Timothy Schmidt has an extensive background in electronic systems diagnostics and repair and has innovated within Open Hardware and desktop fabrication movements for over twenty years. Tim maintained the first version of the Mendel 3D printer in a Free Software CAD system, and founded the Michigan RepRap Users Group. Tim co-founded the Open Graphics Project, and participated in development of the first Open Hardware phones via OpenMoko. Tim has helped to 3D print human stem cells with lasers and consulted on the development of the 3D printer aboard the international space station. As partner in mUVe3D he helps produce the industry's most open and flexible SLA liquid resin 3D printers. Tim has co-founded and aided in the development of several community and maker spaces. For the last six years Tim has served as the Information Technologist of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University.
Following more than two years of research and development, the Danish art collective N55 has presented its modular cargo cycles: the two-wheeled XYZ Cargo Bike (90 kg loading capacity) and the three-wheeled XYZ Cargo Trike (150 kg loading capacity). The assembled versions sell online for about half the price of similar cargo cycles on the market. Because their design is open and modular, the XYZ Cargo Cycles are even cheaper to build yourself, and easy to customize.
Cargo cycles, on the other hand, could handle an important part of cargo traffic in cities, paving the way towards sustainable and free-flowing traffic, while at the same time offering important economic advantages to tradesmen, artisans and service providers. The open modular cargo cycles built by N55 in collaboration with designer/artist Till Wolfer combine all those benefits.
The market for cargo bikes is booming. This was the overall feeling at the International Cargo Bike Festival in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) and at the Berliner Fahrradschau in Germany this spring. The sales figures are skyrocketing and there is plenty of innovation going on.
A growing number of vehicles features an auxiliary electric motor, while many cargo trikes are now available with tilting mechanisms for fast cornering. Another innovation concerns the steering mechanism; several manufacturers have presented systems that obviate the need for a conventional fork, allowing for better control and increased cargo space.
Unfortunately, these innovative vehicles often come with a hefty price tag. The prettiest cargo cycles such as the Elian Cargo Bike (a racing version of a cargo bike with steering in the front hub), or the electrically assisted Butchers & Bicycles MK1 (with tilting mechanism) set you back at least four or five thousand euro ($ 5000 – $ 7000), without any options.
These cycles are well worth the money, but they are obviously not within reach of everybody. Less fancy cargo cycles still have minimum prices of around 2,500 euro ($ 3,500).
Modular Cargo Cycles
This is why the affordable XYZ Cargo Cycles deserve our special attention. The assembled versions of the XYZ Cargo Bike and XYZ Cargo Trike sell online for 1,350 euro and 1,600 euro, respectively ($ 1900 – $ 2,220), which is about half the price of similar cargo cycles on the market. However, the cycles are not less interesting or innovative, on the contrary. For example, they feature a revolutionary steering mechanism inspired by motorcycles, which increases the cargo space considerably.
The low price is largely due to the modular nature of the vehicles. The XYZ Cargo Cycles are not built in a traditional way. Unlike the singular load-bearing tube seen in conventional bike structures, the main structure is an orthogonal spaceframe of standard aluminum square tubes of varying lengths in which holes are drilled.
The spaceframe is based on XYZ Nodes, which is a modular construction system developed by N55. It builds upon an old, well-known principle of joining timber or steel struts together. Structurally, the connection system shares similarities with lashed joints used for example in the traditional wooden frames seen in inuit kayaks, or with rivet constructions such as airplane hulls or old ship hulls.
The XYZ Cargo Bike.
It’s a simple method of building light-weight things from durable materials in a low-cost way. XYZ Nodes forms rigid corners that become flexible when exposed to forces that would break other joining methods like a welded joint. The consequence is that it allows for rigid frames relying on corner connections that are not necessarily triangulated for greater strength, hereby leaving a free open space inside the frame. This made it possible to place gear wheels and chains within the frame, away from the users.
Easy to Build and Customize
The cargo cycles are open source concepts which you can modify yourself. The designs — including any new construction principle used in the system — and the XYZ construction and connection principle are open source provided under the rules of Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. Users are free to use available designs, as long as it is for non-commercial purposes and any use of the work includes proper credits.
