An image of a Modulex brick (left) next to a LEGO brick right. Both are 4x2 studs, but the Modulex brick is much smaller at 20x10x5 mm vs the LEGO's 32x16x9.6 mm.

Modulex Is LEGO’s Long Lost Cousin

We love LEGO here at Hackaday, but did you know that LEGO spun off a parallel product line made for architectural models called Modulex?

[Peter Dibble] takes us on a deep dive through the history of Modulex, starting with Godtfred Kirk Christiansen┬áneeding a better way to model actual buildings after trying to design a house in LEGO. The LEGO brick’s 5:5:6 ratio proved challenging for modeling full-sized projects, so Modulex was conceived around a 1:1:1 ratio 5 mm cube. This change means Modulex is not compatible with LEGO System bricks.

As architectural styles morphed through the mid-20th Century, designs based around blocky shapes became passe, and Modulex pivoted to targeting factory and city planning customers. Products later branched out to include wall charts and Plancopy photocopy-able planners along with reconfigurable signage. Modulex (now ASI) still goes on as one of the biggest signage companies in the world, but discontinued the bricks in 2004. An attempt was made to revive Modulex bricks in 2015, but LEGO Group bought the company that had the rights to the bricks and has no intention of producing Modulex.

For more LEGO hacks, checkout this machine learning LEGO sorter or these giant LEGO-like pieces.

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A Medieval Gothic Monastery Built Using CAD / CAM

Just because you’re a monk doesn’t mean you can’t use CAD. The Carmelite monks of Wyoming are building a grandiose Gothic Monastery, and it’s awe inspiring how they are managing to build it.

The Carmelite monks needed a new, larger monastery to house their growing numbers, and found a parcel of land near Meeteetse Creek in Wyoming. The design of their new Gothic monastery was outsourced to an architectural firm. Gothic architecture is characterised by key architectural elements such as pointed arches, large stained glass windows, rib vaults, flying buttresses, pinnacles and spires, elaborate entry portals, and ornate decoration.

After some research, the monks settled on using Kansas Silverdale limestone for the monastery. Cutting and carving the elaborate stone pieces required for such a project, within time and cost constraints, could only be achieved using CNC machines. Hand carving was ruled out as it was a very slow process, would cost a whole lot more, and it wouldn’t be easy to find the artisans for the job. So when it came to shortlisting vendors for the vast amount of stone cutting and carving required for construction, the monks found themselves alarmed at how prohibitively expensive it would turn out to be.

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Buy The Right To Build A Nakagin Tower Anywhere

We’re guessing that among Hackaday’s readership are plenty of futurists, and while the past might be the wrong direction in which to look when considering futurism, we wouldn’t blame any of them for hankering for the days when futurism was mainstream.

Perhaps one of the most globally iconic buildings of that era could have been found in Tokyo, in the form of the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Metabolist apartment block. This pioneering structure, in which individual apartments were conceived as plug-in units that could be moved or changed at will, never achieved its potential and was dismantled, looking more post-apocalyptic than futuristic in early 2022, but it could live on in both digital form and reconstructed elsewhere as the rights to its design are being auctioned.

Unfortunately there appears to be some NFT mumbo-jumbo associated with the sale, but what’s up for auction is a complete CAD model along with the rights to build either real or virtual copies of the building. It’s unlikely that any Hackaday readers will pony up for their own Metabolist skyscraper, but the interest lies not only in the love of a future that never quite happened, but in the engineering behind the structure. Where this is being written as in many other places there is simultaneously a chronic housing shortage and a housing system wedded to the outdated building techniques of a previous century, so the thought of updated equivalents of the Nakagin Tower offering the chance of modular interchangeable housing in an era perhaps more suited to it than the 1970s is an intriguing one. Now that we’re living in the future, perhaps it’s time to give futurism another chance.

Regular readers will have spotted this isn’t the first time we’ve brought you a taste of futuristic living.

Header: Svetlov Artem, CC0.

