Tuesday, October 14, 2014

3D Printing and Masonry: a Brave New World of Construction

Three dimensional printing, or 3D printing, has come a long way over the past decade or so.  This technology is growing rapidly, and holds the possibility of disrupting many conventional technologies and entire industries.  One of the conventional construction technologies facing competition from 3D printing is masonry.  Will 3D printing eventually phase out traditional masonry construction?  What are the relative benefits of each technology: masonry versus 3D printing?  How soon will the masonry industry be impacted by 3D printing?

Recent developments in the field of 3D printing include the use of concrete and concrete-like material to create objects.  These objects include both masonry-like units which are subsequently assembled into an integrated structure and also the monolithic entire structure itself, “assembled” as a whole 3D printed object.  At the forefront of this technological breakthrough are 3D printing methods such as those under development by BehrokhKhoshnevis, professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Civil & Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the University of Southern California.  Khoshnevis refers to this technology being applied to print entire buildings as “Contour Crafting.”  He and others in the field speak of very high-strength 3D printed concrete materials as being just on the horizon; material with a compressive strength of around 10,000 psi.  Currently manufactured concrete block has a minimal compressive strength of around 3,000 psi, although high-performance concretes (HPC’s) are currently available with strengths up to around 20,000 psi and higher.

The advantages of 3D printed concrete –as compared to conventional concrete- include: fairly rapid construction, the ability to make complex shapes and forms, freedom from the constraints of molding, and potentially very high strength.  These benefits may also eventually include the ability to 3D print very detailed and intricate structural features integrated into the building; including ventilation, plumbing, wiring, etc.  Other developers in the 3D printed structures include the principals of “Emerging Objects”, Ronald Rael (at University of California Berkeley) and Virginia SanFratello (at San Jose State).  Their work includes hollow, interlocking masonry like units which assemble in a manner similar to topological interlocking structures (as discussed earlier on this blog).  It holds the promise of potentially creating structural configurations suitable for seismic areas and the ability to withstand major earthquakes.

Still others are 3D printing entire homes, and appear to be close to commercialization.  Among these is a Chinese company, whose equipment is said to be capable of producing ten houses in one day.  It should be noted that these houses are not printed as a whole; they are printed in panels and these panels are then assembled.  There is also a Dutch company, Dus Architects, whose equipment is also capable of printing ‘chunks’ of house, which then must be assembled into a home.

The advantages of 3D printing should appear as obvious, namely: the ability to create virtually any shape, without the limitations imposed by a block machine, or undercuts, or draft angles; the relatively rapid pace of fabrication; a choice of materials (including plastics, concrete, and composites); and the ease of producing an object from a 3D computer file.  It would seem that the 3D printing of homes is inevitable, and that masonry will soon become a lost art - and go the way of film photography, which has been replaced by digital photography.

A few critical factors appear as though masonry will remain in the construction industry for the foreseeable future.   First of all, buildings must begin with a foundation.  In climates with freezing winters the foundation must be placed 3 or four feet below grade, or below the extent of the frost line on the coldest days.  This is simply not possible with the state-of-the-art in 3D printing technology available now.  3D printing technology cannot create a foundation below grade, although it is likely to overcome this obstacle in the future.  Secondly, most 3D printing technologies simply produce panels, or pieces or chunks of a structure which must then be assembled; this basically describes masonry, and is not an improvement over masonry per se.   Those 3D printers which are capable of producing an entire integrated, complete finished structure require an extensive working platform on which to operate.  This platform requires extensive, expensive, detailed site preparation for the 3D printer; this negates many of the so-called benefits of 3D printing an entire structure (more expensive, difficult, and time consuming).  Another major impediment to 3D printing is the fact that the construction industry is an extremely conservative industry and is very slow to accept new technologies.  This fact is made more relevant by the fickle nature of the construction consumer: people want houses, homes and buildings to look like they’ve always looked.  The 3D printing approach to providing homes still has a very long way to go before it produces houses that look very much like every house produced everywhere.  This is not an arena for brave new ideas: homeowners want their homes to look like their neighbors’.  “Fitting in” in the aesthetic sense is probably much more important than efficiency, strength, environmental concerns, longevity, or any other factor about construction.  The appearance of the finished product cannot be overemphasized, and 3D printing has a long way to go here.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the factor of cost.  While 3D printer advocates say that they are faster and less expensive than masonry, it is instructive to note that the concrete block manufacturing industry has developed to a state of high efficiency and economy.  An 8 inch x 8 inch x 16 inch rectangular concrete block is produced in around 2 seconds, and typically costs around $1.00 or so.  This is the benchmark to beat, and 3D printing is not anywhere close to this, despite the claims being made.  It appears as though concrete block will probably be around for a while yet.