This means that you can obtain the cycles even cheaper if you buy standard aluminium tubes and cycle parts, available all over the world, and build the cycle yourself. The frame is assembled using stainless steel bolts, washers and nuts. The assembling requires only simple hand-held, non-specialized tools, like a drill and a metal saw. No welding process is required.
Like all modular systems, XYZ nodes enable people to build things based on the principle of a few different parts repeatedly used to create an overall structure, similar to construction sets like Lego, Meccano and Erector. Because of the open and modular design, the XYZ Cargo Cycles are easy to customize and to rebuild. For example, a cover or a body to improve wind resistance and protect from the weather can be applied — turning the cargo cycle into a velomobile.
The modular XYZ Cargo Trike.
Several modules have been developed that can be put on top of the XYZ Cargo Trike to transform its functionality: a roof and table module, a passenger seat module, a kitchen module with table, roof and sink, and a platform module. The latter transforms the cargo cycle into a 1.5 x 3 m large movable space, while from a legal point of view remaining a bicycle. The platform module was used to create a ParkCycle Swarm, which empowers people to build an instant public park whenever and wherever they want to.
N55 is not a commercial enterprise, but a non-profit organization that aims to restore local production in a socially just and environmentally sustainable way. This is another reason for the modest prices. All the money earned with the sale of cycles will be invested in the further development of the technology. N55 gives away the building plans and offers the assembled bikes for a low price because they want to see as many of them on the road.
Available Models and Free Plans
The freshly opened webshop of XYZ Cargo offers two models for sale. The XYZ Cargo Bike weighs 26 kg and measures 245 x 56 x 105 cm (LxWxH), while the XYZ Cargo Trike weighs 34 kg and measures 208 x 94 x 105 cm (LxWxH). The cargo box of the Trike measures 55 x 80 cm and the plating is made of transparant Polycarbonate sheets. Both cargo models can be equipped with electric hub motors and batteries.
Two other vehicles have been produced, the XYZ One Seater (20 kg) and the XYZ Two Seater (34 kg). These pedal powered vehicles (with or without electric assist motor) are recumbent tricycles with one or two seats. The Two Seater can also be equipped with a cargo platform instead of a second seat. These cycles are not for sale, but the open designs are online at N55’s website. The XYZ One Seater’s construction drawings are available for download here and those for the XYZ Two Seater are here.
Reverting to traditional handicrafts is one way to sabotage the throwaway society. In this article, we discuss another possibility: the design of modular consumer products, whose parts and components could be re-used for the design of other products.
Initiatives like OpenStructures, Grid Beam, and Contraptor combine the modularity of systems like LEGO, Meccano and Erector with the collaborative power of digital success stories like Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress.
An economy based on the concept of re-use would not only bring important advantages in terms of sustainability, but would also save consumers money, speed up innovation, and take manufacturing out of the hands of multinationals.
A modular system unites the advantages of standardisation (as parts can be produced cheaply in large amounts) with the advantages of customisation (since a large diversity of unique objects can be made with relatively few parts). Modularity can be found to a greater or lesser extent in many products (like bicycles and computers) and systems (like trains and logistics), but the best examples of modular systems are toys: LEGO, Meccano, and Erector (which is now the brand name of Meccano in the US).
LEGO, Meccano and Erector are composed of relatively few elementary building blocks, which can be used to build various objects. The parts can then be disassembled and re-used to build something completely different. Apart from the elementary buildings blocks, these manufacturers have produced many more specific building blocks, which are less versatile, but further increase customisation possibilities.
All the building blocks in a set of LEGO, Meccano or Erector fit together because they are designed according to a set of specific rules. The holes (Meccano and Erector) or studs (LEGO) have a precise diameter and are spaced apart at specific distances. In addition, the dimensions of the building blocks are precisely matched to each other. The long lasting success of LEGO, Meccano and Erector (which appeared on the market in 1947, 1902 and 1911 respectively) is based on the fact that those rules have never changed. All new buildings blocks that were added in the course of the years are compatible with the existing ones. Today, kids can expand their collection of these toys with that of their parents or grandparents, and they are worth as much on the second hand market as they are worth new.
