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.