3D Printed Concrete Beam Improves Sustainability

Many of the 3D printed houses and structures we’ve seen use concrete and are — frankly — a little underwhelming. Making big squares out of concrete isn’t that hard and while we are sure there is some benefit, it isn’t overwhelming. [Andy Coward] apparently felt the same way and set out to find ways that 3D printing could offer unique benefits in building structures. The result: a beam that would be difficult to create with conventional techniques but is easy to make with a printer. The advantage is that it uses 78% less concrete than a conventional beam with the same properties.

The key is that in a normal beam, not much of the concrete is bearing a significant load. It is simply there because you need some concrete on one side of the beam and then some more on the other side. In the center, surprisingly little of the concrete actually supports anything. The new beam takes advantage of this along with a steel reinforcement at a strategic point. Still, it uses 70% less steel than a typical reinforced beam.

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Tree Forks As Natural Composite Joints In Architecture

A problem facing architects when designing complex three-dimensional structures lies in their joints, which must be strong enough to take the loads and vector forces applied by the structure, yet light enough not to dominate it. Many efforts have been made to use generative design techniques or clever composites to fabricate them, but as Dezeen reports, a team at MIT are exploring an unexpected alternative in the form of naturally occurring tree forks.

The point at which a tree branch forks from its trunk is a natural composite material formed of an interlocking mesh of wood grain fibres. Timber processors discard these parts of the tree as they interfere with the production of smooth timber, but the same properties that make them support the weight of a branch are it seems perfect for the architects’ needs.

The clever part of the MIT team’s work lies in scanning and cataloguing a library of forks, allowing them to be matched from the database to vertices in an architectural design. The forks are subject to minimal machining before being incorporated into the structure, and to prove it the MIT folks have made a test structure. It’s not uncommon to see medieval barns or half-timbered houses using curved pieces of wood in their natural shapes, so it’s not surprising to see that this 21st century innovation isn’t an entirely new technique.

Ditching X86, Apple Starts An ARM Race

At its annual World Wide Developer Conference, Apple dropped many jaws when announcing that their Mac line will be switching away from Intel processors before the year is out. Intel’s x86 architecture is the third to grace Apple’s desktop computer products, succeeding PowerPC and the Motorola 68000 family before it.

In its place will be Apple’s own custom silicon, based on 64-bit ARM architecture. Apple are by no means the first to try and bring ARM chips to bear for general purpose computing, but can they succeed where others have failed?

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Advanced Timber Architecture Gives New Life To Wooden Structures

When it comes to building materials, wood doesn’t always draw the most attention as the strongest in the bunch. That honor usually goes to concrete and steel – steel embedded in concrete provides support and a foundation for tall buildings, while concrete increases tensile strength and can be formed into a variety of shapes with the help of rebar. Wood, on the other hand, decays and is vulnerable to moisture damage and fire.

That’s not necessarily the case anymore, thanks to the development of advanced timber. New materials like glulam, or sheets of timber bonded with moisture-resistant structural adhesives, can be produced using two to three times less energy than steel, making them environmentally-friendly alternatives to other building materials. Granted, this requires the beams to be burned at the end of their lifespan, but glulam still has an equivalent or better environmental profile compared to steel, not to mention a lower cost.

Among engineered wood, there are some varieties more commonly used among hobbyists – MDF, plywood, or particle board for instance. Others, like Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) are more common among building materials. While CLT buildings have existed for decades, recently major cities like Stockholm and Vancouver have seen a resurgence of timber construction. Since wood can theoretically store carbon for the entire length of its lifespan, up to 0.8 tons in a cubic meter of spruce, some architecture firms like Oslotre are building houses with a negative carbon footprint.

Projects like Sidewalk Labs and Masthamnen are proposing entire neighborhoods and skyscrapers built from advanced timber. Compared to International Style architecture, characterized by gray concrete, shiny metal, and glass, this movement could be a step towards returning to natural architectural forms. Given the stress reducing effects of green spaces in cities, engineered wood buildings could bridge the gap between modern architectural styles and natural woodlands.