Design Now?, is now open to the public at the Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design in New York. Vault201 is one of many exciting projects on display that show diverse and innovative ideas of how design can address environmental and social responsibility. If you have the opportunity to go to the museum any time before January 2011, all you have to do is walk up the main staircase, glance to the right, and you cannot miss Vault201 standing elegantly at the end of the gallery. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to climb and jump on top of it like we did for our prototype at MIT in January (see earlier posts for images of that!), but you can walk underneath it and see first-hand the undulating surface built out of a single layer of bricks…the thinness ratio of an eggshell!
You will also see the beautiful bricks manufactured by Green Leaf bricks made out of 100% post-consumer and post-industrial recycled material…including 30% processed sewage waste. Don’t worry, after baking the bricks at 1,900 degrees and adding in all the other materials, there is no smell…only a stunning and robust building material proving that we can build effectively by mining the stream of societal waste.
This project has been a long process in which we have learned much about structural design, digital fabrication, vault construction techniques, brick manufacturing, and museum installation. Given the series of challenges throughout the project, it is very satisfying and humbling to see our brick vault in a major exhibition in such a beautiful, historic building.
So what’s next for Vault201? Five months remain before we must deconstruct it – carefully, brick by brick – to protect the historic wooden floors!
The long-anticipated day will arrive this coming Friday! The Cooper-Hewitt’s “Why Design Now?” Triennial exhibition will open to the public at 10am on May 14th. The show runs until January 2011, so there’s plenty of time to make your way over to the museum and see what has been 13 months in the making.
It’s hard to believe how far this project has gone since its original inception last year. If we had gone ahead with our first instincts, we would have simply replicated existing structural forms in bricks instead of thin shell concrete. Instead, we dove into design and structural experimentation, expanded the team from 2 to 4 to 7, and now to 12 including the building team… And now, we get to see our baby live, in 3D, and out in public. In some ways, I feel I’m anticipating it even more because I wasn’t able to actually build this one over our Spring break. How satisfying will it be to see the fruit of our labor, and to be able to tell others that they, too, can share in it.
A good portion of the team will be heading down to New York for a special opening reception on Thursday, before the exhibition opens to the public on Friday. Can’t wait!
A 16 foot span, 1- 1/2 inches thick, 720 bricks throughout the vault surface – all within a construction schedule of FIVE days. Was it possible, we asked? Yes, conceivably. Did it leave any room for error, however? – Not a stitch! These time constraints – from the beginning – were the driving factors in the vault design which emerged for the Cooper-Hewitt: a creative, innovative outcome for the desired geometric complexity, which could still be buildable within this very limited time-frame.
However, all design must anticipate material and human error, and confront inevitable problem-solving on site. As was the case with our construction – which could certainly not afford such delays. So, after a rather gross formwork tolerance error – which cost us one whole day! of delay – the race was really on!
The result was one of the tightest deadlines and most fast-paced constructions I have ever participated in. In three days, with two bricking teams and four other crew members on various critical support tasks, we finished the vault! I am reminded of the old adage, “Haste makes waste!” However, in our case, we already had waste… 4 whole palettes of it, formed into beautiful bricks. Our break-neck speed certainly required certain moments of clear reflection, as we observed small errors and the manner in which they needed to be corrected. At all moments, we had to be critically attentive of such small errors to insure that they did not cascade into problems which could not be corrected – either deviations from our structural catenary geometry or deviations from the pattern system of the masonry. Under the constraints of this time, it is very satisfying to look up at this vault, to remember our hands as they placed bricks, to celebrate the idiosyncrasies in the position of each masonry unit, and to praise our stars that there are bricks overhead!
(Left to right: Mike Cohen, Masoud Akbarzadeh, Lara Davis, Samuel Kronick, Sam Cohen, John Ochsendorf, Mallory Taub, Fabi Meacham, Cynthia Ting.)
So, I should stop stalling and get to it – the construction at the Cooper-Hewitt! Before describing our insane 5-day trials, however, I would like to thank our installation team. For a number of reasons, we had to call on some somewhat less experienced hands for this construction. However, I really believe in the end that it was most possible because of the impressive skill, patience, persistence and hard work of our crew. The generosity of this group, who volunteered their time and gave up their spring breaks to build this project, was deeply impressive to me. Invisible laborers always get very high marks in my book, and I am truly grateful for the support we had –within our team and at the museum.
