Friday, 1 March 2013

Concrete Couch

I covered this project in extensive 'how to' detail over at Instructables. So here I'll just give an overview and cover some different aspects.

This project started out as a competition created by the University of Brighton Architecture Society.
You can read more about the scope and intention of the project on the University's website. As well as everyone who worked on it.

I did enter the competition myself, but being a first year I only made it through one round of judging. The final design came from a third year and consisted of stacked concrete blocks to create modular seating. 

The actual build took place over the summer. I joined the build team and our first job was finalising the design.

We decide to add lugs to more securely seat one block on another. We took our inspiration from how Romans used to join columns together. However our early prototype looks more like a lego brick.

This is still one of my favourite things I've ever made from concrete.

On that note this was a prototype created by the other team (attempting to make a chair by filling a large bag with concrete).

It was a beautiful object, like a concrete pillow, impossibly smooth for something so hard. A quality which, unfortunately, they were unable to recreate in the full-sized chair.

From our prototype we adjusted the design to have four lugs on top and to make them square.

We made a mould out of plywood. The construction of the moulds is actually pretty complicated, gluing together strips of wood that are chamfered so that we created the right shape for the lugs. The Instructable has more on all that, but I quite liked these diagrams I put together.

This is the first brick we pulled out of the mould.

A little rough, but we checked it over, made another to make sure they fit together and finally decided to add some lugs to the sides to help them all lock together.
The lugs are centered, if we had offset them we would have been able to overlap the bricks when stacking (like with traditional brick laying, or LEGO) but we intentionally constrained it to direct stacking, in line with the original concept drawings.
Although, by this time, I felt we had taken ownership of the project, the original designer was unable to join the build so we'd collectively made all the development decisions. The identity of the bricks themselves was totally different (originally they had been conceived with holes so they would thread onto scaffold poles inserted in the ground)

Then it was into production mode.

We cut a stack of plywood on a table saw them began gluing all the panels together.

Eventually we had a pile of panels ready to be assembled into boxes.

We had enough moulds to produce 5 bricks at a time.

We tried a bunch of different techniques to make the blocks more interesting, one of the best was simply hot gluing leaves inside the mould before pouring.
Other techniques included burning the mould, and hot glueing lines inside.

We poured 5 blocks at a time. Over a period of a few weeks we came in, broke down the moulds, cleaned them, reassembled them and cast 5 more bricks, then left them 3-4 days to cure. This method is known as batch production and we were able to make around 30 bricks this way. 

The final job was hefting all the bricks down to the garden so we could set them up.

 As seating they're fine for up to about an hour, which is plenty of time for lunch or a quick break. 

This was a fun project and I learnt a lot. Concrete's a really fun material when you give it a chance, we didn't even scratch the surface of the cool finishes you can achieve.

One of the main lessons though was how many issues you have to deal with in 'live' projects, designing stuff is easy, but the number of revisions and compromises you have to make when thinking about actually making it are what end up informing the design more than anything else.

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