1.012 | Spring 2002 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Civil Engineering Design


Function - Form - Material

Scope and Background

This design project intends to give each student an introduction to some basic design concepts. Specifically, it will introduce you to the interplay of function and form. In addition, you will get a feeling for what role material can play. Finally, issues of cost (economics) will have to be considered.

Any device or structure fulfills a function, possibly several functions; this is usually the purpose for which the structure or device is built. As you will see, the same function can be satisfied in many different ways.

The form of the device or structure results from a variety of factors, notably the material which in turn reflects strength, deformability, workability. Very often one likes to have the form reflect the function. Also, the form should be aesthetically pleasing. These comments indicate that defining a “good form” may be difficult and is certainly subjective.

Material properties affect the way in which the device/structure can fulfill its function. Some materials may never be capable of fulfilling a function, others may require forms which are unacceptable for aesthetic or other reasons and some may be too costly. When talking about cost, both the material cost and the cost of working with the material have to be considered.

All this may seem perfectly obvious but the interplay may be quite complex. The intent of this first design project is to let you get a feeling for this by going from playing to building and assessing what you do and why.


Since this is for most of you an initial design experience, the problem will be somewhat constrained. Each of you will, therefore, work with a given set of materials. Specifically, you will receive 2 aluminum cubes, 6 plexiglass cubes, 9 trapezoidal prisms and 6 equilateral triangular prisms made of plexiglass. In addition, you will get a small tube of glue, tape and a set of rubber bands:

Task 1 - Building of Free Structures

During the remainder of the first laboratory session you will build as many structures as you can. You are completely free in what you build, but for each structure you have to use all pieces. Also, you should try to build each structure twice exchanging the position of the aluminum cubes. For your first structures, you should simply try to pile the pieces on top/next to each other. Do not set your goal as to fulfill a function (i.e. bridging a gap or similar). Later on you may but you do not have to specify what you want to build and then do it.

After building a particular structure, you should think and write notes for you about:

  • Does the free form fulfill any function (which function)?
  • Say why you find the form attractive or not.
  • What role do material properties play?
  • If you define a function first how does the form reflect it?

Task 2 - Paperweight

As homework and part of the next laboratory, you have to develop a paperweight. The only conditions are:

  • Has to effectively hold down a pile which includes 8.5" x 11" and smaller sheets.
  • You are allowed not more than 6 unused elements.
  • The paperweight should be able to sustain normal handling without falling apart (e.g. falling off the paper pile onto the desk)
  • The workmanship should be “clean” (see hints below).

Workmanship Hints

Faces of pieces that are to be glued together should be completely and evenly covered with glue. Otherwise the glue can be seen on the connections. You should also keep visible surfaces clean (especially of glue) and try not to scratch them. Tapes and rubberbands are intended only for temporary connections.