Reflections on prototyping Building Blocks

The primary purpose of our residency at SPACE10 was to explore how to build an architectural structure that would be suitable for future living — and to do so by examining the tension between old-fashioned craftsmanship and new production technologies.

We set out to design a building that could be manufactured locally, while remaining relevant globally. To that end, it needed to be standardized and adaptable — in other words, suitable for many contexts and uses.

We subsequently designed a structure that was flexible, simple and honest. And, in the last two months, we built the first prototype, in the Danish town of Stevns. Below we share the key takeaways from the process.

The purpose of the prototype

The main purpose of building the prototype was to test the joinery, discover possible imperfections, and see how easy it was to create the structure. We also wanted to address one of our biggest challenges: building with plywood — perhaps the most obvious building material today — in a damp country such as Denmark.

What we learned

After we cut out the necessary parts using a CNC-machine and then laminated them, we were able to build the structure very quickly, thanks to the simplicity of the construction. In other words, we succeeded in making a structure that was easy to assemble. The parts clicked together easily — much like assembling a large piece of IKEA furniture — while mounting the façades was easy, too. We produced the facades out of plywood and used simple, one-layered glasses to make windows. Both were easily attached to the main structure. Furthermore, we think that many other materials could be used just as easily. In other words, we believe we’ve created a very flexible project that can be easily adapted to any climate or context.

Though we succeeded in building our prototype, the structure still needs to stand the test of time — and so ensuring its durability remains one of our biggest challenges. We’ve previously expressed concerns about building with plywood in damp conditions. To prevent rain from making contact with the glue and warping the plywood, we applied tar to all of the building’s outer surfaces. We hope this will make the building more durable and also expand the possibility of building with plywood in countries such as Denmark. In the meantime, we’re waiting for producers of sheet materials to make more sustainable, long lasting and accessible solutions — and hope that our project shows that there might be a market for that.

Three Tips for Future Builders

Having learned a few things about the Building Blocks prototype, we have the following advice for architects and builders planning to take the open source design and make their own version.

  1. Reduce the time that plywood parts are exposed to cold and damp conditions before starting construction, because they will expand and make it harder to fit together.
  2. Tar all of the individual parts before assembling the frame and the facade. This is not only easier to do, it ensures a more secure and thorough treatment of tar. Our mistake was to build the prototype by first putting together the frame, then inserting the facades, and finally tarring the entire structure.
  3. It saves lots of time if you attach the facade when you assemble the frame itself. We assembled the frame first, but because the angles of the frame went a bit off, it was more difficult to later insert the sheets used for the facade.

And a challenge…

Our prototype doesn’t drain water well because its horizontal parts lack an incline. Could other architects and builders take our open source design and find a solution to this problem?

Let’s take Building Blocks further

To sum up, we believe we made a strong architectonic project that met our goal of combining old-fashioned craftsmanship with modern production technologies — and showed that these two can go hand in hand.

Our prototype may be primitive, and still needs adjustments — such as to the horizontal aspects, where water doesn’t run out because there’s no incline — but it exists all the same: the first flexible open source CNC-built space, constructed in Denmark, and pushing the limits of how we build.

We now want to take it farther and test whether we can make a structure that’s applicable globally but able to be manufactured locally. The project is open source, free and out there now — so go ahead and request the files, build it, question it, refine it, hack it, share it. Let’s challenge the way we build now, and in the future.

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