ARCHITECT magazine, a sister publication of MASONRY CONSTRUCTION, recently conducted its first annual R+D Awards. The goal of the contest was to promote the value of research and foster dialogue among architects, engineers, and manufacturers.

A panel of three architectural experts faced the difficult task of picking the winners. The jurors were fascinated not only by the finished projects and products, but also by the entries' formative stages and the discarded strategies that preceded them. A major challenge for the jury was to give equal consideration to many different types of submissions – building projects, construction details, entire buildings – entered by architects and commercial manufacturers.

One of the five winners was entitled “12 Blocks,” submitted by LOOM, St. Paul, Minn. The entry presented a series of unique new designs for the standard concrete block. Ralph Nelson and Dan Clark were the principal investigators, and Don Vu was the design collaborator.

The judging panel was impressed with the ingenuity of the various block schemes, and remarked about the simplicity of the overall project. “The process is very simple because there is just a series of molds that form the patterns,” said Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and principal of jones/kroloff, a design consulting firm. “It's the same basic system each time, but changes shape.”

Challenge: How can the standard concrete masonry unit be re-examined, renewed, and ultimately improved?

Planning: About 18 million tons of concrete block are created each year in the United States. This block is a time tested, benign building component with several virtues and a few deficiencies. The product is inherently a regional material, with points of production and use often less than 100 miles apart. The products are available in several sizes, with 8 in. x 8 in. x 16 in. being the dominant configuration; however, the information presented below is transformable to various sizes of block, including retaining wall, dry stack, and landscape.

The design team examined the full cycle of concrete block as a system when looking for areas of improvement. Specifically, raw materials, embodied energy, transportation, production, distribution, installation, time, structure, enclosure, finish, weathering, maintenance, entropy, destruction, recycling, and transformation were evaluated.

Research and Solution: The primary goal of the project was to define the benefits and deficiencies of the concrete masonry unit as it exists today and to improve upon the current form, while taking into account the full life cycle of the product. The research team settled on three specific areas to consider.

First, material ingredients constituting each block and how they could be improved upon to be more ecologically sensitive, utilize local waste materials, and demonstrate regional characteristics.

Second, wear on components of the block formwork. The team looked at how to achieve greater longevity of the components by increasing the tolerance margins, allowing for greater latitude in block face configuration, and using new technologies for fabrication.

Third, gravity, weathering forces, and habitat defining characteristics and how reconfiguring the faces affect these factors.

The team determined that newly engineered blocks could become stronger, more durable, more environmentally sensitive, and more useful as surfaces once installed.

LOOM focused on very specific conditions that prompted minor improvements with dramatic outcomes. From this research emerged 12 different reconfigurations of the standard CMU that can completely redefine its traditional uses (32 prototypes were considered). These modified blocks create a visually complex surface in terms of size, configuration, or pattern, and also can be used to form a microenvironment to grow plant matter or support avian life.

A series of photographs reveals what the individual blocks look like, along with a view of a sample wall using them. A series of four other digital renderings of the blocks shows how the environment and elements interact on some of the profiles.

By pushing the boundaries of what a CMU can do, LOOM envisions a much more dynamic building material. The standard CMU suddenly becomes “not-so-standard.”

Some of this material originally appeared in ARCHITECT magazine.

The 12 Block project is fully copyrighted and patent pending it its entirety. Patent Consultant: Devan Padmanabhan, Dorsey and Whitney.

Related Links

View the slideshow of the 12 blocks, right here.