Recent Explorations in Digital Fabrication: Mock-Ups – Part 2

June 19, 2018


This is a continuation of a demonstration of Johnston Architects’ research into fabrication and installations. In our previous post, we looked at using projection and heat formed acrylic. In this article, we’ll be looking at our second concept – a full color, Raspberry Pi-controlled ceiling light.

This concept brings light, color and pattern into a space in a very soft and controlled way, while also pushing forward interactivity in an organic and compelling way. Considering the lobby as a threshold, we wanted to develop something that made the transition from exterior-and-public to interior-and-private more profound. On the ceiling we imagined a grid of fabric rectangles hanging vertically like miniature flags, several inches apart and covering the entire lobby ceiling. Using the parametric design tool Grasshopper, we adjusted the length of each rectangle to create a billowing topography. The flags are alternately rotated, creating boxed spaces between them, and making the inverted terrain of the installation smoother and slightly less uniform. We then light the material from above, replacing the cloth rectangles with ones made of light, and further removing the delineation of an upper surface. The effect is that the ceiling disappears into a hazy pattern of semi-translucent fabric. By dematerializing the ceiling, we create an ambiguous upper limit, a soft edge that evokes billowing clouds or a downtown fog.

To visualize the concept, we used Rhinoceros with Grasshopper to create the pattern of fabric. Then we used Blender to render and animate different lighting scenarios.

For materials we kept it simple. We knew the amount of material we would need for the ceiling would be large, so we kept an eye out for an economical but hardy medium. We tried vellum, silk, copy paper, and a few different nylons. We eventually found that rip-stop fabric, the kind used for sails and kites, suited our purposes very well. It was sturdy, easy to work with, plentiful, and transmitted the light beautifully.

For the lights we started out small and ordered some color changing LED Christmas lights. If this works, we’ll head on to more interesting lights.

To support it all, we set up a rig of 1x4s and 1×1 rods from the lumber store. Laying out the 1×1 rods in  3 inch increments gave us the support we’d need for our alternating pattern of 6 inch wide fabric rectangles. Affixing the flags was simple using a staple gun. This is just a mock-up after all.


The mock-up itself is 4 feet wide by 8 feet deep. Before attaching it to our ceiling at JA, we supported it over a couple of chairs to lay in the Christmas lights, taking care to evenly distribute the light and to mind where the power was coming in from.

We then clamped our mockup to the steel I-beams of our ceiling and plugged in the lights. We were all very pleased with the result: a soft, undulating light playing across our fabric terrain.

Up to now, the concept was simple and straight forward. We could alter the lengths of the fabric rectangles to provide texture and shape, creating interest with its irregularities. But we wanted something a little more reactive, that would feel special and unique to the viewer.

Enter the programmable RGB LEDs. These types of LEDs come on strands and allow one to programmatically change the color of each LED individually. When you lay the strand out in a grid, you can create images and 2D patterns. This is where the project began to take on exciting character.

One of the skills we needed to pick up was wiring electronics. Soldering wires to breadboards, understanding resistances and amperes, and modulating power to avoid fires isn’t usually what one finds themselves learning during an architecture project, but the great thing about architecture is that one usually finds themselves learning a great deal about things that are not strictly defined as architecture. We stumbled through some bad wiring and faulty components, but eventually everything was working just as intended.

We chose to program using the Python programming language. While there are other languages more suited to programming LEDs, Python has many libraries which allow us to vary the types of controls we employ. Using the Raspberry Pi and Linux as our operating system gives us the computing power we need to bring our vision to life.

The choices for creating color patterns is overwhelming. We could programmatically create small animations, we could use it as a sort of coarse viewing screen and play videos and animated gifs, or we could employ algorithms to modulate color and intensity. So, we gave them all a go.

Programming the LEDs to act as a 2D screen wasn’t terribly difficult. It has been done thousands of times, and there is a how-to blog or video for just about every attempt. We eventually learned to play animated GIFs, stream YouTube videos and even webcam footage to the ceiling display.

Now that it inhabits our office, we usually play a variation of 2D ‘Perlin noise’ – an algorithm developed to mimic the organic randomness found in nature. Video games and CGI artists use Perlin noise to simulate clouds, waves, fire, mountains, fog and much more. Our application of the algorithm displays a slow, undulating, random field of varying colors. We implemented a few controls over how it appears, building in a web front-end to control speed and color intensities on the fly. We even implemented a webcam library in Python to track movement and shift the colors accordingly.