Grid Beam, Bit Beam, Open Beam, Maker Beam and Contraptor
The same principle could be applied to everyday objects, from coffeemakers to furniture, gadgets, cars and renewable energy systems. All you need is a standardisation in design. The design rules can be very simple, as is the case with Grid Beam. This modular construction system, which was developed in 1976, is based on beams with a simple geometry and a repetitive hole-pattern. The beams can be made of wood, aluminium, steel, or any other material.
In spite of the simplicity of the design, a great variety of objects can be constructed. Grid Beam has been used to make all kinds of furniture, greenhouses, constructions for workshops and industrial processes, windmills, wheelbarrows, agricultural machinery, vehicles, sheds and buildings (a book about the system was published in 2009, and can be found online). Grid Beam was inspired by a system envisioned by Ken Isaacs in the 1950s, Living Structures, which used similar beams but contained only a few holes.
In recent years, several systems have appeared that use a very similar set of rules, based on a repetitive hole pattern. Bit Beam is basically a scaled-down version of Grid Beam, aimed at building smaller structures in balsa-wood, like a laptop stand or a prototype device. Contraptor uses a similar approach, but is aimed at providing structural metal frames for DIY 3D-printers, milling machines, or robotics. OpenBeam and MakerBeam are also modular construction systems based on very simple rules. These are not based on a hole-pattern, but use T-slot aluminium profiles. Makeblock combines both approaches and includes electronic modules.
Most of these construction systems are limited to the design of frameworks. There is one system, however, that offers much more possibilities, because it is based on a more sophisticated set of rules: OpenStructures. The project was kicked off in Brussels in 2007. Unlike all the projects above, OpenStructures is still in an experimental phase. However, it is interesting enough to look at in more detail, because it best shows where modular construction systems may be headed in the future.
The first basic rule of OpenStructures is shared with Grid Beam and similar systems: all parts are connected to each other in such a way that they can be easily disassembled, using bolts and screws rather than nails or glue. However, the OpenStructures design “language” is different: it is based on the OS Grid, which is built around a square of 4×4 cm and is scalable. The squares can be further subdivided or put together to form larger squares, without losing inter-compatibility. The illustration below shows nine complete squares of each 4×4 cm put together.
The borders of the squares mark the cutting lines (which define the dimensions of square parts), the diagonals determine the assembly points, and the circles define the common diameters. As is the case with LEGO, any modular part has to comply with at least one of these conditions in order to be compatible with other parts. Either the dimensions have to correspond with the horizontal and vertical lines, or the assembly points should be spaced according to the grid, or the diameters should be similar. Below is a part that fulfills two of three conditions.
While this set of rules is more sophisticated than that of the Grid Beam system, complicated it is not. Nevertheless, it allows for the design of a much larger variety of objects, not just square or rectangular frames. Over the course of five years, OpenStructures has yielded objects ranging from household devices to cargo bicycles, suitcases and furniture.
Open versus Closed Modular Systems
In spite of the similarities, there is one fundamental difference between modular construction systems such as OpenStructures, Grid Beam and Contraptor, and modular toys such as LEGO, Meccano and Erector. The first group consists of “open” modular systems, where everyone is free to design and produce parts, while the second consists of “closed” modular systems, where all parts are designed and produced by one manufacturer. Closed modular systems produce uniform parts. For instance, all LEGO building blocks are made of plastic. LEGO does not produce building blocks made of wood, aluminium, glass or ceramics. There is a limited range of colours. And because LEGO is a closed system, nobody else is allowed to produce LEGO pieces.
There exist modular construction systems that operate according to the same principles, like the T-profiles made by 80/20 inc. However, in the modular construction systems that we have introduced above, everyone is allowed to design and produce parts, as long as these parts are compatible with the basic set of rules. We find the same approach with open software, like Linux (an operating system), OpenOffice (office software) or WordPress (a blogging platform). The computer code for these systems is being written by a large amount of people, who all build a part of something larger. Because all participants stick to a basic set of rules, a great amount of people can, independently of one another, add parts that are inter-compatible.
Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials
An open modular system has many advantages over a closed modular system. Since anyone can design parts in an open system, it generates a much larger diversity of parts: they can be made in different colours and materials, and none of the producers can set a fixed price for all consumers. And because many designers constantly review, adapt and improve each others’ work, innovation is accelerated. All open software systems described above are arguably better than their closed counterparts, and some of them have become more successful. A closed modular system only has one advantage: the one who holds the copyright makes a lot of money.
Sustainable Consumer Goods
Modular construction systems encourage the re-use of physical parts, and thus form a sustainable alternative to our present-day system of producing consumer items. Most products that we buy end up in landfills or incinerators within a couple of years, at most. This is because the majority of manufacturers encourages consumers to replace their products as quickly as possible, either by designing objects that break down easily, or by introducing new generations of products which make the former generation of products obsolete. This approach not only generates a massive pile of waste, it squanders an equally massive amount of energy and raw materials.
Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different. Furthermore, modular objects have built-in repairability.
Open modular construction systems could greatly speed up the diffusion of low-technologies, such as pedal-powered machines, solar thermal collectors, velomobiles or cargo cycles. Building a windmill or a cargo bike goes much faster when using modular parts than when using carpentry or welding, and there is no need for expensive tools or special skills. Mistakes can be easily corrected — just unscrew the bolts and start again. It would also be interesting to see modular parts combined with an open hardware project such as the Global Village Construction Set, which generates many interesting designs but makes limited use of modularity.
Circulation of Parts
“While eBay provides a circulation of objects, and cradle-to-cradle provides a circulation of materials, modular construction systems provide a circulation of parts and components”, says Thomas Lommée, the creator of OpenStructures. “Our ambition is to create puzzles instead of static objects. The system should generate objects of which it is not entirely clear anymore who designed them. An object evolves as it is taken in hands by more designers.”
The kitchen appliances that were designed in the context of the project are good examples. A couple of parts were initially made for a coffee grinder, were then used, together with new parts, by another designer to build a coffeemaker. This appliance was then further developed into a water purification device by a third designer. The plastic bottle that served as a water container was replaced by a cut through glass bottle containing a clay filter. Thomas Lommée: “By adding or removing components, or by using them in a different manner, what you get is a family of objects”.
Another prototype that originated from the project, is a cargo cycle. The rear is a sawed through frame of a standard bicycle, the end of which is compatible with the OS Grid. This means that the front of the cycle can be built up in a modular way. Designer Jo Van Bostraeten used this opportunity to design both a cargo bicycle and a cargo tricycle (the latter is carrying a 3D-printer), and it doesn’t end there. Together with Lommée, he also constructed a modular motor block. The unit consists of an electric motor and wheels, on top of which a similar unit can be placed that holds a battery. Since the units are compatible with the OS Grid, they can be coupled to the front of the cargo cycle, resulting in a completely modular motorised cargo vehicle.
The latest “family” of objects to come out of the project is aimed at children. It is noteworthy that this collection arose from one component of the cargo cycle — the container. It is built up from modular parts that can be bolted together, and can thus be combined in different ways. A couple of designers got started with those parts, resulting in (among other things) a sled, a seat, a toy excavator, and a swing. When the child becomes an adolescent, the parts can be used to make a suitcase or a tool box, or become part of a cargo cycle that could make him or her some pocket money.
More interesting than the objects themselves, is their user support system. Grid Beam is obviously a product from the pre-internet age. Those who want to copy a design are encouraged to look at a picture of someone else’s creation and “count the holes”. OpenStructures, on the other hand, leans heavily on online user support. The re-use of parts is being facilitated by an online database that can be used in three ways.
A Modular Database
First, you can request an overview of all objects that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each object then shows you the parts and components from which it is made. Second, you can request an overview of all parts that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each of these shows you which components and objects they could serve. Third, you can request an overview of all components. The webpage for each component shows you their parts and the objects they can be used for.
Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products
The webpage for each part, component and object also gives additional information: the dimensions, the materials, the designer’s name, the licence and the order information. To add to this, all parts and components receive a serial number. This means that after a modular object is taken apart, the serial number of each part and component can be entered into the database to see what else can be made with it. Missing parts can be obtained via the database: either by ordering them online, by finding the address of a shop where they sell them, or by downloading the digital design and making them.
