Maggie, Maguire Fellow in Dallas

Maggie I. is a graduate student studying design and innovation. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. She is spending the summer learning more about compressed earth block technology, and designing modular building systems for rural communities.

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Modeling and Exploring

The final stretch of my time as a Maguire fellow has brought about two critical stages of the design process: modeling and exploring applications.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working to create a small collection of models. Since the aim of my projects has been to make modular construction more accessible, the models needed to express the modules in their simplest form. They are commonly known as “massing models,” and essentially reduce a more complex shape into its most basic geometric volume.

In order to ensure the different modules could fit together, I created the first module to be just over 10’x10′ (well above the international standard for a bedroom). From that basic module I derived two more sizes, a half and a double (5’x10′ and 20’x10′, respectively). Since all the modules have at least two 10′ walls, they can be sequenced in any arrangement. Each house, then, could be comprised of any number and any type of module chosen by the family constructing it.

Though this design might seem straightforward enough, it didn’t come together overnight. The process can feel a bit slow at times, but I hope it can give you a glimpse into my former life as an architecture student.

It usually begins with a silly idea. A pattern, material, work of art, or building. In this case, it was the foam mats you probably haven’t seen since you were in kindergarten:

Just as we wanted the final product (a home) to be customizable, Adam and I also wanted the model to reflect that characteristic. A great way to accomplish that would be walls that could be removed and reconnected in different sequences. Luckily, I had actually done a study on interlocking, hinge-less boxes during my junior year of undergrad, but had learned that friction-based joints can be fairly temperamental. Adam thought of the foam mats, and I proceeded forward with the idea of toothed walls.

I began with a paper study. It’s important that early models take very little time to imagine and produce. It allows you to move quickly from idea to idea, learning as much as you can before committing to a design.

Next, I worked with chipboard to experiment with configurations.

Thanks to the DIG,I found an online tool that could make an exploded drawing of a box with teeth, as Adam had originally suggested.

After it produced the “standard” unit, I changed the size of the panels for the double and half rooms. I also removed most of the ceiling so the interior would be visible. The next step was to determine just how many teeth were needed to hold the model together.

While the box with only two teeth was faster to put together, the walls were far less sturdy. Since the models are meant to be played with and rearranged, I decided on the left option.

I made trials for all three sizes out of chipboard, and then transitioned to wood.

The final step was to introduce apertures (doors and windows).

Aside from model making, I’ve also been brainstorming different applications for the work that I’ve done over the summer. As I learned during CEB training at the beginning of the summer, there is still a lot of work to be done to standardize earthen construction, particularly here in the U.S.

Another research project at SMU is helping to do just that. Dr. Brett Story and his research assistant, Jase, have been working on structural and thermal tests for the blocks over the past year. I had the chance to meet with them last week, and learn more about the thermal standardization they’re hoping to achieve. We went out to the Dwell Earth training site, in Irving, to install some wireless temperature loggers. These little loggers will record the temperature every 10 minutes at five different locations on the site.

The first is the ambient temperature. You can see the logger hanging off the eaves. The second is within the shed itself.

The other three loggers are suspended within these three little structures:

The first is made of plywood, the second of concrete cinder blocks, the third of earth blocks. Over the next few months, Dr. Story and Jase will observe and record the internal temperature of the three small structures. This data will then be used as an integral component to the earth block’s standardization as a construction material.

I am so sad to see the end of my time as a Maguire Fellow come to an end, but thrilled to announce that I will be able to continue working alongside Dwell Earth, using much of what I learned through this project, during the academic year! As a fellow at the Hunt Institute, I will be part of a new project to bring an earthen village to the SMU Taos campus. I am hopeful that the project will help make earthen blocks more accessible to the general population, and help with the standardization of this amazing construction process.

Thanks for following along on this journey! If you have any questions or would like to continue the conversation, reach out to me at

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