Recent Explorations in Digital Fabrication: Mock Ups Part 1


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.

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.

seattle figure ground

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.

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

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

plywood form

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.

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.

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 with night 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.

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.