Not Everyone is a Designer
Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products. An object like a coffee maker or a workbench could be obtained in at least three ways. Firstly, the consumer can download the digital design and then assemble the object with parts that he or she buys, re-uses, or makes using a 3D-printer or laser cutter, whether at home or at a fab lab or tech shop. It can also happen in a more low-tech fashion, as is the case with Grid Beam: the consumer buys wood or metal beams, and drills the holes himself.
A second option is that a company buys the license of the design (if it is not free) and converts it into a building kit, comparable to a kit from LEGO, Meccano or Erector. In this case, the consumer would not have to search for the parts himself, but he still assembles the product himself, just like he would assemble a piece of furniture by IKEA. Similarly, a company could offer a more general building kit, which can be used to make whatever one would like, similar to a box of basic LEGO bricks. Bit Beam, Contraptor, Open Beam, Maker Beam and, recently, Grid Beam offer one or both of these options.
The third possibility is that a manufacturer places the object on the market as a finished, assembled product. The coffee maker or the workbench would then be sold and bought just as any other product today, but it can be disassembled after use, and its parts can be re-used for other objects.
Economic Model: who Produces the Parts?
While the design process behind OpenStructures and other open modular construction systems is identical to that of digital products such as Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress, there is also a fundamental difference. Computer code and digital text accumulate without any material costs. This is not the case with objects. This makes open modular hardware less easy, but it also creates economic opportunities. It’s hard to make money with open software or online writing. However, in the case of an open modular system for objects, someone has to provide the materials.
It is also important that the parts are produced by as many manufacturers as possible, so that they are available worldwide. Otherwhise, the shipping costs can be so high that a modular object becomes too expensive.
There are many opportunities to make money with an open modular construction model. A manufacturer can choose to produce a part in which they sees economic potential. Another manufacturer can choose to sell a building kit or a finished product of a design they think will sell. A designer can make money by uploading a design that might be free to download for personal use, but not for commercial use. A manufacturer that wants to commercialise this design, can then buy the licence from the designer.
Craftsmen can focus on the design of exclusive, handmade parts in special materials, which are compatible with popular mass produced items. Others can start a fab lab or a tech shop where people can build their own modular objects for a monthly fee. In short, an open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody.
“It is not our ambition to build a gigantic factory that produces all possible parts”, Lommée notes. “OpenStructures should not become a modular IKEA. Our ambition is the creation of a collective economic system, where one producer benefits from the production of another producer. Because parts which are made by one, can be used by another. What we would like to see, are streets full of little shops where everybody generates their own little part of a larger system, a collaborative economy where small, self-employed producers have their place. Not one big player that makes everything. The social dimension is very important.”
“If IKEA wants to sell a product that is compatible with our system, then that’s fine with me. But the system can only work if it remains open. The larger it becomes, the easier it is for a small company or a craftsman to be a part of it. The ambition is to start a universal, collaborative puzzle that allows the widest possible range of people — from craftsmen to multinationals — to design, build and exchange the widest possible range of modular parts and components.”
Apart from a design language (the OS grid) and an online database, OpenStructures also has set up a prototype of a warehouse in Brussels. This kind of place should become the hub for the organisation of the re-use of parts and components. Think a fab lab or tech shop, but then combined with the storage of modular parts. If a modular product is no longer needed, and the owner does not feel like using the parts to build something new, he or she brings it to one of these places, where it is taken apart, and its parts are stored.
An open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody
Other people could come to this place to buy parts or to use them on site to build something new. As Lommée says: “Not everyone has to make their own products, but after its useful life, a modular product always comes into the hands of a group of people who like to make things.”
Compatibility between Open Modular Systems
While it is still in an experimental phase, OpenStructures is by far the most ambitious and complete open modular system designed to date. However, being a European project, it follows the international metric system, while the much older Grid Beam follows the imperial system. The systems are not compatible. With more and more open modular systems appearing, would it not be important to provide inter-compatibility between them?
