Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Manifesto of the Custom-made

How does material acquire value? This question has informed many of the explorations on this website. It is a difficult question because value can have so many meanings. Leaving the definition of value aside for a moment, we can say that material can have value in its substance and/or in its craft. Gold has value in its substance; even a pile of raw dust will be worth something. Many materials, however, have little or no value in their substance, and must be transformed and worked in some fashion. This transformation allows the material to become useful, beautiful, or ideally, both.
Due to efficiency and disinterest we often make generic products fit specific needs. Not many people stop to ask if their home, their furniture, or their clothes are actually what they want, or if they were simply the easiest to access or the best of the limited options. Think about it. Is your desk actually the right height for you? Is your chair the perfect fit for your body? Is the window where you would have put it? Our senses have been deadened by years of environments that are never quite right. So start noticing. Start realizing what you value.
And then realize that there are people around you who have the skills to make it happen. (If you haven't noticed that this is a not-so-subtle affirmation of the value of architects, here I will state it outright). Architects thrive on the particular (despite the efforts of some to become generic). They will take material and transform it into something that is useful and beautiful because it is specific to its place and its occupants.

This post was actually supposed to be about a sweater that a friend of mine knit for me. I am using it as an example of material that has acquired value through the way it has been worked and the way it has been specifically made for me. I value it more than other clothing because I have an intimate knowledge of the time and care that went into its execution.

Besides this knowledge, it is simply a better quality garment than most. It is thick and warm and beautifully detailed. It is the exact shade of green that I wanted. I wanted the fasteners to be carved out of wood, so I made my own toggle buttons. They are the shape, size, and colour that is right for me.
If we realize that the material that surrounds us every day- the surfaces, the objects, the textures- has a great effect on our well-being, we will value and seek out well-crafted environments that are tailored for us.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Art of Plywood

J'ai eu l'occasion de passer une semaine à Montréal. Ayant déjà visité plusieurs fois la ville, je tentais cette fois de découvrir un peu son côté industriel en visitant une usine de contreplaqué. Ce qui m'étonnait c'était la quantité de main-d'oeuvre nécéssaire. Chaque étape du procès reqiert une inspection visuelle et qualitative, qui ne s'effectue que par des oeils humains. Malgré l'automatisation et l'optimisation qui existe dans n'importe quelle usine, je dirais que la fabrication du contreplaqué est plutôt un art qu'un procès industriel.

Je n'avais pas le droit de prendre des photos. J'ai alors tenté de faire des petites illustrations pour que vous pouvez comprendre les étapes, mais je ne vante surtout pas mes abilités de dessin...

Les billots qui arrivent à l'usine sont coupés pour faire des longueurs d'exactement neuf pieds. Ils sont cuits à la vapeur pour 24 heures pour qu'ils sont saturés d'eau. Ensuite, ils sont écorcés grossièrement avec l'écorceur automatique. L'écorçage est fini à la main, je crois pour éviter trop de gaspillage.

Ensuite, les billots nus sont déroulés à la vapeur pour assurer la flexibilité du placage. Je pense toujours d'un taille-crayons énorme. Le placage est roulé sur des bobines. Le coeur du billot qui ne peut plus être déroulé est coupé en planches pour faire les pallets qui vont transporter les plaques.

Le placage est déroulé et coupé en fonction des imperfections dans le bois. Une personne fait opérer une lame qui peut couper soit la largeur ordinaire de 36 pouces, soit des feuilles moins large. Les morceaux rejetés et toute autre sciure sont récupérés pour alimenter la chaudière à bois qui fournit la vapeur.

Les feuilles sont triés par deux personnes qui les empile en fonction de leur largeur et de leur qualité.

Les feuilles qui ont une largeur inférieur à 36 pouces sont collés ensemble ("book-matched") pour faire des feuilles d'une taille normale.

Après que la colle (PVA) est appliqué par rouleau automatique, le placage est placé sur les plaques de OSB ou de MDF. Les plaques collés sont mis dans une presse pour deux minutes.

La plaque est inspecté des deux côtés. Les endroits qui manquent un peu de placage sont remplis avec de la pâte à bois.

Les plaques sont emballés pour le transport. L'usine travaillait surtout avec le bois d'érable et de merisier, mais parfois avec d'autres essences.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Fire

It works. I feel like the cave person who discovered fire. After all these months, now I finally see it come together.
One of the decisions I made recently was to have a stovepipe instead of a brick chimney. I am very glad I did. The black metal contrasts nicely with the brick and it leaves the point open for the view to the field.
The other part I am working on is the door to the fireplace. Here I have it in place, but it fell apart when I tried to lift it back. 
What you can't see from the photo is the smoke coming out of the chimney. It draws the air through, under the floor. I spotted some small smoke leaks but I can fix those with mortar.
Next step- sleep in it! It has been so warm here these days that I barely need the fire though.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Practice makes...

Do something 1300 times, and you will definitely do it differently at the end than at the beginning. I just picked up a brick from my very first batch in July 2012 and compared it with the last batch I made a couple weeks ago. The difference in quality is amazing.
I learned, as I was making, how best to scrape the mold so the edge stayed crisp. I learned how to use sand sparingly but effectively to keep the clay from sticking. I learned not to put so much sand in the mix, because the less sand, the stronger the brick. I learned to pack the mold so that the sides come out smooth and even. The latest bricks are still not perfect, but they are many times better than before.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Break from Brick

I was recently at a symposium on "The Meaning of Concrete". During the introduction, an excerpt from Peter Schjeldahl's book Columns and Catalogues was shown:

Concrete is the most careless, promiscuous stuff until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant. Liquid rock, concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care. It doesn't care about anything, lazy and in love with gravity but only half in love [...] Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is a slut, a gigolo, of materials. Every other material - wood, clay, metal, even plastic - has self-respect, a limit to what it will suffer to have done with it, and at the same time is responsive within that limit, supple in the ways it consents to be used. Not concrete.