3D printing holds great promise for the future of construction.  Those who assume that it will never affect their industry (designers, builders, blockmakers, masons, etc.) do so at their own extreme risk; they are likely to go the way of film photography, i.e., extinction.  Instead, it appears inevitable that 3D printing will have a huge transformative effect on construction in general and on masonry in particular.  It seems that masonry will –in all likelihood- always exist, but that it will be fundamentally transformed by 3D printing.  Masons can design their work and have custom blocks produced on-site, instantly and inexpensively.  Brunelleschi would have put 3D printing of masonry to spectacular use; he wouldn’t have had to carve shapes from turnips to show his masons how he wanted block made.  They would be made instantly, exactly as he envisioned them.  It seems that 3D printing could well add to the art, science and craft of masonry in the relatively near future.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fibonacci Masonry

Today I’m taking a look at an esoteric topic relative to masonry: the Fibonacci sequence, the golden mean and some of the resulting geometry.   I will attempt to describe some of my own thoughts on this topic which are not yet fully formed, but seem to hold some promise nonetheless.  I beg the reader’s indulgence if I am overly speculative, but this is the nature of this particular beast.  I hope that someone else out there may be able to add to my speculation and –perhaps- provide additional insight into this curious realm of mathematics and geometry.

In mathematics,  the Fibonacci numbers or Fibonacci sequence are the numbers in the following integer sequence:
1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144,\; \ldots\;
or (often, in modern usage):
0,\;1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144,\; \ldots\; 
By definition, the first two numbers in the Fibonacci sequence are 1 and 1, or 0 and 1, depending on the chosen starting point of the sequence, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. (taken from Wikipedia)
The earliest occurrence of this numerical sequence is found in Indian mathematics, in the context of  Sanskrit prose structure.  In the oral tradition of Sanskrit, great emphasis was placed on how long syllables (L) mix with short (S) and counting the different patterns of L and S within a given fixed length results in the Fibonacci numbers; the number of patterns that are m short syllables long is the Fibonacci number Fm + 1.   This prose structure is first traced back to Pingala, at around 200 BC.  It was later more fully described by Virahanka, at around 700 AD: Variations of two earlier meters [is the variation]... For example, for [a meter of length] four, variations of meters of two [and] three being mixed, five happens. [works out examples 8, 13, 21]... In this way, the process should be followed in all mātrā-vṛttas [prosodic combinations]. (taken from Wikipedia)
For the past 4 years on this blog I have spent the month of April writing poems about masonry for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) after being dared to do so by a poet friend.  It might be interesting to attempt a poem about masonry using the Sanskrit tradition of employing a Fibonacci sequence relative to variations of meter.  I wander…
In the West, the Fibonacci sequence was first realized and articulated by Leonardo of Pisa (known as Fibonacci) who described it in his book Liber Abaci (1202 AD).  He described the numerical sequence bearing his name by describing the idealized growth of a rabbit population over time.
As the Fibonacci sequence gets longer and the numbers get larger, the ratio between 2 adjacent numbers in this sequence approaches the golden ratio, or golden mean.  This is mathematically expressed as:  \psi = \frac{1 - \sqrt{5}}{2} = 1 - \varphi = - {1 \over \varphi} \approx -0.61803\,39887\cdots
Put another way, the golden ratio itself is approximately 1.6180339887…
Geometrically, the golden ratio may be expressed as a rectangle, one side being equal to 1.0, the other side being equal to 1.6180339887…

This rectangle can be used to generate a Fibonacci spiral:

I recently used this relationship to create a series of “Fibonacci spiral bowls” from clay on my potter’s wheel.  This was a fun experiment, I may make some more and play with this form a bit more.