Our particular gratitude goes our to Matt O’Connor, the production manager of the Cooper-Hewitt, and his extraordinary team, foremost, Kevin, Jim and Roy. Their material support – and their great humor – throughout this construction made it not only possible to complete, but really a great pleasure to build.
Nevertheless, one very marked difference between the prototype brick and the Cooper-Hewitt brick spelled for us an imminent constructional problem – GL bricks are 1/2″ thicker than the bricks used for the January prototype, increasing the structural safety factor of the vault, but also very much increasing the difficulty of setting them into a doubly-curved surface with very tight tolerances for the turning radius of each brick.
Thus, in order to build this vault at the Cooper-Hewitt with Green Leaf bricks, a very strategic constructional logic had to be employed: Rather than the somewhat predictable but also relatively arbitrary custom-cutting method employed in the January vault, the custom-cutting for the Cooper-Hewitt vault had to be highly specific to the vault geometry and planned well so that we could still keep our (very tight!) 5 day construction schedule. It should be noted here that one of the most formative constraints for the design of this vault was that of time. The curvature of the vault is composed of splines which vary in profile but are fixed in length – all in order to keep an equal coursing pattern and to save in the time and labor-intensive process of custom-cutting bricks.
What I planned was the following: Each custom-cut brick would have the quality of one of three different brick modules, a primitive which could be chirally oriented for a left or a right, and combined with other primitives as necessary. A logic for the quantities required for each custom primitive was also very important, so there were always enough of the critically necessary variations as we began to brick the sections which required them. The results were very successful – Sam Kronick was our dedicated brick cutter, who spent a good deal of the construction cutting in the basement with the wet-saw and delivering our variants for their rough schedule in construction.
This is an example of what I would call constructional logics that are 1) learned from building (in this case, in January), 2) analyzed and abstracted as rules, and then 3) re-embedded into the design process. It could be said that this is merely the practice of good craft in building, but I would argue also that – by fundamentally altering the logic of the brick unit, from a regular and industrially produced module, to a taxonomic system of limited, customized module variations – the design of the brick is a creative proposition for challenging constructional constraints. Now – while this vault could not have been constructed with standard brick units, the project of my design thesis is to show what non-standardized and variable units can – as a system – be made to build. The altered brick unit, the system of aggregated units, and the method of assembly would in this case come to reciprocally generate each other.
From the prototype vault built at MIT in January to the exhibition vault built at the Cooper-Hewitt, the most significant difference is the brick itself. Our tremendous gratitude goes out to James Kolodziey and Charles Taylor at Green Leaf Brick and Taylor Clay Products; they have been instrumental in stepping up the manufacture of this highly custom-produced material to meet our construction deadline. I have learned a great deal about the efficiency of manufacture in the industry, by coming to understand what it takes for a brick plant to clean the lines of production of a mass produced brick in order to push through a small production run. It must be akin to heard-farming really, for a plant manager to get as many of one type into a sequence as possible, to keep the ‘down-time’ of cleaning and set-up between manufacturing runs from eating the costs of production. Our team at Green Leaf and Taylor have taken considerable pains in the name of productivity for this vault to be built, and we hope very much that this will pay forward for them in some way.
We hope that the readers will forgive this small time delay… Is has been a rather challenging task for our team leadership to take on the final phases of design drawing, structural engineering calculation, materials testing, installation crew organization and training, Cooper-Hewitt museum communications, project budget management, final fabrication, materials preparation and delivery, tools assembly, and construction management. It has been A LOT of work, but nevertheless an extraordinary experience for design students to negotiate these diverse terrains from design through construction – with the accountability required for construction in a historic museum such as the Cooper-Hewitt.
With this disclaimer, in the following posts, I’d like to catch you up on the events of the last week. Eight months of preparation – material and constructional prototype testing, design and engineering iterations, specifications and construction sequence writing, communication with manufacturers, exhibition coordinators, production managers, engineers of record – have made this construction possible.