Yestermorrow Practicum Project - Post 3

How to smooth a surface composed of irregular triangular faces like this?

It's a problem that I hope to solve using hard paper mache. If I can find a mache that hardens to the right consistency then I should be able to work up a smoothly curving surface by covering the triangles with a varying thickness parge of mache. This surface would need to be covered in turn with a waterproof layer of some kind; shingles or a monolithic membrane are both possibilities.

I've been using cellulose insulation for the paper ingredient of the mache experiments. I started with cellulose that uses ammonium sulfate as a fire retardent, and it produces a very strong and hard mache. There are some potential issues with ammonium sulfate however, so I'm also experimenting with cellulose that uses borate as a retardent. My first experiments with the borate cellulose were disappointing. The mache did not dry to the same hard consistency I've been obtaining with the ammonium sulfate cellulose. I'm continuing to experiment but suspect there may be something about the borate which interferes with the mix hardening and cohering. I recently mixed up identical batches of mache with the excepttion that each has only one of the cellulose varieties. The mixtures take about a week to dry fully so I should have a better sense by the end of April whether the borate cellulose will work.

I use 32 oz. plastic yogurt containers as my measuring unit. In the following ingredient list "cup" refers to one of these containers. The mix below seems to consistently produce a strong hard mache when using the ammonium sulfate cellulose.

1 cup industrial hemp fiber cut to 1" to 2" lengths (loose) *
1 cup cellulose (packed)
1 cup water
1/2 cup joint compound
1/2 cup saw dust
1" (in the cup) of wood glue

*I've also used cut up Phragmites tufts. which seem to work just fine.

Here's a picture of my laboratory. Very high tech.

To give you a sense of the strength of the mache I took this picture of a piece of mache bridging between 2x4s and supporting my full 200+ lbs.

In the next picture you can see the thickness of the mache piece in the image above.

A hard stable strong mache has many possible uses in building construction. I think of it as being almost like moldable wood. Definitely an interesting material with potential. If you are doing any experiments with hard mache, or would like more information about my experiments, please get in touch!


Yestermorrow Practicum Project - Post 2

Last weekend I attended a welding class at The Steel Yard in Providence. The Steel Yard is kind of an urban version of Yestermorrow. They offer courses in metalworking, ceramics and jewelery. I hoped a welding course would help me make progress with my exploration of using steel for the hubs in my roofing framework. While I picked up a few ideas for hubs, the course, and the instructors, were not really geared to this problem. The lead instructor, Nora Rabins, did have some suggestions about using a mix of aluminum and steel. She also might be able to prototype some steel hubs if I need to do that down the road.

I did become much more familiar with steel and some of the tools available to work with this material which is so essential to our civilization. My favorite tool was a horizontal bandsaw steel cutter that is probably older than me. It was quiet, simple, slow and very effective. 

MIG welding, once you get the hang of it, is quite enjoyable. Most of Saturday was spent receiving instructions and demonstrations about how to use welding, cutting and grinding tools. On Sunday we started off with a project in which we split into two groups and each group had to build half of a bridge that would eventually connect to the other group's half. It was a chance to brainstorm how to connect various shapes of steel and lots of practice with the MIG welders. We collectively produced a delightfully funky structure.

After going through a bit of a funk on Saturday when I realized that I was not going to be able to prototype a steel hub, as the materials to do this just weren't available, I hit on the idea of producing a logo for my organically curved roofing system. I used my iPad and the Paper app to draw the shape I wanted, then rummaged through the available steel inventory for the pieces I'd need.

On Sunday, after we finished the bridge, I used the bandsaw to cut the pieces I needed and then spent some time with a wire brush removing rust from the base plate. I was planning on using the Oxy-Acetylene torch to heat up the bar I needed to curve for the roof line element, but Mark, the class TA, showed me how to bend the piece using a simple bending jig. After I'd bent the roof piece into something like the shape I wanted (I had a limited amount of time before we had to drive back to New York) it took only a few minutes to weld everything together with the MIG. For a first attempt I think it turned out reasonably well.