I'm not sure if this is actually true or if the author is simply indulging in metaphor... I've found that the amount of water and the nature of aggregate can change the behaviour of concrete dramatically. However, if the formwork and the aggregates are chosen so that they complement each other, concrete can take on unlimited disguises. For instance, it can look like lace:

These prefabricated panels at Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery were quite amazing in their detail and texture. Although I think the most amazing part would be to see the molds that made these panels. For concrete, the most effort is put into the things that will never be seen.

At the Lloyd's Building in London, the concrete is detailed like steel, with connection pieces and bolt holes:

And at the National Theatre in London, the rough shuttering boards used for the formwork create long horizontal patterns in the poured concrete. From a distance, the imperfections in the boards and pouring create an effect almost like geological strata.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I vacuumed (or Hoovered, as they say here) the floor today, and it is looking a bit cleaner. My entire construction site is a big mess. Mon chantier est un bordel, as they say in French. But there was some really nice sun today. You can see it peeking through the gaps in in the photo above.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sketch Modelling

When I work on design projects, I normally rely heavily on physical modelling to test design ideas. With this project, the model is scale 1:1...

I was trying to figure out the end of the floor. I knew I wanted it to be higher in the middle, where the fireplace door is going to be. I tried first the bricks laid simply in common bond:
After stepping back and looking at it for a bit, I decided that the 'bowtie' orientation just wasn't doing it for me. As well, the joint from the end to the floor pattern becomes a problem. 
I knocked the wall down and tried them in the other orientation:
I was then trying to figure out the rest of the floor, when I realized that the best solution for the end would actually be to use the pillar design I had developed for the floor.
For the floor, the pillars are offset in plan (right), which allows them to lock together. If I instead offset them in elevation (left), they also lock together. It just doesn't work if they are offset in both plan and elevation. I would have to reverse the order of the pillars ( + and not I). 

I was glad to discover this trick of the geometry- another thing this brick can do! For the actual aesthetic of the end, though, I wasn't too sure about the height of the stepped assembly. It seemed extra high. Eventually, though, I decided that since it is serving the purpose of a third wall, the height is necessary. It encloses the sleeping space more. I just have to get used to seeing it like that.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Skewed bridge

 I went biking to High Wycombe and en route there is a really amazing brick arch bridge. The train line and the road cross at a non-right angle. To solve the geometry, the builders built a series of straight vaults, each offset slightly with respect to its neighbours.

The brickwork is also really interesting- lots of different bonding patterns.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Design of Floor

For the floor system I had found a way of using the 'belly' of the brick to make bridges between pillars of 3. In the best cases, the brick just simply sits exactly where it needs to go, and all I have to do is fill in the gap with mortar. The wedge shape created between the vertical and horizontal bricks even allows me to fill in the mortar without using plugs from the underside. When it works, it works really well. It's hard to get the exact right spacing over the entire floor, though, so I often end up having to adjust the distances.

After I had thought of this, I thought of offsetting rows of these bridges to make diagonal channels through the floor. This also worked well, because a pillar is about the same length as a horizontal brick.

I came to a problem when I realized that all the channels need to reach the chimney somehow. I somehow needed to make bridges between channels. Another reason I wanted to get rid of some pillars was that I don't have too many bricks left.

Initially, I thought, why don't I just use three bricks end to end, and span them between two pillars like in the other case? Looking back now, I'm not sure why I thought that would be a good idea. Joining end to end is probably the weakest way to span, and I am not using the shape of the brick to my advantage. I thought I could use the resin to prefabricate these beams but the resin is not magic.

I finally decided to use pillars of half-bricks in some places. The shape of the halves means that they can be wedged in place between two pillars and still provide some sort of support for the horizontal bricks. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Floor, under construction

I've had to change the design of the floor slightly, but I have a system now that mostly works. I still need clay plugs sometimes. I'll write more about it later.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gap filling 102

I seem to be constantly trying to plug gaps between things. If I had to start over I would do many things differently, and one of them is to design the first two courses of the walls without gaps. That is where the hypocaust system is passing, and it would be kind of useless if all the hot air escaped through the walls. So instead I have to plug the holes. This time, I used pieces of broken bricks and tiles.

The bricks on these bottom courses are already looking weathered. I want to see what they're like in 100 years...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Roof to Wall 2

Should the intersection determine the layout of the wall? For Wall 2, I was interested in creating an interference pattern between the two layers. Maybe I should have made sure the number of bricks was the same as the roof, like I did for Wall 1. Instead, I found I had to make a flat surface before joining the roof to the wall, because the courses didn't line up. For this, I used some bricks sliced lengthwise before firing. Also, I used some half-bricks to finish the roof in the same pattern.

 When I was mortaring the sun came out and I realized that I liked the shadow line that I get on the roof bricks when the joint is slightly recessed. So I went back over them all again!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

And the vault stands!

Today was a moment of pride- I have succeeded in making a brick roof! I was only going to take a little bit of the formwork out, but then I realized that it was all loose anyways. I pulled it out amidst a shower of dried clay bits (the plugs I used). And a cloudy morning turned into a sunny afternoon, so it was a pretty good day.

and the
In the above photo you can see the test system for the hypocaust. Some of the prefabricated pillars are there.
The late afternoon sun comes through the wall.