It occurred to me that it would be a simple thing to make a masonry Fibonacci spiral structure using my triangular blocks to build cylindrical sections of varying radii, just as I have done with bowls of different radii.  Such a structure could be aesthetically interesting, and it could perhaps create an interesting interior space.  It may also possess unique characteristics which may serve some functional purpose: perhaps acoustic, or wave attenuating, or even structurally stronger.  I would like to build a Fibonacci masonry spiral and see what it’s like.
I also built a curious sculpture which relates the golden rectangle to an icosahedron.  If 3 golden rectangles are assembled at right angles to each other (orthogonally: x,y and z axes) then the corners of these 3 rectangles describe the corners of an icosahedron.  These pictures describe it better than words.

Finally, I would like to create a series of rectangular masonry bricks which employ the golden ratio in a way which I have not seen done by others.  Each rectangular brick would possess the edge lengths of 0. 6180339887… (depth), 1.0 (width), and 1. 6180339887… (length).  I would like to create a whole series of these bricks, with many different sizes.  Each size would be scaled by the golden ratio; each would get larger (or smaller) by a factor of 1. 6180339887… or 0.6180339887…   It seems to me that these bricks could be arranged in some very interesting patterns.  It would be necessary to dry stack them in order to realize the curious geometric relationships, since mortar would change the geometric patterns between bricks.  I have done some crude hand sketches which illustrate the curious possibilities of such a modular series of rectangular bricks which employ the golden ratio, but I am not sharing this for now. I am curious what anyone else out there might come up with.  If you have any ideas, let’s share them!  Show me yours and I’ll show you mine. 

I made this bowl a few days later.  I tried to include helicity to the Fibonacci spiral; I used 8 bowls scaled by Fibonacci - the largest is 24 inches, 61 cm diameter.

I hope to hear from someone out there, let’s do Fibonacci masonry!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The mollusk, the arch and conjugate shearing

I’ve written repeatedly on this blog about nature’s masons.  Nature is the ultimate inspiration for design;  evolution showcases many masonry techniques.

Mollusks have recently been investigated by two researchers at MIT, graduate student Ling Li and Professor Christine Ortiz.  Their research findings were published in the journal ‘Nature Materials’ (March, 2014) and focused on the mollusk Placuna placenta

This mollusk’s shell exhibits very tough qualities (resistant to crack propagation) while simultaneously remaining optically transparent.  When subject to extreme focused stress -such as may be encountered by its predators- the calcite material of Placuna placenta’s shell demonstrated very efficient energy dissipation and the ability to localize deformation, limiting damage to the area directly impacted and preventing crack propagation.

The mollusk’s shell is comprised of around 99% calcite and around 1% organic material which bind the calcite crystals together.  This is somewhat similar to the sharp defensive spikes found in sea urchins (as discussed here) which are also made primarily of calcite with small amount of organic binder material present.  Pure calcite (without organic binder) is a brittle crystalline material which easily cracks.

The mechanism wherein the type of deformation in Placuna placenta shell occurs was studied by using an indentation apparatus consisting of a diamond tip which is forced into the mollusk shell.  The resulting damage to the indent region was then visually recorded using electron microscopy and diffraction techniques to characterize the resulting damage.

This research cleverly showed that the deformation (or strain) of the mollusk shell was a crystallographic ‘twinning’ response to the applied stress.  Crystal twinning occurs when two separate crystals share some of the same crystal lattice points in a symmetrical manner. The result is an intergrowth of two separate crystals in a variety of specific configurations. A twin boundary or composition surface separates the two crystals.

Part of the crystal shifts its position in a predictable way, leaving two regions with the same orientation as before, but with one portion shifted relative to the other. This twinning process occurs all around the stressed region, helping to form a kind of boundary that keeps the damage from spreading outward (preventing crack propagation).

This twinning mechanism provides for conjugate shearing.   The conjugate shearing mechanism has significance in terms of a toughened structure and is better than a conventional masonry arch structural response to an applied stress of voussoirs forming hinges.