Now we are looking at next steps. We’ve fleshed out the practical aspects of running a large, horizontal LED screen covered in fabric, and now face the challenge of adding more interaction. One approach we are looking forward to is motion tracking people through the space, creating wakes as though through an upside-down body of colorful water. We can also update the patterns to reflect external conditions – perhaps moody light on cloudy days, hints of lightning during rainstorms, or oranges and reds during Halloween. The flexibility and variations afforded by the LEDs and their programming means we can update and change well into the future.

Recent Explorations in Digital Fabrication: Mock-Ups – Part 1

April 10, 2018

At Johnston Architects, we’re excited to work alongside forward thinking developers, as we’re doing on a current mixed-use project in Seattle. The building sits mid-block in the Uptown neighborhood, which has undergone a recent up-zoning, enticing a great deal of new development in the area. As such, the exterior design of our project seeks to create contextual clues for its current and future neighbors. It’s exterior is a well tailored and finely detailed addition to the neighborhood, but behind this handsome façade is a dynamic interior. The primary instigator for the interior’s expression as a dramatic  counterpoint is the entry lobby ceiling. Because the lobby functions as a connector between the street, retail, and private residences beyond, it is both a focal point and place of transition. As a primary focal point, we wanted the installation to fill the room with dynamic and integral presence, but as a circulation space, we sought to keep the floor clear. The ceiling plane lent itself as means to achieve both aspirations.

We presented three initial concepts to our client, two of which were chosen and will be utilized in this project.

Ceiling option one: “Broken Sky”

Ceiling option two: “Light Field”

The following is an outline of our process and a small example of the potential that digital fabrication holds for our industry:

Our initial concepts evolved out of desire to explore the meaning and our perception of context. The exterior of the building has a contextual relationship to its neighbors and the city, but what does it mean to have context once you enter a building? Buildings offer necessary protection from the outside world, and serve, at the most basic level as shelter. You may have a contextual relationship within a building and those relationships may extend to the world beyond to some degree, but there is a necessary separation at the building’s envelope. We wanted to look at ways in which we might provide both literal and figurative clues to connect the interior environment of the building to the world in which it resides, to extend the reach of the outside in and provide a grounding connection for people within the greater context of their neighborhood, city, and world. In essence, we sought to figure out how elements within could connect us to the outside world.

Our first concept was a grid of reflective panels based on a figure ground of Seattle interspersed with panels of real-time projections of the sky above. The reflective panels provide a view of the activity inside the building while the projected panels reveal what is happening outside. The three-dimensional shaping of the ceiling derived from an exaggerated scaling of Seattle’s iconic topography. The ceiling serves as a contextual reminder as a representation of the urban fabric. The projection of the sky combined with the reflections of the interior space serve to connect and counterpoise the two conditions.

Seattle Figure Ground, basis for the ceiling panel geometry

We created the first mock-up at half-scale with identically sized panels.

First Mock-up

After installing the mock-up in our studio, we tested different types of projections and projection techniques. Five different types of materials were tested, and we were able to rule out two projection materials and clear panels. The clear panels did not offer anything to the overall composition.  The opaque or semi opaque panels helped to better define the overall form.  The best projection material was a simple frosted acrylic.  It works well because it has  lot of tooth, or roughness to the surface.  This helps when you project at an oblique as the increased surface area of the surface catches the light better and allows much greater viewing angles.  The two materials we rejected were relatively smooth by comparison.

First Thermoformed Panel

In order to realize the undulating form of the original design it was necessary to create three dimensional panels. We used acrylic from the outset because we knew at some point they would need to be shaped.  The form for the panels was made from nine layers of 3/4” birch plywood that were laminated and then milled by a CNC router.

Plywood Form

Without the use of digital fabrication very little of this workflow would have been practical or possible.  From the hanging locations and lengths, to the form itself, everything was initially created with design software whose data was then used to generate the real object.  After the first round of testing proved the concept, we were able to move to full scale.

First Full Scale Thermoformed Panels

Over several iterations we developed repeatable and consistent results. In the next round of iteration, we will create additional plywood forms and purpose build the heat plate to create a more consistent finish.  Vacuum forming is not required given the subtle forming required of each panel (maybe next time).

Using the digital model and lessons learned from the first mock-up we were able to hang the current iteration quickly in our busy entry lobby.

Current Mock-up: Day Sky

We swapped out the old conference room projector we had been using for a short throw, which dramatically reduced the need for projection mapping.  We found success easier and more quickly by hanging the projector above the panels, projecting at a more perpendicular vector, and using simple masking to keep the projected image within the edges to the panel. By hanging the mock-up in our entry lobby, we were able to see how it performed with daylight and HVAC, as well how easily it is maintained. We found that in our lobby the relatively dark finishes, primarily the exposed concrete floor, make the reflective panel much darker than our renderings, creating a significant contrast with the projected panel.  It’s a good lesson learned.  We will look at using brighter and more colorful finishes in the interior of the actual lobby.  Currently we are exploring white terrazzo flooring and colorful inset carpets and furniture.  For now, we really like projecting the night sky and images from the Hubble Space Telescope, a totally different level of contextualism.

