Larger Than Life

DIGITAL DESIGN + ITERATIONS:

‘Larger Than Life’ at Greensboro Children’s Museum

Senior Honors Project – Spring 2012 – UNC Greensboro – Interior Architecture

Jeff Linn

 

INTRODUCTION

            Serving as the capstone project of my undergraduate degree, I worked with my fellow Interior Architecture students to undertake the design, construction, and installation of a permanent exhibit titled ‘Larger Than Life,’ at the Greensboro Children’s Museum.  The team consisted of eleven other students from both the undergraduate and graduate program, all under the instruction of Assistant Professor Jonathon Anderson.  Working in tandem with the IAR 560-565 Coded Design Studio, I set out to complete my senior honors project. This project was a semester long process based on three major parts: Advanced materials studies, Design Iteration and Presentation, and finally, Production and Instillation. Throughout the course of working on this project I encountered many challenges, but ultimately learned countless lessons along the way. This project will stand out not only as a shining achievement for my personal career, but continue to be used by and serve the community for years to come.


PHASE I: MATERIALS STUDIES

            In an effort to better inform the design of the installation, I embarked on an investigation of a family of materials including string, rope, and nets. The purpose of the investigation was to explore different types, sizes, and their uses. Identifying strengths and weaknesses that could then be applied to the actual design proved to be a necessary and informative exercise. Key strengths and weaknesses are shown below.

String/Rope Advantages String/Rope Disadvantages
–          Varying load capacity-          Relatively inexpensive-          Highly pliable-          Wide range of sizes-          High ease of connectivity-          Can be made rigid-          High strength to weight ratio-          Portable –          Highly pliable-          Typically requires tensioning for use-          Typically will knot, or snag easily

Once I identified how rope and string could be used, I set out to explore forms that could be created by the material in three dimensional space. In order to achieve this, I constructed a box frame of wood, lined

with screws that are anchored at a uniform spacing along the x, y, and z axis. With the three axis grid frame assembled, I used the screws as anchor points for the string and rope to create forms. This method also allowed me to identify an origin of symmetry, whereby I could mirror a net form, ultimately creating a unique woven net. Given the uniform nature of the space grid, this allows for forms that are created in the physical realm to easily be translated into a three dimensional digital model. Simply translating the anchor point patterns of the string along each axis in keeping with a relative scale will produce identical results. The process of weaving string or rope together creates nets, something we are all familiar with. I used a couple of net materials which were composed of strings woven at a uniform spacing to explore different forms. When tensioning the nets I discovered the ease of creating complex and dynamic forms by simply tensioning the material in different directions. The variety of complex geometry that can be achieved from a simple string grid was a compelling discovery in my research.  Looking forward, the development of this space frame anchor grid will no doubt prove useful in future explorations as well.

PHASE II: DESIGN ITERATION & PRESENTATION

            Building on the materials research gained in Phase I, the team began the design process. A few textbooks proved vital to the research which supported the design process. These books include MATTER, Emergent Technologies and Design, Installations by Architects: Experiments in Building and Design, and Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques.  The design phase began with a four day workshop lead by Professor Anderson, and visiting Architectural Designer, Nick Christopher. While all of the students involved are higher level design students, this project met us with a set of challenges the likes of which none of us had previously experienced. Largely there were three main factors that your average interior architecture student had not faced before. They included: 1) The project had an actual client who gave real feedback, (Greensboro Children’s Museum) 2) The project had to actually be constructed and installed, (on time and on budget,) and 3) The entire installation is for children, (a whole new scale, set of safety concerns, etc.)        Needless to say, we had out work cut out for us. The process began with choosing one of three possible sites at the Children’s Museum where the installation will exist. Once the site was chosen and the context was established, each person on the team began days of endless sketching of concepts for directions the project could potentially take. Naturally, the team produced a gamut of possibilities we could pursue.  It was Professor Anderson, and Nick Christopher’s role to check in periodically to help steer us away from approaching cliffs, and group together team members that were working in similar directions. My role within the design phase became that of producing ideas, sketches, and concepts along with everyone else. But also to recognize the importance of team morale, and to step up and take on the leadership role whenever things began to get stale.

Admittedly, this also resulted in my leading the team off a sizable cliff at one point. The team had arrived at a certain agreed upon design that consisted of a group of mound formations and a presence of over scaled grass blades. It was noted by Professor Anderson and Nick Christopher that the idea was close but needed refinement. When the team hit a creative wall and could not figure out how to proceed, I decided to step up and push the project in a completely new abstraction that involved over scaled creatures. It soon became obvious that this was an entire new design direction rather than an iteration of the previously established, good if only unrefined version.

