Introduction: Architecture in the Making: Learn to Grow / Grow to Learn Facade Prototype

About: architect + educator

Designers: Taole Chen, Joshua Evans, Mallory Van Ness

This project is the product of an architecture design studio taught by Adam Marcus (Variable Projects) and Margaret Ikeda & Evan Jones (ASSEMBLY) at California College of the Arts Division of Architecture in spring, 2014. The studio, titled "Architecture In The Making," explored pragmatic opportunities for leveraging digital fabrication technologies in the design and construction of highly performative building facades. While developing proposals for a new building for REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California, the studio collaborated with the Autodesk / Instructables Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco to produce a series of full-scale building envelope prototypes. Fabricated from 18 ga. steel, these prototypes allowed the students to work at 1:1 scale and to develop a comprehensive understanding of performance, detailing, and assembly. (See this link for more information on the studio.)

This project, Learn To Grow: Grow To Learn, was designed by students Taole Chen, Joshua Evans, and Mallory Van Ness. It builds upon a one-week design exercise in which students designed a small farm stand structure in rural California. The purpose of the exercise was to explore how a building enclosure could be designed to address multiple functional requirements. (See this link for Taole, Joshua, and Mallory's Instructable for their farm stand project.)

Step 1: Building Design

This project connects students to broader community and ecological systems through the implementation of a complete horticultural system at a micro scale. By using the architecture itself as a pedagogical tool, students are immersed in the food culture that is prevalent throughout Berkeley. The horticultural program is interwoven with the daily cycle of student life through the use of growing "pods." These pods allow for interaction with plants at all stages of the growing process—from "germination" on the north side of the building, to "transition" on the south side of the building, and finally to "growth and reproduction" on the roof. By incorporating other systems throughout the building like drip irrigation and gray water filtration, students learn about new technologies while circulating throughout the building.

Step 2: Facade Design

The building envelope consists of a carefully designed steel screen with perforations and integrated bent panels that serve as an armature for this system, providing incubation and growth space for vegetation at a variety of scales. The size and shape of the perforations change according to the horticultural requirements and solar exposure throughout the building. The architecture becomes an ornate patchwork of student-made, modular, portable planters that may be sold and delivered to the community. Plants can also be used in the experimental kitchen within the school, to educate students about local, healthy food sources. As stewards and caretakers of the space, it is vital that the students are able to see all stages of the process—from water harvesting, to plant care, to cooking and food preparation.

Step 3: Fabrication Process

Three prototypes were produced in the development of the facade system. Each of these prototypes was fabricated on the Omax waterjet at the Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco. The process for each prototype included the following steps:

  1. Modeling of the parts in 3D software.
  2. Flattening / unrolling 3D geometry into a 2D line drawing.
  3. Export drawing as a DXF file.
  4. Complete toolpathing in the Omax Layout pathing software. Important considerations for these prototypes included making sure that the water jet (which has a thickness to it) was directed along the correct side of each cut line.
  5. Fabricate the parts using the Omax Make software.

The initial prototypes took direct inspiration from the paneling system developed in the initial farm stand project, which proposed three-dimensional hexagonal panels that would be fabricated from a single piece of sheet steel. While visually compelling, the geometry and folding became difficult to control with 18 gauge steel, so the subsequent prototypes involved a process of refinement and simplification. The final design echoes the original concept's hexagonal geometry, but it consists of single flaps that fold outwards from the panel to form both apertures and "shelves" for the planters to plug into. An important consideration during the toolpathing and waterjet fabrication process was to make sure that the jet cut on the correct side of the drawn lines, so that the folded tabs could connect properly.

Step 4: Assembly Process

The prototypes were all assembled at CCA's shop. The bends in the panels were made using both manually by hand (for the tabs) and with a press break (for the flanges). Standard steel unistrut framing was used for backup structure. The flanges incorporated a simple yet highly effective fastening technique, in which the top of each panel is fastened directly to the frame, and the bottom flange includes a vertical tab that slides directly into a slot cut into the panel below.

The assembly drawing above documents the assembly process both for the prototype and for a speculative installation on a building facade.

Step 5: Final Prototype

The final prototype measures 45"w x 54"h and was presented at the studio's final review on May 3, 2014 at CCA.