Fast, Cheap, and Out of the Box

Studio Description:

Masters of Architecture Options Studio, co-taught by Skylar Tibbits of MIT’s Self Assembly Lab, and Neil Thomas and Aran Chadwick founders of Atelier One Structural Engineering with teaching assistant Zach Cohen.

This options studio will explore fast, cheap & out of box material and construction processes that propose radical alternatives to today’s architecture and engineering systems. We are specifically interested in the fast, cheap, bottom-up or out of the box nature of the system. Fast – meaning we would like to fundamentally rethink the amount of time it takes to design and build today. Whether that is material production/extraction, shipping & logistics, the design process or the construction process itself, we are looking for radical improvement in speed, 10x, 100x or more rather than incremental development. Cheap - emphasizes both the cost of the material or the construction process as well as reducing the cost on the environment/site/energy consumption and various other burdens. We are looking for extremely cheap or extremely efficient and high-tech meets low-tech scenarios. Out of the box – meaning unorthodox, radical and revolutionary rather than incremental or constrained to what we know today. Similarly, out of the box hints at packaged and quickly-deployable systems, ready to go, rather than custom-built, complex assemblies.  We are also specifically interested in processes that are distributed or bottom-up as opposed to controlled, top-down, design and construction scenarios. The class will start with research, then move into a design and refinement phase and ultimately will lead to a full-scale collaborative built project.


This project produced a pop-up structure that was dropped from a 100' crane, self-assembled in the air and parachuted safely back to earth. 

This project targets construction scenarios where it is difficult to build, hard to get people, materials or equipment, time consuming, energy intensive, expensive, or dangerous. Structures could be dropped from a plane or helicopter and self-assemble as they float down to the earth for disaster relief, military applications or other extreme construction scenarios. 

Throughout the semester the students designed, prototyped, tested and finally fabricated the various elements to make the pop-up structure from fiberglass spline geometry to the folding sequence, self-deployment and parachutes. At Autodesk’s BUILD Space in Boston, the students built many prototypes from centimeter-scale to many meter-scale structures and thoroughly tested their successes/failure by dropping them from various heights. The fiberglass spline geometry was designed through small wire models and then successively larger fiberglass models to ensure the ease of folding as well as the quick-release of the pop-up structure without tangling. The radius of curvature based on the diameter of the rod and the amount of force provided for the pop-up process were tested iteratively. 

The parachutes were developed both digitally and through physical prototypes, ultimately being drop-tested to ensure they successful landing. The parachute was used to provide the activation force to initiate the pop-up process, as well as to slow the descent to the ground and ultimately provide a safe landing. A number of parachute geometries were explored to provide as much lifting force as possible while accounting for the vertical and horizontal wind conditions. 

The final test was conducted with a 100’ crane on MIT’s Briggs field. The crane was on-site throughout the day and many drop-tests were conducted to explore the folding process, the parachute design and the release mechanism. All of these factors could either hinder or promote the success pop-up and graceful decent of the structure. Many failures throughout the day were caused by tangling of the rods, failed release mechanisms, horizontal wind loading on the parachute flipping the structure and other complications. Ultimately, at roughly 2pm the pop-up structure was refined with a simple release mechanism, a clean folding sequence and a minimal parachute which successfully deployed, mid-air, and safely parachuted back to the ground!


Project Support:

Autodesk BUILD Space
MIT Museum
MIT Department of Architecture