Conjugate shearing was initially employed by geologists as a term to describe shear fractures in rocks subject to compressive stress.  The context and scale of this geologic feature have kept it from being analyzed, utilized or realized in the context of microscopic analysis or in the context of masonry design and modular structural systems.   Similarly, it is apparent that biologists and engineers have failed to fully appreciate the conjugate shearing mechanism demonstrated by the Placuna placenta’s calcite shell structure in response to applied stresses such as the indentation tests done by researchers at MIT.

The force required to cause conjugate shearing to occur (in an architectural arch or in a mollusk shell) is much higher than the force required to create a hinging mechanism as occurs in a conventional masonry arch comprised of wedge-shaped voussoirs.  For example, Thor’s hero shrew’s spine is configured in such a manner that it is disposed to conjugate shearing instead of creating a hinging mechanism which leads to buckling and collapse of the spine.  An adult human can stand upon and be supported by the tiny Thor’s hero shrew’s spine without breaking the poor animal’s back.  Conversely, a common shrew does not have the interlocking triangular design of Thor’s hero shrew’s vertebrae; its spine would buckle and collapse in the hinging mechanism of a conventional masonry arch if an adult human stood on top of it: the back would simply and easily be broken (poor regular shrew).

The calcite shell of Placuna placenta and its unique crystallographic twinning response to applied stress is another of Nature’s exemplars of exquisite design which incorporates the structural response of conjugate shearing to create a toughened structure which will blunt and stop crack propagation in an otherwise brittle material. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Oh Block, why interlock?

If a block in an arch can budge
then it just needs a nudge
for the arch to get weak
you’ll not hear a creak
or some warning snaps
before the collapse.
So what’s to be done?
How safe’s anyone?
If the blocks in an arch interlock
they can’t move, anchored block
no unnerving fragility
the arch itself is stability.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


I can’t think of a trade I’d trust
more than the trade you really must
believe in to actually do it right
trust a mason all day and night.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Anchor bricks

Bricks made of clay
have holes or recesses
to anchor the mortar.
It’s the best way
for mortar impresses
itself in the border.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A boy named Mason

He could’ve been a smith
or a sawyer or a cooper
or named for a trade with
skills so super,
he could’ve written apps,
been an Argonaut, Jason
too modest perhaps:
Mom calls him Mason.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mason's line

If you’re laying blocks or bricks
in a straight-lined wall with mortar
there are a few quick mason’s tricks
to keep your blocks and bricks in order.

Rather than place blocks askew
you can line them up just fine
all you really have to do
is guide your bricks with mason’s line.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vesica piscis arch

Two circles of the same size
overlap by their radius
forming a shape like your eyes
known as a vesica piscis.

Half of these almond-shaped things
creates a gothic motif
whose curved elegance brings
masonry stress some relief.

Less mass than a barrel vault
thinner walls support it
closer to a catenary, called
a “fishes bladder” distorted.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The biggest arch ever

St. Louis’ arch is quite airy
although it’s not masonary
at the top it’s kinda scary
but you needn’t be too wary
because it is a catenary.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Compassion for a rock

We take rocks for granted
unearthing them when planted
they get in the way of growing roots
and stop the plant’s precious shoots
but when we use rock for buildings
we don’t need to really kill things
like trees for wood or wool for rugs
before they're killed they get hugs
but rocks and stones on this planet
we just take them for granite.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The masonry of crystals

It’s more covalent,
less ionic
with rows prevalent
on atomic
scale of being and
such small seeing.

Less ambivalent
more ironic
when stacking meant
the sardonic
scale of bricks and
atoms’ tricks.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Watch iron rust
and see wood rot
but brick you trust
that it will not.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Parge coat

To make masonry walls like alabaster
It takes some fussing and some doting
Using a trowel, and mortar or plaster
Squeeze and press that parge coating.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


If a masonry dome is placed on top
of a square or hexagonal or octagonal room
the dome and the room will fit lop
sided, not at  all, not now, not any time soon.

