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12 Blocks


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Xululabs, Xululabs

Project Name

12 Blocks

Project Status

Concept Proposal


  • Devan Padmanabhan
  • Dorsey and Whitney



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Project Description

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

Research and Solution: The primary goal of the project was to define the benefits and deficiencies of the concrete masonry unit (CMU) 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 be considered: the combination of materials that make up each block; how wear and tear—including gravity and weather—affect components of the block form work; and conditions of specific CMU installations. The team determined that newly engineered blocks could become stronger, more durable, more environmentally sensitive, and even more useful as surfaces once installed.

From this research emerged 12 different reconfigurations of the standard CMU that can completely redefine its traditional uses. These modified blocks create a visually complex surface, in terms of size, configuration, or pattern, but also can be used to form a microenvironment to grow plant matter or support avian life. By pushing the boundaries of what a CMU can do, LOOM, a five-person studio in St. Paul, Minn., envisions a much more dynamic building material. The standard CMU becomes not-so-standard.
The jury was impressed with the ingenuity of the schemes (see image gallery). Some of the configurations are particularly arresting, like Habitat, which incorporates niches where birds can roost and build nests. Others are much more subtle in their approach. The jury remarked upon the simplicity of the overall project: “The process, they claim, is very simple because there's just this series of molds that form the patterns,” said Reed Kroloff. “But it's the same system each time; it just changes shape, and I think that really is pretty great.”

One concern, however, was the too-perfect appearance of the abundant computer models. Victoria Meyers noted, The computer drawings are not as convincing to me as the actual physical object, which is much less perfect. And if these things were perfect, they would not be nice. If they're imperfect, they're much nicer.”
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