Lommée doesn’t think so: “Most of these systems are designed for different applications. For instance, Contraptor aims at precision, because the parts are used to build robots and other sophisticated machines. Esthetics are clearly not important. I am a designer, so what interests me especially is whether or not a modular system can generate beautiful objects, things you would want to put in your interior. There is also Wikispeed, for instance, which concentrates on the development of a modular car. Arduino is aimed at electronics. I don’t think that all of these modular systems have to be compatible with each other because the applications are very different.”
He goes on to explain why he chose the metric system. “I have been doubting a lot about this. But in the end I decided that the metric system is easier to work with. And I think the world is big enough for two systems — just look at the variety of energy standards which are in use. Somebody has developed a European version of Contraptor, based on the metric system and compatible with the OS grid. And it is always possible to design a coupling between two systems, so that they can be used together. On the other hand, we live in a networked world where everything is connected and copied. This often means that when standards compete, only one survives. And this is not necessarily the best one. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
“The Grid Beam building system is the contemporary incarnation of one of the earliest purposely-designed DIY building systems. One could argue that it is one of the founding roots of what has become the Maker movement.
The system originated with the work of designer Ken Isaacs in the 1960s who, being among the early Post-Industrial futurists, believed it was necessary for the public to become actively involved in the design and creation of the built habitat around them. Thus he sought to develop concepts where end-users could easily, with little skill, create their own useful artifacts and structures. One of his early and key ideas was called Living Structures; simple furniture structures that were intended to be freely customized on demand and designed to make more volumetric use of space to make the most of modest rooms. It was the beginning of a field of design this author likes to call ‘furnitecture’. To facilitate the ease and economy of building and customizing these structures, Isaacs developed a simple building system called Matrix which relied on 2×2 lumber and bolted ‘trilap’ joints using a standardized system of proportions. This was introduced in his book How To Make Your Own Living Structures. (a book that should be part of any Maker’s basic library);
Living Structures enjoyed fair success as Isaacs toured various schools to teach the basics of this system. It inspired many others, evolving into what came to be known as ‘nomadic furniture’; the DIY furnishings made from various industrial cast-offs, later mocked by designers in the ’80s until rediscovered and relabeled as ‘upcycling’ in the ’90s. Isaac’s own interests shifted over time toward microhousing, at first based on Matrix but eventually shifting to other building methods.
With the Energy Crisis of the late ’70s a surge of public interest in renewable energy and ‘soft’ technologies developed and a wave of eco-tech tinkerers emerged to try and coax progress from a grass-roots level despite the chronic resistance of the fossil fuel energy hegemony. In the midst of this DIY energy movement appeared the start-up company Sun Tools in California which developed and offered a number of eco-tech kit products. Their most important of these proved to be parts for a simple but powerful building system deriving from Isaac’s Matrix called Box Beam, introduced in the book The Box Beam Sourcebook. Box Beam proved quite popular among these new eco-tinkerers and became a common basis of countless renewable energy systems and electric vehicle prototypes. The book and its kits were eventually featured in the legendary Whole Earth Catalog. In the 80s, Sun Tools was even exploring the use of Box Beam in housing with demonstration projects in Hawaii and plans for a whole eco-village, which sadly never came to fruition.
Box Beam introduced a number of important improvements to the original Matrix, in particular a proportioning system capable of scaling to larger stock beam dimensions that could still integrate with smaller sizes, a hole spacing that was more flexible and suited to that scaling of stock beam sizes, the use of other stock materials such as steel and aluminum, and the pre-drilling of holes in pre-made stock pieces.
As the memory of the Energy Crisis faded and the American culture grew self-absorbed and nostalgia-obsessed in ’80s, interest in environmental issues, alternative energy, the DIY energy movement, and soft technology waned and with it interest in things like Box Beam. It soon found itself supplanted in its uses among inventors and students by the much more expensive but more sophisticated aluminum T-slot profiles such as 80:20 and Bosch profiles. The Box Beam Sourcebook continued being printed into the ’90s, but would eventually be lost to the closure of the Sun Tools company itself and the powerful and free technology of Box Beam languished for many years.