Yestermorrow Practicum Project - Post 1

This is the first post documenting design efforts related to my Yestermorrow practicum project process; which must be completed by September 7th. The outcome of the process will be a complete set of buildable plans for a small curved-roof studio. The project proposal is available here. An earlier, more visual version, is available here.

I've been doing some preliminary sketches of the type of building form I'm trying to achieve.

With this project I hope to make a small contribution toward bringing to residential architecture a design vocabulary similar to that revolutionizing commercial and institutional architecture.

I've arrived where I am in the design process through the help of many considerate and knowledgeable people. I hope if you have thoughts or suggestions about this project you will share them. Comments are most welcome!


Information Technology in Schools? Yet again...

The New York Times ran an article titled "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute" on the front page of Sunday's paper. The first picture below, accompanied the story, and was also on the front page. The second picture is explained in my comments, also below.

Will RichardsonJonathan Martin, and Ira Socol all wrote good rebuttals to the article in their blogs.

I wrote a short comment in response to Richardson's post, then a longer one prompted by a comment by Paul Thomas.

Loved the picture of the girl lying on the desks engrossed in her book. Would it really have made any difference if she was reading from a kindle and not a paper book? No. What was great was that she was clearly enjoying what she was reading and that the school was cool with her lying on the desks.

The big flaw in the school's mindset, and the author's, is not being clear that books, pens, pencils, desks, blackboards, chalk, lights, etc.. are all technologies. They are all, like computers, human inventions. 

Plato thought writing would destroy thinking. I suspect he was just uncomfortable with a new technology and rationalized an argument to avoid overcoming his discomfort.

Technologies of any kind don't make or break a great school. It's what's done with the stuff that matters.

Time showed Plato was wrong. Time will also show the no computers approach is wrong.


Back when chalkboards were the new technology many felt about them the way you do about interactive whiteboards. I like Alan Kay's thought related to this. "Technology is anything invented after you were born, everything else is just stuff." There is a natural human tendency to feel the stuff that was around when we were young is more legitimate than the technology that came later. 

Steve Jobs touched on this in his Stanford commencement address.

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

Yes, Capitalism promotes creative destruction, and Jobs embraced that ethic, but really, what's the alternative? Become Amish? Choose some random period of time and lock that time's technology in place?

I'm all for curbing rampant commercialism, forcing corporations to be responsible for recycling the products they sell, and schools making decisions about new technology thoughtfully and carefully. Having been the director of technology at a K-12 school for many years I know that it's impossible to always make the right call on new technologies. (My biggest goof was buying twenty Apple eMates.) I also know that experimentation is absolutely necessary, and that when you experiment you make mistakes, but that's not a bad thing, it's called learning.

One could argue that experimenting with technology is expensive, and may crowd out expenditures on tried and true technologies. This is not what I've experienced in my almost 30 years working in independent schools. In fact, as information technology has become more powerful I've seen the more traditionalist oriented educators become strong advocates of computers. 

Automating library card catalogs made it easy for librarians to see which books -year after year- aren't circulating. It turns out there are a lot of them sitting on the shelves gathering dust. This has caused school librarians to wonder if their role is to shelter unused books or is it to help students find and evaluate the information they need.

An ancestor of mine was a very successful clipper ship builder in East Boston. His firm wasn't able to make the transition from sail to steam driven ships. One could say they failed to see that they were in the boat building business, not the sail-driven wooden boat building business.

We can make the same mistake today, and fail to see that schools are in the education business, not the book, blackboard, pen and paper education business.

Iterating Towards a Solution

I've been going through a frustrating phase with the curved-roof prototyping project, but had an insight today having to do with fractals and recursion. One of the challenges involves supporting a roof membrane with a triangular irregular network (TIN) structure. Adding smaller triangular structures on top of the larger triangular structures may provide one solution. 

This is just one of many, many problems that need to be resolved, but having a possible solution gives me encouragement to soldier on.

Now if I could only get some help making these.

We would be well on our way to making these.

What I Learned about the Wealthy from "The Philadelphia Story"

The Philadelphia Story was released in 1940, near the start of World War 2. The country was trying to pull together to face the combined threats of the Axis powers. George Cukor, it seems to me, directed the movie to imply the wealthy really aren't that different from you and me, in fact they are, like the Cary Grant character's boat, kinda yar.

