HCDE 451: Final Project

Anna Schmitz
Dec 9, 2019 · 8 min read

We conclude the HCDE 451 class with one last assignment — a culmination of all of the prototyping methods we’ve learned throughout the quarter. Students were able to choose which methods to use here, as seen fit for the technology they would like to prototype. I planned to work alone for this project, so I needed two methods to use here. But firstly, I needed a concept to prototype.

I began thinking about useful objects and tools for my passion projects — my favorite thing to create for. In the past, I 3D-printed parts for my own 3D printer and nailed together organizers for my plethora of foam-core tools. I began to then think about my minor in Architecture. What could I make that would be useful for my minor?

In my Architectural Structures class (ARCH 320), we discussed how most skyscrapers are built to be extremely permanent, with most expected to stay standing for hundreds of years. However, parts of the building can break, businesses move in and out, there’s a little wear-and-tear, and the needs of society change. There are several reasons why some buildings must simply just need to be torn down. However, such demolitions are hazardous, costly, and leave no trace of the original behind. I began to imagine a design prompt: can we design skyscrapers that are meant to be torn down?

CityLab: Appetite for Deconstruction. “To battle blight, builders must imagine at the beginning of a structure’s life what will happen at the end of it.”

I’d imagine teaching this concept to Architecture students as part of their curriculum would be incredibly valuable. It might change the nature of what structures are meant to be. To fully convey the possibilities and necessity of this idea, I knew that a simple graphic or lecture wouldn’t send my point across. Instead, I could use my newly-learned HCDE prototyping methods to create something informative about semi-permanent skyscrapers.

So, I imagined this prototype in a very literal way — a model building. The parts would all be modular. Each part would have its own purpose, so students could swap them in and out as they see fit or according to a design scenario. This hands-on proof-of-concept should surely cement in students’ heads the value of swapping entire building sections in and out. For my prototyping methods, I settled on laser-cutting the sides from 1/2" birch wood, and 3D printing the roof from PLA filament.

Oh, and its name? I’ll call it Table Truss — a catchy title that any Architecture student should recognize. (A truss is a triangular pattern formed by beams of wood or steel in buildings, a common term in the industry. It can also be used to just refer to how a building is assembled.)

Before excitedly running away with my new concept, I reeled myself back into HCDE World, and planned how I would evaluate it. I chose to evaluate the desirability and usability of Table Truss. Firstly, there would be no point to creating this if Architecture students didn’t want to use it, which is why I selected desirability. They make models for themselves all the time, but this one should behave like a tool rather than an iteration of an existing concept. Secondly, it should be easy to handle and useful, which is why I selected usability. It should be accessible within the design process, quick to use and simple to demonstrate a point.

Images of initial design stages. Left: sketch of some parts of Table Truss. Right: CAD modeling of one side of the building in Autodesk Inventor.

I got started by sketching, but only a little bit. Each of these parts would have to refer to a base pattern so they would fit easily together, which I laid out on paper for reference. After that, I took to the computer, creating parts in Autodesk Inventor, my most familiar CAD software. This helped me work far more quickly. Each part had to be unique with an interesting pattern and sketching all of them out would have been very time-consuming. When I finished every part, they were ready for the laser and 3D printer.

Video of laser-cutting process for body panels of Table Truss

The assembly process took a bit more time than cutting and printing the parts. For the wood panels, I saved the scrap “cut-out” material from the laser and instead used them like decorations or bricks, giving the panels a bit more life and realism. These parts were wood-glued and left to dry overnight.

Assembly of the wooden panels for the body of Table Truss

Finally, the parts were ready to go. From my first test-run of its usability, I practiced sliding each of the parts together in different orders and configurations. Users would be expected to recognize that each part has “tabs” underneath it, enabling each to slide into a likewise-sized gap in another part. These gaps appear in the base of the structure as well. Users can vertically or horizontally slide parts together, and rearrange them however they see fit.

It seemed that most parts fit together nicely, though some were tougher to work with than others. After talking with one of the makerspace staff, he informed me that it’s not uncommon for parts from the laser cutter to have “tight tolerances”. This means that parts that should fit together easily might feel a little more snug than expected. I would keep this in mind for future iterations. Overall, I felt the result looked robust and polished, and was eager to test it with a few of my classmates.

Final assembly of Table Truss

To evaluate the desirability of Table Truss, I took to my Architectural Structures class, snagging classmates aside as they left lecture (in total, 5 people). I introduced the concept and its intended purpose, and had them try playing with the parts. I wrote down qualitative notes of how they used it and what they thought of it, paying close attention to if they find it desirable and feasible, my evaluation goals.

Most were surprised and excited, with a common response being “I get it!” and “Oh, that’s how it works. I might use that idea later on.” They typically took a section and flipped it in their hands several times to get a good look around it, then began to notice the pattern of tabs on the bottom of the parts. After slipping one part into the base, they would usually say “Oh, I see holes up here too. I think I can put another part up there,” and subsequently reach for another part. Some outliers were a student who wanted to peels the panels apart. Another wanted scale figures to play with. And more frequently than I thought, quite a few people asked “What does this section do?”

In Architecture language, they’re asking what the function of each section would be. One person asked “Is this part a condo? A business? I can’t really tell.” It seemed to be that the intent of each section was not clear enough. My original intent was for the shortest piece to be a greenhouse, the tallest piece to be a business, and middle piece to be an apartment complex. There weren’t enough clues or context to provide students with that. When I asked if they would use this tool in the design process, many students answered between “Maybe” and “I think so”. After asking why, they responded that it seemed useful when I spelled out its purpose for them, but they would have to be in the flow of a project to really see if it would help them or not. For at least three people, they said the demonstration was “enough to start thinking about creating buildings like this in other projects”.

Over, I believe I’ve set up a successful jumping-off point for Table Truss. With a little explanation, it seems my target audience is interested but not yet completely sold. To make this concept more desirable, I would need to experiment with creating obvious design scenarios, prompting a student to use it with a goal in mind. I would also need to create more recognizable marks to distinguish the purpose of one part from the other. That way students might think about advantages of placing (for example) the greenhouse above the apartments, and vice versa. The usability of Table Truss succeeded, with only about four “errors” committed by two people.

In the future, I think my prototyping project dove a little too quickly into the “creation” part of the design process without doing adequate research beforehand. If I could have observed other Architecture students using their own hand-made models and identify common themes between them, I might have created a new form or pattern for Table Truss. This project reminds me of the importance of research in design, so matter how grueling and tedious it can sometimes feel! It truly prioritizes the needs of the human above all else and saves lots of time creating additional prototypes.

I would also have liked to create more 3D printed parts aside from the top of the tower. I only created one because the print time for one roof was 18 hours, and I didn’t have enough time to create a second. In a future iteration, I’d plan for this delay and create many more roof designs. Furthermore, I realize that I only had three building sections to play with. This was because of the cost and volume of resources of the wood used to construct them. I designed each wood panel to be 1/2" thick, but the wood available at the makerspace was 1/4" thick. This meant I essentially had to duplicate each part and glue them together. While I’m still satisfied with my end result, I wish I could have foreseen this challenge. In the future, I’d be more mindful of the materials I buy and gather enough of it to make many more tower parts.

Overall, I’m more than pleased with my result for this project. I’d like to thank Prof. Andy Davidson and Michael Beach for their great instruction in the class, and UW’s CoMotion for allowing us to use their makerspace.

    Anna Schmitz

    Written by

    Human-Centered Design + Engineering at University of Washington. A relentless creator, musician, and reinvisioner of a better world.

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