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Building an EPIC Concrete Table | Design

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Table Design

We are planning one of the projects we are going to build for EPIC 2015, and it is time to design the table.What does that even mean, design? Preparation begins with understanding, so let's turn to Wikipedia to find out just what we are even talking about. Here is an excerpt-

Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a system...

Designing often necessitates considering the aesthetic, functional, economic and sociopolitical dimensions of both the design object and design process. It may involve considerable research, thought, modeling, interactive adjustment, and re-design. Meanwhile, diverse kinds of objects may be designed, including clothing, graphical user interfaces, skyscrapers, corporate identities, business processes and even methods of designing.

Thus "design" may be a substantive referring to a categorical abstraction of a created thing or things (the design of something), or a verb for the process of creation, as is made clear by grammatical context.

Wow. That is a mouthful. Sociopolitical dimensions? I thought we were talking about concrete. Hard to talk about concrete without a little sociopolitical context, after all- what is concrete? Design is important in our lives, so it only makes sense that we give some thought and consideration to what it means to design something, and what implications come as a result of that process.

So we want to make a table that will sit outside our shop. This is the area where our staff eats lunch often, and our company comes together to have quarterly gatherings that usually end in hurt feelings on the adjacent basketball court. It is also convenient that this is the epicenter of EPIC.

We have one day to cast this object (barring a day prior to the event for any necessary prep), so the first consideration is a matter of time constraints and the implications that brings to the base of this table. We could make a base separate that the top is placed on, but that doesn't seem to fit the bill. This lands us on the idea of a single leg that is cast at the same time as the top that sits atop a footer. It is with these basic ideas that we begin to think about what this table will look like.

When it is time to develop a shape and look for an object, we can go in 2 different directions- we can get into the replica business -or- we can engage the design process. Now we can get into a long study of the nuance and complexity of these 2 ideas, but we really don't have time for that right now. Our personal feeling on the matter is that the design process is far more rewarding, and will ultimately provide a better object in terms of function and aesthetic for the world to enjoy. How do we know what path we are on? That is hard to say, but one easy way to avoid the path of replication (plagiarism if you prefer) is to look away from the type of object you are making (a table in this case) to find source material for inspiration. Boil an object down to the essence of its ultimate function and design constraints and look out to the world at large for the inspiration. Once that inspiration takes root, then we can examine the practical aspects of execution.

In this case we have a single leg, which implies some type of cantilever that will require consideration. This consideration implies a certain type of general shape where the leg offers support to the extremities of the table. This shape brings to mind one of the more impressive displays of concrete on the global stage in the past few years. Remember the swimming competition at the recent olympics? Of course! Not because of the swimming, but because of those diving boards (Click the link and scroll down a bit if you are not sure, or if you just want to remember how cool those installations are, so sick). This inspiration has been bouncing around in the catalogs of inspiration for us for sometime, and it was an immediate match when all of the design considerations came into light.

So at the point inspiration strikes, this is usually followed by hands in flight in explanation, and usually blank stares from the spectators. Ideas need to find a shape on paper. Ideas that can't be shared clearly are suspect, and are often doomed to failure. We needed to get this idea down on paper, and in this case that is easier said than done. Luckily there is SketchUp, and equally luckily Sean Albright is a kind and exceptionally talented guy who is willing to share for the greater good, Thanks Sean!

SketchUp is a great tool, if you haven't tried it out before it is worth a visit. It is easier than you may think, there are great video tutorials, and it is free. I am not particularly good with SketchUp, but I can usually fumble through well enough to get a point across. That said, I had no experience with free form shapes like what I had in mind for this table. I gave a call to a few colleagues, Jonathan Haywood and Sean Albright to see what advice they had. Jonathan suggested Soap Skin, and Sean suggested a plugin called Curviloft. I had heard of Curviloft before, and opted to go that route. Sean was kind enough to help me through the basics. I can tell you that I have no confidence in my ability to work with this tool, but after a few hours I was able to find a path to spell out what it was I had in mind. Here is what I ended up with.

Here are a few notes about the process of creating this model, and finalizing some of the details.

  • One of the best lessons I learned in SketchUp is to create components. This is important for 2 reasons, it keeps all of the various components of a design neat and easy to edit, it also forces me to think in units which forces me to further examine and consider a design.
  • Further to that point, when playing around with the Curviloft plugin, I had to really break down the components of the design. It wasn't until the components were broken down to their most basic elements that I was able to effectively build this model.
  • While the diving boards were the inspiration, there was a departure from the style as mold fabrication was considered. The shape was broken down so that the form could be fabric formed, focussing on an armature that will have fabric stretched over the frame. This opens up the possibilities in terms of formwork, and it also added some nice definition to the shape of the base.
  • Now that there is a model, even if it is not perfect, a conversation can begin. This image can be sent along to all of the parties that will be involved in the project, meaning that we can spend our time planning and not trying to communicate an idea. It was a bit maddening to figure out how to build the model, but it was well worth the effort in the long run.

So we have a design. It is flexible to change as we move along the process, but it serves to move the preparations forward. We were pretty comfortable that we could execute the plan, but the cantilevers are ambitious. It wouldn't be too prudent of us to charge forward without fully considering the reinforcement engineering for this table. It may be that we discover it can't be done. It is more likely that we discover that we will need to take special considerations that will change the design or the approach, and that is better to figure out early. Off to the engineer.

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