Here is The Tech’s full interview with the Master of Architecture students behind the Kerf Pavilion.
The Tech: What is the concept behind this project?
Tyler Crain: We were given the task to design a temporary pavilion structure that would address an architectural fabrication problem in a new way. When we sat down and discussed ideas, we agreed that it should be something that would generate some physical interaction with people, and that we should work with a traditional material in a new production method. In the fabrication process of furniture and other small-scale products techniques such as vacuum forming, steaming, lamination and mold-making are common. We were looking at simpler, less labor-intensive ways of forming this natural composite. Kerfing is a common technique for bending plywood that has been used in many industries for years. It involves the removal of material at points where a radius is desired (typically run over a table saw with a shallow depth). We were able to utilize tools that would scribe precisely calibrated radial dash patterns in a way that could convert flat sheets into something spatial and regain strength through the assembly. We tested and calculated every parameter we could in order to find the point where the plywood would close onto itself (forming those teardrop patterns) and form what is essentially a conically extruded arch. It was a combination of our goal for a seating/shading structure and the fabrication limitations (such as wood grain, sheet size, etc.) that informed the final geometry of the parts.
TT: From conception to final product, can you estimate how many hours the team spent on the project?
TT: Oh plenty…My rough, ballpark estimate is just over 1000 hours with all four members combined. We began in late January and developed the project over the course of the semester, working well into the first third of the summer. There were many iterations of the scheme, eventually accumulating into about 10 gigabytes worth of drawings and photos. By the time we really got into production mode we had developed a detailed parametric model to help us fine-tune everything down to the boltholes, material thickness, and puzzle-piece joints in our largest parts.
TT: Can you list all the materials, tools, and technology that were used in the process?
TC: Materials included top quality 1/2″ baltic birch plywood, hot-rolled mild steel (16 gauge for unit ties, 11 gauge for footings), paint, aluminum earth anchors, and 1 coat of wood sealer. The main physical tools used were the CNC router and waterjet in the architecture shops. Software tools included Rhinoceros, Grasshopper, and MasterCAM.
TT: Why is the Kerf Pavilion unlike any other space on campus? What was your goal for how the community should experience it?
TC: I think our goal of how people should use it is exactly how people are using it. Perhaps sometimes they are not quite sure what it is or why it is there, but in the end, they’re naturally going to sit on it, play board games on it, eat lunch, read, and climb on it (some neglect to read the sign). I think that line of dirt in the otherwise grassy courtyard can say a lot about the project’s value. As for comparing it to other spaces on campus, I would simply say that it is a much more intimate, quiet moment within a vast majority of much larger, louder spaces on campus.
TT: What does the Kerf Pavilion mean for the future of design and construction?
TC: I think our project speaks to a number of different topics to at least some degree, but the primary focus is on the possibilities of wood as a natural composite and alternative forming methods. There is a very lively discussion in the architecture world regarding the future of digital fabrication, emergent qualities, and material/part intelligence. The ultimate goal I think is to remake the way we make things. As architects, we are responsible for an enormous amount of resource distribution and it is crucial that we get a little more intelligent about the way we design, manufacture, and construct. Although I am just skimming the surface, this is part of the reasoning behind the greater focus on fabrication in architecture in recent years. My hope is that the project will promote the embedded intelligence and speedy assembly of parts that can shape themselves, while working with renewable materials.
Brian Hoffer: Beyond the specifics material and expressive qualities of wood, our pavilion suggests an alternative future. A future where more expressive designs are affordable and buildable because of CAD/CAM technologies.
Chris Mackey: We found through our experience that we are not quite at the point of software capability where we can make any change to the geometry of an object and have all of the boltholes and kerf lines readjust. However, we found that we still had a lot of freedom and that we could make tweaks to, for example, the height of our structure or the width of seats and have all the final information output well. The ability to change and adapt the model to new criteria is a huge benefit that I think will only become more helpful in the future.
Dave Miranowski: The Kerf Pavilion project taught our group an important lesson on how technology, specifically the CNC Mill, can allow you to engage more closely with physical materials, breaking down notions of a divide between digital processes and the material world. Due to the controlled precision of the mill, we were able to run through rigorous physical tests to see how different Kerfing patterns affected the bending capabilities of the Baltic Birch plywood we used. Our research grew out of early studies during IAP where we radially Kerfed plywood samples and found how the orientation of the lines relative to the grain of the wood produced easy bending in some situations and cracks in others, where the Kerfing ran perpendicular to the wood grain. The radial kerfing, which is nearly impossible to do on manual tools such as the table saw, provided an interesting gradient of these failure conditions, which governed further iterations of our design. Later tests focused on how specific Kerfing patterns could allow the wood to bend without fully compromising its structural integrity. This was a challenge given that subtracting material from a plywood sheet naturally weakens it, but we developed a smooth feedback loop between the computer, the mill, and our hands, which we used to bend the material and gauge its material behavior, and ultimately produced a pattern where the gaps closed on each other and enabled the pieces to take some compression load. The Kerf Pavilion revealed to our group how the CNC can be an amazing tool for creating quick iterations with precise, subtle variations.