Universities Teach - Architectural Students Design New CMU to Extend Palette

Extending the designer's palette with block

Mark Cabrinha, Alex Keifer and Jacob Van de Roovaart | Mingchen Cui | Scott Needham

Extending the Designer’s Palette with Block

University architectural students push the limits in NCMA’s Unit Design Competition

Frank Werner

NCMA Unit Design Competition Task Group Chair Frank Werner, Director of Business Development for Oldcastle, began this annual competition in 2000.

Envisioning concrete masonry walls of reinforced screens, sculptural waves and versatile L-shapes are all possible through innovative manipulation of standard concrete masonry unit (CMU) manufacturing molds.

Simple geometry of a CMU allows designers to arrange units in any number of ways to achieve any design they can imagine. As part of materials or studio courses, seven university architecture programs challenged students to think beyond the traditional modular units through participation in the National Concrete Masonry Association’s (NCMA) 2014-2015 Unit Design Competition.

The competition engaged students to understand the relationship between a specific material (CMU) and forms used to create units. The challenge is to design a brand new concrete masonry or hardscape unit that can be mass-produced on a block or big-board machine for architectural or hardscape/landscape applications beyond what exists today.

It is encouraged that the units occupy at least 90% of the mold for economic reasons. Specific size and angle guidelines are given to ensure structural integrity of units in production, during curing and subsequent storage/transport.

While the CMU highlighted may not be commercially available, the designs continue to stimulate innovation imagination. The process of design provides an authentic and meaningful learning experience for students, which will stay with them as professionals.

The competition can accommodate new schools! Learn how your school or alma mater can participate in future competitions at ncma.org/about-us/unit-design-competition/.

NCMA’s Unit Design Competition challenges university architecture students to explore a building’s form and its materials

NCMA’s Unit Design Competition challenges university architecture students to explore a building’s form and its materials.

Montreal-based Jury

  • Stephane Aube, Product Manager, Permacon
  • Samuel Courtemanche, Innovation Manager, Permacon
  • Paul Hebert, Engineer and Architect, Tetra Tech of Quebec
  • Carlo Carbone, Architect, University of Quebec at Montreal
  • Joao de Medeiros Melo, Architect
  • Jason McDougall, Production Supervisor, Permacon
  • Francois Bourbeau, Mason Contractor
  • Oldcastle R&D Team | Nader Assad, John Penterman, Ricardo Borja, Tamara Evans, Sabine Merault

Participating Universities and Local Sponsors

  • Alfred University NY | No local sponsor
  • Cal Poly State University | Sponsor – Concrete Masonry Association of California and Nevada
  • Georgia Tech | Sponsor – CEMEX/Block USA
  • Iowa State University | Sponsor – King’s Materials
  • North Carolina State University | Sponsor – SCMA Southeast Concrete Masonry Association/Adams Oldcastle/Johnson Concrete
  • University of Nebraska | Sponsor – Nebraska Concrete Masonry Association
  • University of Southern California | Sponsor – ORCO Block and Hardscape

Screen Block Innovation Incorporates Structural Reinforcement Cal Poly Team Wins with Flip Block

Screen block had a cult following in Mid-Century Modern design, but is now out of production for most block manufacturers. While contemporary design approaches often employ screen elements combining aesthetic variation with solar performance, conventional screen block systems are limited in their application due to the challenge of structural reinforcing creating a discrepancy between the light, transparent screen wall and the heavy reinforced piers that support it.

Through a careful look at the constraints of mold design in industrial block production, a team of architecture students developed new screen block systems based on the idea of mass customization of block mold design. Flip Block’s design team created a unique family of units that addresses the issue of structural integrity while playing off contemporary desire for pattern and variation in a cohesive wall system.

The innovation of Flip Block is rooted in the subtle geometry of the unit. While the basic block is a simple prism compatible with standard block unit sizes, flanges on each side allow the block to be flipped and assembled in a manner that leaves a void large enough for steel reinforcement to be embedded within the wall system without any interruptions to the pattern of the wall. This quality is applied to a family of three units that introduce variation in aperture and depth when flipped, giving the appearance of six unique configurations. The combination of these three basic units allow the wall system to be highly variable with a large degree of control while still containing the structure needed to support itself.

