Unit(ed) we stand: Units, modules, and space

September 12th, 2012

In our year-long Studio H (advanced) course, we have begun the year by looking at an individual 2-dimensional unit and how it can be aggregated into a 3-dimensional space. Starting small-scale, we designed the units themselves, tessellating them graphically so that they could easily be produced on the laser cutter. Once each group of five students had a designed 2-d unit, we produced 100 of them to begin building. At a 2×2″ scale, the pieces are at about 1/6 the size of the final product: a small enclosure (about the size of a phone booth) that must have a threshold and house a single human body. This 3-dimensional enclosure must be made entirely out of the 2-d pieces, laser cut out of sheets of cardboard.

The challenge is simple enough, but as an introductory activity, gives students an initial understanding of both graphic shape and how it might translate into inhabitable space. Using a simple material such as cardboard, we can cost-effectively construct space based on a replicable module, thinking about architecture as a whole and in its parts. The photos included here show the first phase of the project; soon we will produce the same modules at full scale (about 1×1 feet), design the enclosure based on the geometry of the module and discoveries at 1/6 scale, and build the people-sized enclosures out in the yard.

Our lesson plan can be found below, or downloaded here as a pdf.

photo 2

photo 1


Unit(ed) We Stand

It is critical that we come out of the gates “making.” The initial conversation will circulate between the making of space and the making of units, that, when aggregated together will define inhabitable space. Through lectures, intense sessions of design and critique, and hands-on fabrication students will grasp a solid understanding of both historic and modern construction methodologies as they relate to standard units of building.

measurement and layout
cut/fold/slot techniques of joinery
basic shop safety
collaborative design
2d and 3d visualization
spatial understanding of the human body and inhabitation
Adobe Illustrator / Laser Engraver
Rhino 3d digital modeling software

We will begin with a lecture on building units—historically and in modern construction. Students will get into groups of no more than four and charrette around the creation of a 2d shape that, when multiplied hundreds of times, may be aggregated together to form an enclosure (walls, roof, and threshold) for one of their teammates. Teams will have one week to develop the unit through scale models and full-scale prototypes. The second week will be devoted to the production of full-scale units and the construction of the final, inhabitable space. A jury of peers and instructors will critique final projects. The third and final week, students will be introduced to Adobe Illustrator, Rhinoceros 3d modeling software, and the Laser Engraving machine. Through this new digital medium, students will produce 3d renderings and laser-cut, hand-assembled physical models of their full-scale pieces.


X-acto knife
straight edge
measuring utensils

Timeline/Sequence of Tasks

Week One
9.4 student show & tell / syllabus review / tour of shop / intro to “Unit(ed) We Stand” problem

9.5 unit lecture and slideshow—30 minutes
• brick, block and misc. units dating back to pyramids
• cut/fold/slot techniques and visual examples
cut/fold/slot demonstrations with chipboard—15 minutes
• xacto knife safety
• measuring and layout with scale, straight edge and cutting mat
break into groups and produce simple slotted squares as practice—30 minutes
• minimum (16) 2″ squares with 1/2″ deep slots centered in each of 4 sides
• aggregate pieces together to make free-standing object

9.6 gestural drawings around Serra verbs—20 minutes
• we will use these sketches as form generators
desk crits with groups to drive “unit” design out of gestural drawings
• find commonalities in group’s drawings and assign that verb to group
• assigned verb will carry throughout the project as conceptual glue
development of sketches and initial modeling may take place for remainder of class

9.7 continue design development and model making—75 minutes
• groups should be working as well-oiled crew, producing independently and coming back together at intervals to aggregate units and design spatial piece

Week Two
9.10 begin full-scale fabrication of cardboard units—75 minutes
• groups need to establish clear roles
• project manager, production team, assembly team, etc.
• scale? how big are actual units? who are we designing the space around? how tall? wide?

9.11 full-scale fabrication—75 minutes
9.12 full-scale fabrication and full-scale mock-ups of assemblage—75 minutes
9.13 finish production and begin final assemblage—75 minutes
9.14 last minute assembly—15 minutes
group critiques—60 minutes
• each group will receive approximately 10 minutes to present their concept, explain their process and receive critique from their peers and instructors

Week Three
9.17 Intro to Adobe Illustrator—30-45 minutes
• demo using projector, students follow along as instructor introduces tools and techniques and creates simple 2″ square, slotted units
• move to laser cutter and demo printing process
student groups may begin drawing their 2d units in Illustrator—30-45 minutes

9.18 recreate units and shelter in 3d digital space

9.19 continue digital 3d rendering / draw or export 2d to Illustrator
9.20 continue digital 3d rendering / begin laser cutting 2d units in chipboard
9.21 finish digital 3d rendering / assemble laser cut scale model


Full-Scale Production
• Engagement, Participation, Teamwork: 25%
• Design and Construction: 65%
• Presentation of Final Work: 10%

Digital Production
• Engagement, Participation, Teamwork: 25%
• Digital Replication and Fabrication: 65%
• Presentation of Final Work: 10%


Studio H is a public high school "design/build" curriculum that sparks rural community development through real-world, creative projects. By learning through a design sensibility, applied core subjects, and "dirt-under-your-fingernails" construction skills, students develop the creative capital, critical thinking, and citizenship necessary for their own success and for the future of their communities.


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