Coming to the movie with a different lens, here are some of my takeaways.

The wealthy live in nice houses.

They like to throw big parties.

They wear expensive clothes.

They have lots of help for their favorite activities.

They like to drink... a lot!

They are obsessed with social status.

They are lecherous.

They and their minions keep a very close watch on their wealth.

They love their boats.

They tend to marry each other.

The press is obsessed with them.

Excess wealth exacts a price on all of us, the wealthy too.


Vermont Calling

There is vast power in megalopolis. I live in the heart of it, and for the past 27 years worked in an institution that caters to its masters, or perhaps more accurately, caters to those who have done masterfully within its confines. This institution has lots of people whose success to date has made them as supremely confident, arrogant and perhaps as wrong as Alan Greenspan.

I have tremendous admiration for a different group of people who are laboring in the belly of the beast; those folks (mostly young) who have gathered at the very core of megalopolis to protest against the massive distortion of civic life that we call Wall Street. They are challenging a power that can deploy thousands of people, billions of dollars, and the full weight of the legal system against them. What do they have on their side? Potentially millions of people, people like you and me, thanks to the power of social networks.

So what does Vermont have to do with this? Part of me would like nothing better than to retreat to the periphery of megalopolis, find some kindred spirits, and work on building sustainable communities. Another part of me wonders if that isn't a cop out. If we let inequality, and the power of corporations, grow unchecked then Vermont will sooner or later be no haven.

I suspect the time is coming when many of us will have to take a stand for what we believe. Isn't that the price of being a citizen in a democracy?




Yestermorrow Reflections

I returned home a couple of days ago from an intensive three week course at Yestermorrow. The course's title is Ecological Design in the Built Environment and looks at a locality through the lenses of permaculture, planning and architecture.

The first week we studied the principles of permaculture and performed a site analysis of Irasville, which is a small commercial development just south of Waitsfield, Vermont. 

In the second week we shifted to a planning focus. With the help of the analysis performed the first week we created master plans for the future development of Irasville. These were critiqued at the end of the second week by the teachers and three guests from the area. I now understand why structured critiques are part of the design process. If done right they are incredibly valuable tools for getting feedback and moving the design forward on its winding iterative path to implementation.

Each person on the planning team was responsible for fleshing out a section of the site plan. Nothing too detailed, just some massing studies, plan and section views. I worked on some multifamily housing with the look of a vernacular farm house connected back to a barn via a series of small structures.

The final week focused on architecture with each of the students in the class getting to design a building of their choice from the second week's site plan. Rather than flesh out the farmhouse idea I decided to work on a library located on the village green. A major focus throughout the course was on building and living sustainably, so a lot of my effort in designing the library was to create a superinsulated building that would tread lightly in its use of resources. In terms of design I tried to stay close to the greek revival style that characterizes a lot of the local vernacular buildings.

I was the only student in the course who made extensive use of SketchUp, and was able to develop my design to a much greater extent than the others, who were using rulers, pencils and tracing paper. During the critque of my plan Jeff Schoellkopf, a local architect who was the lead instructor during weeks two and three, brought up the idea that perhaps in future classes all drafting should be done in SketchUp, or a combination of SketchUp with hand drawing enhancements. As someone who believes computers can empower people I believe this would be a good direction for Yestermorrow to head, provided they do it thoughtfully.

I was lucky to have a couple of older guys in the class who are also doing their own versions of gap years. Doug and Deron, if you happen to read this, know that you both played a big role in helping to make the experience valuable for me. Hope I helped serve the same role for you. The other students in the course were great too; an interesting mix of ages and backgrounds. 

Keith GiamportoneGiocondo Susini, Ed Lowans, Bob WhiteMark Krawczyk and Lisa DePiano were the other instructors and were all incredibly knowledgeable and supportive. John Connell (the founder of Yestermorrow) was a reviewer for some of the final crits and provided some great feedback.

The support staff, cooks (aka chefs), and interns were also great. All-in-all a fantastic experience which I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.

Thanks Yestermorrow!