With the resurgence of DIY interest through the contemporary Maker movement, Box Beam has realized new life and a new name; Grid Beam. Reintroduced in the book How To Build With Grid Beam by Phil and Richard Jergenson and Wilma Keppel, available on Amazon and elsewhere, we finally see this technology presented in the polished comprehensive way it has long needed. Isaac’s original book took an approach more focused on demonstrating a few specific examples, leaving the details of the Matrix system to a minimum–there was not much to it then. The Box Beam Sourcebook, true to its name, was more a collection of articles than an organized description of the system. With the new Grid Beam book we have a very well developed and comprehensive presentation of the technology, its history, as well as many practical examples of its use.
Now a well refined building system, Grid Beam should be considered one of the staple tools of the contemporary Maker enthusiast. While not as slick or sophisticated as aluminum profile systems, it’s essential simplicity and economy makes it much more practical for casual projects and the use of wood materials more suited to home furnishings and much more child-friendly. In fact, one of its best uses may be as a building system for young children that lets them build real things they can actually use–an excellent introduction to basic tools and DIY building that can start a child on the path to modern industrial literacy. The availability of new fasteners such as flush hex-key bolts makes for very attractive artifacts free of exposed bolts and sharp edges.
Using wood components, Grid Beam works well in its traditional ‘furnitecture’ role and is well suited to applications like custom workshop/studio furniture and shelving, DIY hydroponics and gardening structures, animal shelters, and simple sheds, cold frames, and greenhouses. Using more resilient materials it has much–and barely explored–potential in the nomadic and relief shelter applications where its economy and endless recyclability makes its helpful in the continuing stages of relief efforts and the transition to reconstruction and more permanent housing. As a general prototyping building system, it is unparalleled. Aluminum profiles may have advantages for more permanent or finished constructions or things needing greater precision and integral mechanical elements, but the economy and at-hand availability of Grid Beam makes it ideal for first-generation designs.
Grid Beam has some limitations. The trilap joint is sometimes problematic compared to building systems that produce more uniform topology using butt-joined corners. (that is to say, where beams join on a common corner, rather than overlapping at a corner) This has long been a complication for applications that needed some kind of sealed or water-tight enclosure. Also, drilling many precise holes to make standard beam/struts has always been generally problematic for the DIY. Sun Tools once sold drilling jigs to make this easier, but it was not that great a solution considering the number of holes routinely needed and the tool commonly wore out quickly. This has created an opportunity for an open cottage industry supplying these pre-drilled and mostly-finished stock parts. But it’s long been difficult for prospective entrepreneurs to afford–and justify in near-term sales volumes–the expensive precision drilling machines needed for doing this well in volume. This is definitely an area that needs some innovation. Also, much unexplored small business potential exists in developing accessories for the system, much as we see with the aluminum profile framing, particularly those supporting common fixtures and attachments for materials like fabric. Additional new stock beam materials also need to be explored, such as recycled HDPE ‘polylumber’, bamboo lumber, paper lumber, and perhaps pultruded fiber reinforced plastics.
Overall, Grid Beam is one of the most powerful tools any Maker could add to his repertoire and should be much more popular than it seems to be at present. This is a technology many more people need to learn about. It may need some breakthrough projects to re-introduce this in a way its otherwise excellent introductory book hasn’t.”
This post was written by Eric Hunting of The P2P Foundation. The original article can be found here.
The highly individual practice of American architect and designer Ken
Isaacs (born 1927, Peoria, Illinois) challenged conventional
definitions of modernism through designs that sought radical solutions
to the spatial and environmental challenges of modern life. Fueled by
the optimism that defined the postwar period, Isaacs began working with
the new forms and technologies offered by modernism and advances in
science, at the same time shunning the consumer-laden values of the
American dream. The result was a lifelong commitment to a populist form
of architecture that, because of its low cost and ease of construction,
allowed a broad range of publics to participate in the design process.
These designs, all founded on Isaacs’s concept of the matrix or total
environment, were built using a three-dimensional grid and took the
form of modular units called Living Structures that unified the multiple
functions of furniture and home, including nomadic, sustainable
architectural dwellings or Microhouses. Isaacs also applied his matrix
idea to various multimedia information systems, most notably The
Knowledge Box (1962), which was re-created by Isaacs in 2009, an
experimental learning chamber that eschewed the traditional classroom
for “environmental” concepts of education.