But by making the dome and the room both fit
and being creative and inventive
the mason contrives a dome that will sit
upon a contrivance called a pedentive.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Today, Science tells us that the essence of nature is potential.
You may be ruled by stagnation without realizing it. Do not let it obliterate the richness of your myth. We can no longer afford to live with suffering. Pain is the antithesis of joy.
Reality has always been electrified with messengers whose essences are transformed into freedom. We are in the midst of a karmic awakening of transformation that will enable us to access the multiverse itself. We are at a crossroads of grace and materialism.
Deepak Chopra is not a mason, and I guess he's never laid a brick.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Masonry in nature

Nature’s masons are all around us
The turtle, the tortoise and seahorse
Thor’s Hero shrew’s spine confounds us

Radiolaria and mollusks of course
Coral and the sea anemone
With spikes so tough they do force

Surrender by the attacking enemy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Permanence of the flying buttress

A mechanism must be in place
for an arch to collapse
in both masonry time and space
then failure will perhaps

Occur because hinges form
allowing the arch to fold
the arch’s fate is torn
before it even gets too old.

But a gothic flying buttress
has no such possible way
for arch collapse to fret us
no mechanism any day

No hinge can ever work
it simply isn’t able
for flying buttress to lurch
is the stuff of fable.

A flying buttress can only fall
from a direct lightning hit
or settling underneath it all
perfect design, sums up it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Elevator Pitch

"Best damn block in all Jersey
Bar None!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cutting a block

To cut a masonry block
with a mason's hammer whack it
along a predetermined line
with a mason's hammer smack it
gently first then harder
with a mason's hammer crack it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Clean your tools

At the end of the day
your hands are beaten
a sore stiff back
there’s no cheatin’
or slacking off
important details:
the mortar left
on tools assails.
You have to clean
all your work
or mortar builds
you cannot shirk
the need to clean
is a real bit
or tools are trashed
just deal with it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Planetary arch

Our planet’s crust
is made of plates
they move around
with seismic traits.
Through plate tectonics
it is quite clear
when they move
they conjugate shear.
An arch arranged
as truly complete
describes the sphere
beneath your feet.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Striking joints

When a mason lays down mortar
and places a block atop it
it squishes out a little bit
this mess, you gotta stop it.

Using the edge of a trowel
you slice off the excess
then you strike it with a striker
and lose the mortar’s mess.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Masonry means solidity
in this world of cheap.
Planned obsolescence
is only obscene.
Worth and merit mean so little
in this world of quarterly returns.
Stand out and make good things

Monday, April 7, 2014

Masonry love sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a wooden home?
Thou art more sturdy and more sound
Rough winds don’t even shake your dome
And summer’s heat doth not confound
Sometimes too hot for standard construction
And often is this old wood blamed
And every wood would rot destruction
By chance, or nature’s course untamed
But thy eternal block shall not fade
Nor lose thy strength to mold or fungus
Nor shall one spray cans of Raid
When inside - spoils the air among us
So long as masons work and build with mortar
So long lives good building: in proper order.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A shameful plug

A mason’s design for a block
creates a shape to interlock
and assemble in a sphere
first described (yes) right here.
On this blog you saw it boy
it could be done as a toy.
Rather than be sad, remorseful
work with folks so resourceful:
high school students, good and smart
elevate the prior art.
Check it out, how they think:
Why work blindly? Just work smarter
to get funding use kickstarter!
You’ll see how left and right goes
snap together the round IKOS!


Saturday, April 5, 2014

The symbolic mason's trowel, unused

At the dawn of our nuclear age
nuclear power was all the rage.
“Atoms for Peace” was the catchy phrase
ushering in those brave new days
of unlimited power, it was claimed
safer too than what remained
of nuclear weapons used in war.
Safer than what had come before:
to prove their point they made a trowel
(as if they were a foolish owl)
acting wise in their cranium
a trowel made of uranium.
A symbolic gesture meant to soothe
the fears of those it sought to prove
there would be no nuclear spike
if it’s held by President Ike.
Smarter minds at last prevailed
the uranium trowel was not unveiled.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A lune on lunes

A masonry lune
like an orange peel slice
demonstrates the dome.

Two arch sections
opposite each other support another
countering arch section.

Free body diagrams
analyze a structure's forces displayed
succinctly and easily.

Like a poem
short enough and simply written
called a lune.