The result was that the team had to back track to correct the mistake, and in many ways had wasted a lot of valuable time. No doubt I felt completely guilty for leading the team down the wrong road, but in hindsight, I feel that the failure actually produced perhaps the most valuable lesson of the design process which is; what iterative design actually is. Whereupon a designer is actually building on an idea with an extensive series of minor modifications until the desired result is achieved. My experience has usually been more of a, start from scratch every time approach.

Once a general design for the installation was agreed upon by the team, an informal on campus presentation to a few of Greensboro Children’s Museum staff took place. The staff members provided valuable feedback which changed some key elements of the initial proposal. Thus, once again we proceeded as designers do to keep refining and distilling the initial concept until it addressed all concerned raised by the client.  Phase II was wrapped up by finally agreeing on a design that is represented by multiple diagrams, models, and renderings. Once the presentation materials were assembled in the form of a series of five presentation boards and a 1”=1’ scale model, a formal presentation was made to the clients. With the client’s approval, encouragement, and excitement, the team felt comfortable calling the design, ‘done’ and moving forward into the construction phase.

PHASE III: CONSTRUCTION & INSTALLATION

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            With a design finalized the team was equal parts exhausted and enthused. We had arrived at a design we felt confidant was impressive and successful. Only now we sat looking at how much work we had laid out for ourselves to actually meet the deadline and stay within budget. However as I mentioned earlier, the team is made up of a solid crew of dedicated designers who do not know what it means to give up. And so we pressed on.

Capitalizing on the use of digital scale models, the team set out to determine exactly how we would approach, and what materials and methods would be used to build the installation. Different people had different tasks and responsibilities. The first step was to construct full scale mock-ups of the three major elements of the installation. Those elements include: the ground plane, the mounds, and the grass blades.  Once the mock-ups were completed, the head of facilities for the Children’s Museum paid us a visit to inspect our work. The team was ecstatic to find that he had full confidence in our chosen building methods and was very happy with the way we approached the construction.

With the client’s blessing on the construction method, it became our task to quantify exactly what it was that we were going to build in terms of materials. My role in this process was to take lead in sourcing some of the materials and utilizing the digital model to identify needed quantities of necessary materials. At this point we were in a numbers game. We had to ensure that we were accounting for the right amounts of each material, factoring in drop cuts and mistakes, all while staying within our budget. This job quoting process yielded some serious headaches, but ended up coming together the way it needed to. Once the team felt confidant we knew how much of what material to buy, (and that we could afford it,) we started purchasing and staging materials.

This is where the skills learned from my experience in the field as a production manager came into play. A large part of project management involves the ability to asses what skills people have and based on that, where they are going to be the most effective. While I was not calling the shots in the sense that I was telling everyone what to do, my role was one that I found myself helping orchestrate who was doing what, based on their individual aptitude. As the construction phase carried on, the team proceeded ahead of schedule in some areas, and lagged behind in others. An obvious learning curve became apparent with each new method that was implemented at full scale.

 CONCLUSION

            Naturally, like anything that has ever been designed and built, there have been some minor changes and tweaks along the way. However, Pathway Park at Greensboro Children’s Museum is a continued success in every way from conception to execution. There is an unseen value embedded in this project relevant to the educational aspect gained from the design team. Most likely, this embedded value will never be considered by its youthful users years from now, but this may very well prove to be evidence of the success of the project.  I would suggest that in some way, for the presence of the designer to never be obvious in the final is the one of the greatest success of all. If there is one lesson that I have learned from my experience in the Interior Architecture Department at UNCG, if would be the importance of the user experience. The user experience has been the #1 priority of the Larger than Life design and build process. Thus, I have no doubt that the Larger Than Life exhibit will become and remain a centerpiece at Greensboro Children’s Museum for years to come.

DESIGN TEAM

Claudia Aguilera Guardado, Abigail Buchanan, Ashley Dale, Jeff Linn, Christine Lumens, Dajana Nedic, Sharece Ramos, Daniel Salgado, Carlos Smith, Anna Will, and Weston Willard.

Additional thanks for supporting the project goes to:  University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Interior Architecture Department, Greensboro Children’s Museum, Jonathon Anderson,  Nick Christopher, and Matt Jones.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Michael Hensel, Achim Menges and Michael Weinstock. (2010). Emergent Technologies and Design. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gail Peter Borden and Michael Meredith. (2012). Matter, Material Processes in Architectural Production. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sarah Bonnemaison, Ronit Eisenbach. (2009). Installations by Architects: Experiments in Building and Design. Princeton Architectural Press.

Lisa Iwatomo. (2009). Digital Fabrications: Architectural and Material Techniques. Princeton Architectural Press.

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