Current Mock-up: Night Sky

Stay tuned for next week’s post on bringing our other concept to life.

If you’d like to see the installations in person visit the Headlines exhibit in Gould Hall at the University of Washington, April 13th through April 27th.

Recent Explorations in Digital Fabrication: Reflections

March 21, 2018

A number of our recent projects at Johnston Architects illustrate the growing role of the architect in the realm of fabrication.  Increased accessibility of digital workflows move designs from the desktop to the code that drives computer-controlled fabrication, allowing direct translation of architectural concepts into realized form.  The advent of digital fabrication within the architecture, engineering, and construction industry not only has the potential to allow more direct and consistent control of design intent, it also holds the promise to pull the industry out of its productivity flat line.  For decades, the workflows that we used to create our built environment have done little to reduce the fractious exchange of information leading to a sustained loss in productivity that increases costs and creates an end product whose quality is necessarily hampered by the process.

In the coming posts we will look at three fairly different examples of the way technology is allowing us to break down the barriers between the architect and built object.

Reflections: Animating a blank facade on Seattle’s Waterfront

The Bakun Building and Alaska Way Viaduct

We were approached by our friends at Friends of the Waterfront Seattle with a need for a quick installation that would animate an old vacant facade at the foot of the Pike Place Hill Climb, across Alaska Way from the Seattle Aquarium.  The Bakun Building has been a fixture on the Seattle waterfront since 1925.  The viaduct, built directly over its northwest corner, has been a too cozy neighbor since its completion in 1951.  The building is owned by the Washington Department of Transportation, who is currently looking for a tenant. The large shadow cast over the open spaces around the unoccupied building by the viaduct and increased crime, primarily at night when pedestrian traffic fades, drove the Friends of the Waterfront Seattle to create a safer, welcoming space that would deter threatening activities.

Our charge was to quickly install something that would animate the facade and help light the surrounding spaces at night.  Along with friend and long-time collaborator Mona Zellers, we devised the idea of projecting one large high definition video over the glazed portions of the building.  The images would be active scenes from daily life in and around Seattle interspersed with serene glimpses of the natural world, making the building seem active and occupied and inspiring people to stop and watch.  To accomplish this we used rear projection so that light emanated from inside the building out onto the street, which had the added benefit of allowing us to  secure the projection equipment and computers.  Windows across three levels in multiple rooms and in varying sizes proved to be the primary issue.   We had done projection mapping projects in the past, but those were primarily one or two projectors aimed at a common object.  For this installation we needed to document the facade and map the individual apertures so that we could program the portion and scale of each video projection. Seen as a whole, the image would appear coherent and unabridged.

Projection mock-up in the office

The tight schedule was the most difficult part of installation. Having collaborated a number of times, Friends of the Waterfront Seattle trusted out judgement concerning the design and execution; however, we still only had just over a week to order equipment, create the images, test them, and install the display.  To increase the speed at which we could iterate ideas and the underlying technology, we developed a virtual mock up by field measuring the façade and compositing the photos, allowing us to test masking and alternate videos off-site.

We also tested projection screen material.  After looking at 6 different materials, we ended up using large frosted EVA shower curtains. For rear projection at night, they performed close to purpose made material and allowed us to cover a large area on a tight budget. The main drawback between using rear projection fabric vs. the frosted EVA is viewing angle, which was not a concern for this project.

Close up of EVA, masking, and some brick

Install weekend was spent covering the windows with the EVA and masking the edges, running HDMI cables throughout the building, mounting short throw projectors, and setting up the computer and video card to run the show.  We combined a few stock videos and an original we filmed and colorized to form a 10 minute loop.  We decided to put media creation on the back burner until after we had the whole thing up and running as we could update that later. By the end of the weekend we had a working installation with a few bugs left to resolve, but Waterfront was happy, and it gave us some time to dial it in and start shooting video.

The first weekend’s final product

The primary technical issue was running 6 projectors off a single computer. We found a great graphics card that could project 4k across 6 outputs.  It uses AMD’s Eyefinity, which is a good system but does not offer the flexibility we needed for our setup.  We ended up using a hybrid of one Eyefinity group on the lower windows and another on the upper two.  Because the apertures were the same across those groups, we were able to scale them well.

Over the next few weeks we were able to film in multiple locations and put together a 45 minute original video that is still playing (and yes it does feature a 3-story tall baby).

We plan on evolving the installation over time, maybe adding more physical components.  Stay tuned…