An early apprenticeship in mechanical engineering combined with
studies in cultural anthropology and information theory shaped Isaacs’s
early interest in architecture and design. He developed his Matrix
Research Project while a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art in
the early 1950s, where he also created his first Living Structure
(1954) and later taught his Matrix Study Course. Isaacs also held
academic positions at the Rhode Island School of Design and the
Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, where
the original Knowledge Box was constructed. He is professor emeritus at
the University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Architecture, where he
taught architectural design and served for many years as director of
Isaacs’s work has achieved international acclaim and received
considerable attention in both the popular press and within the media
channels of the architecture and design communities. A prolific,
prosaic, and opinionated writer, he is the author of several articles
and two books: Culture Breakers, Alternatives and Other Numbers (1970), on his own design research, and How to Build Your Own Living Structures
(1974), a DIY manual that details step-by-step instructions for
building and adapting his constructions. He also served as a
contributing editor for Popular Science from 1968 to 1972.
The following interview is a composite dialogue, a textual collage
that combines passages from a conversation between Isaacs and myself
that took place on September 9, 2014, in Granger, Indiana, and excerpts
from the author’s own writings and other interviews. Revealed is an
architect with a deep connection to the land of his Midwestern roots,
and whose unwavering commitment to an experiential model of
architecture, at once generative and generous, created a vernacular
idiom of modernism that remains profoundly influential.
We have written before about
using the Ken Isaacs designed Living Structures system in our home.
The simple grid based system can be used as a starting point for
necessary things from shelving to the construction of whole houses.
Currently, a Living Structure inspired system is our bed/shelving,
providing a more efficient use of space in our bedroom. We have also
used the Living Structure system for building projects outside the home
This is a Living Structure inspired bar in the art space, print shop and work space
we helped to found in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood. The bar is
made in large part from old pallets as well as store bought wood. The
red shelving slats are made from scavenged road construction wood.
Here in Copenhagen, when the city is
doing a road construction project, these wooden slats are placed around
the construction site to keep people away. They often break and are left
behind. We gathered a lot of wood this way to make the shelves on the
This is a bar and thus bar-shaped. So,
it does not completely follow Isaacs’s Matrix system, the building block
of the Living Structure design based on interlocking squares. It
stretches out into more of a rectangle. It is inspired by the Isaacs’s
system, however, because we kept the flexibility measures of the
original Living Structure design. Such as, the evenly space holes for
adding more shelving, or for moving existing shelving around. For some
finishing touches to this design project, Brett added a light underneath
the bar and we coated it all with water proof shellac after painting.
We are interested in shaping the spaces we inhabit with flexible design that maximizes both space use and material use. We keep coming back to the Living Structure system to inspire design solutions that fulfill these needs.
Profile Replimat frames are constructed of individual frame sections with a square profile or cross-section. All frame sections share the same profile, which is 1.5 inches (38.1 millimeters) across each side. Frames of larger or smaller profile sizes may be produced, and continue to work with all of the construction techniques found here.
Hole Pattern Holes are centered on each face of the frame and spaced regularly in a repeating pattern at a distance equal to the width of the frame. This geometrical arrangement allows the frame members to reliably produce rigid joints in three dimensions.
Lengths Frame lengths are intentionally limited to 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 50, 60, 80, and 100 holes per side. These lengths have been chosen to allow for the creation of all necessary joint configurations (using lengths 2, 3, 4, and 5) as well as to allow for lengths with a center hole and lengths which are evenly divisible by two. The reduced set of lengths allows for improved reuse from project to project, easier identification in photographs and diagrams, and simpler production, handling, and shipping.
Nuts and bolts Frame sections are joined together using three lengths of bolt, suitable for 1, 2, or 3 stacked frames and share a single size washer and nut.
Tools Frame assembly requires two 13mm wrenches. A socket wrench or battery powered electric socket wrench are highly recommended for quick and easy [dis]assembly.