Make Architecture



13 – Gearbricks: Final Project

Gear Bricks

The goal for this project is to create a set of modular, ‘geared bricks’.  These bricks are categorized in two ways: performance bricks that control moving panels and have apertures, and connector bricks that transfer gear movement into and out-of surrounding bricks.  These can be stacked together to form varying courses of motion that are embodied in a wall.


For the moving panels I looked at Steven Holl’s storefront for art and architecture:

I looked at Rem Koolhas’ Maison Bordeaux project, and Olsin Kundig’s Chicken Point Cabin, and Gerrit Reitveld’s Schroder House, as examples of simple gearing mechanisms that transform a space on a disproportionately large-scale.

I looked at Jean Nouvel’s Arabic Institute for aggregated gear mechanisms.

and for the mechanical gearing precedents, I looked at th Reuleaux Collection of demonstration gears.

and early pulley-shaft operated woodshops and printing presses.

the project at hand……


  • 1/8″ masonite.  2 sheets at 24″x36″
  • 1/4-20 hardware: 20 carriage bolts at 3/4″long, 40 washers, 20 fender washers, 40 nuts, 20locknuts
  • 7 all-thread rods, 1/4-20 by 12″ long
  • 1/2″ MDF. 1 sheet at 4’x3′
  • Locktite
  • spray paint
  • woodglue

Tools Used

  • Geargen script in Rhino
  • CNC Router
  • Lasercutter
  • disk sander
  • file
  • needlenose pliers
  • adjustable wrench
  • portable drill


Design –  I designed the gears using Geargen in Rhino.  I created a template set, all with the same tooth-pitch.  In the script I used ‘maintain pitchcircle’ and made a series with roughly 2″, 3″, 4″, 5″, and 6″ diameters.  I then layed out 12″x12″ frame boxes and designed the performance and transfer of gear movements, box slots, pivot points, etc.  I chose to mount the flat gears on carriage bolts so that the face of each box has square mortises to accept the carriage nut and hold the bolts firmly in place.  I used all 1/4″ hardware and holes so the pivot circles would be standardized.

Fabrication – First I cnc cut the box frames out of 1/2″ mdf.  For the toolpath, it was essential to do all of the hole-drilling first, the pocket drilling second for the rabbet along the front edge of the boxes, and the profiles last.

these require hand filing due to fuzzy edges off the machine.

Next I lasercut the gears and box lids out of the masonite.

the lasercut sheet layout.

Finally the assembly process.  It was helpful to have the original design file open for reference since there are many parts in specific relationship to one another…  I started with assembling the frames.

These were made with a simplified box joint corner.

They required some small chiseling to corner the rabbets that the lids would sit into.

But then the lids fit tightly, adding to the structure of the boxes.  With the lids on, I could start assembling the gears inside.

Alignment along the all-thread rods was crucial to making everything work, as well as adding washers as spacers underneath the flat gears, making the connection to the vertical gears very solid.

lots of hardware on hand.  The drill is for counter sinking the pivot rod holes on the outside of the boxes, something the cnc couldn’t do, since it can’t machine both sides of the material.

proto-assembly of box A.

Because each box related to the configuration of the next, aligning the gears and working on all the boxes at the same time was essential.

Also, because of the particular gear tooth profile I used, one that was angular, many of the small gears would bind on one another.  So, in the proto-assembly stage, I went through and filed or sanded many of the teeth to make the connections smoother.

Before putting Locktite on the nuts and setting the gears permanently into place on the all-thread pivots, I disassembled the boxes and spraypainted the front side.  Because MDF has a front/back side, I wanted them to have a uniformity facing out that was not off the shelf but said something about the differentiation of gear bricks.

the first two boxes working in tandem

here you can see that the connector box also has the crank arm that powers the boxes, and you can see the performance of box A.

the second two boxes:

the whole array:

final brick wall!

Previous Research  on gear use/configurations

waterjet gearbox

3d print ratchet and pawl

planetary gearing


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Instructor: Nick Gelpi TA: Skylar Tibbits TA: Varvara Toulkeridou
Class Times, Monday, 1-4pm - room 5-216
4.184 is an intensive introduction to methods of making explored through a wide range of brief but focused 1-week exercises. We'll engage the real and leave behind representation in the focused context of this class gaining skills for utilizing a range of fabrication machines and technologies from lasercutting, waterjet, 3D printing, welding, formworking-molding, casting, gears, joints and composites.
In this workshop we'll constrain ourselves to the territory of the 1:1. Students will represent architectural constructions at full scale and develop a more intimate relationship with technology by engaging the tools and techniques that empower us. We will gain access to the most cutting edge machines and technologies in the MARS lab at the Center for Bits and Atoms.
The second layer of information for this course will be to look at a series of case studies in which construction methods and technologies have played a dominant role in the design process .
Over the past 20 years, architects have focused on the technology of representation to create new ideas of what architecture could be. Looking back today, much of that research failed to substantially change the way we design buildings by focusing on apriori formal configurations. This class makes the contention that this failure comes from a lack of considerations of the potentials within fabrication knowledge. We look to the future of what building might become, given the expanded palette of personalize-able technologies available to us as architects. Students will participate in curious technological and material investigations, to discover the potentials, known and unknown, for these various technologies.
The sub-disciplines of what's drawn and what's built have been compartmentalized and disassociated as the representational tools of architecture have distanced themselves from the techniques of making. At the same time the technologies for “making” in architecture have provided us with new possibilities for reinventing how we translate into reality, the immaterial representations of architecture.


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