The Flip Block team developed their design through multiple full-scale prototypes, utilizing a CNC (computer numerically controlled) router to develop their unique mold design using a wet cast process with a light weight concrete mix.

Associate Professor Mark Cabrinha with team members Alex Keifer and Jacob Van de Roovaart

Associate Professor Mark Cabrinha with team members Alex Keifer and Jacob Van de Roovaart

The process of designing, testing, failing, revising and retesting led to a product that could feasibly be manufactured in an industrial setting, bringing new life to an old product for use in contemporary architectural design.

Flip Block’s design team consists of recent Cal Poly San Luis Obispo architecture graduates Jacob Van de Roovaart, Alex Keifer and Farhan Riaz.

The Material Innovation Lab is led by Associate Professor Mark Cabrinha in the Architecture Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The screen block course is supported through the Concrete Masonry Association of California and Nevada (CMACN).

~ Alex Keifer, Jacob Van de Roovaart and Mark Cabrinha

Zejun Li, Yutao Hu, Dianyu Yang, Mingchen Cui 3rd year architectural students

Zejun Li, Yutao Hu, Dianyu Yang, Mingchen Cui 3rd year architectural students

Variegated Block with Sculptural Appeal Iowa State team earns second

Wall of Waves When we think of walls, we have an image of solid, a flat surface in our minds. However, the modern aesthetic demand cannot be satisfied by this simple functionoriented wall.

Therefore, the team worked to come up with an idea of a wall of waves. A wall more like sculpture instead of a flat surface. The team was then faced with the questions of how to make a wall of waves and how to transform a straight line to an arc without eliminating the advantage of the straight line. Inspiration comes from stairs.

Richness of Rhythm The team divided the mold box into three units. The length of units are 91/2", 8", and 61/2". Then, we cut 3/4" times 81/4" blocks from one side of these units. As a result, we have three types of units: a 91/2" unit with the other side of 83/4", a 8" unit with the other side of 71/4", and a 61/2" unit with the other side of 53/4". In this way, we create six different edges within three units. In our design, we arrange them in a certain sequence to create richness of rhythm.

Volume of Vegetation

The largest unit also has the potential that is used as a volume for vegetation. Hollowing half of the 9½" unit provides the possibility for grass and flowers to grow. A living wall reflects the relationship between concrete and nature.

The Unit Design Competition was part of the ARCH343 course, Building Science and Technology IV, taught by Professor Kris Nelson.

~ Mingchen Cui

Modular Lamda Block has Vertical, Horizontal Applications NCSU hardscape design captures third

Based on other familiar block designs, the unit design team wanted to create a block that was versatile and flexible. We wanted a simple design that allowed myriad applications. To this end, we created an L-shaped block that works independently or together with the pre-existing brick form. This modular design allows for the option to create many paving patterns as well as wall configurations.

A key design constraint that we set for ourselves was the efficiency of the molding process. With the dimensions provided of an 18" x 24" box that is 8" tall, we are able to fit 12 block units in a single mold box with a 1/2" distance between units and a 3/4" gap in the middle. This number allows each box to yield several units and increase the profit for each box produced.

From an application perspective, we wanted to make sure that the block could turn a corner in a running bond pattern for short wall applications.

As a paver, the unit can be set to create irregular patterns or set in a perfect rectangle or square. This allows for the paving of a rectilinear courtyard, driveway or outdoor patio space without the need for breaking or cutting.

As a block, this unit can be used to create a low garden wall with mortar. Or without mortar, an outdoor seat is possible.

The Unit Design Competition was part of ARC 232 Structures and Materials taught by Assistant Professor Dana Gulling at North Carolina State University.

~ Scott Needham

Scott Needham, Caroline Cox, Austin Corriher, Alexander Buck 2nd year undergraduate architecture students

Scott Needham, Caroline Cox, Austin Corriher, Alexander Buck 2nd year undergraduate architecture students

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