This review originally appeared in The Citizen Scientist, an electronic publication of the Society for Amateur Scientists.
Phil Jergenson, Richard Jergenson, Wilma Keppel. How to Build With Grid Beam. A Fast, Easy, and Affordable System for Constructing Almost Anything. (New Society Publishers), 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-613-1.
Reviewed by Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
How to Build With Grid Beam is a guide to a simple, clever, and flexible system of construction in the best tradition of Buckminster Fuller and similar visionaries. The grid beam system can be used for a wide range of home-built projects, from storage units to work spaces to furniture, vehicles, and structures. The system relies on the use of “sticks” or beams of square tube steel or aluminum or wood with holes placed at regular intervals along the length of each stick. Using bolts or other fasteners, these sticks can be assembled quickly and easily into structures that are quite robust and easily adapted and reconfigured. And when you are finished with a project, you simply disassemble the project and use the components for something else. By using adapters and add-ons, most of which can be found in hardware stores, industrial supply houses, or fabricated in even a modestly-equipped shop, the system can be expanded to encompass a staggering array of applications.
This system has been around, in some form or another, for quite some time. I remember reading a note in an old copy of Whole Earth Review years ago about a book by one of the inventors of grid beam, Ken Isaacs, titled How to Build Your Own Living Structures I was intrigued by it. Unfortunately, it was out of print and I was broke anyhow. Years later when I saw a copy on a used book web site, I was still broke. So I never acquired my own copy. But no matter. My copy of How to Build With Grid Beam has gotten a lot of use since I purchased it a couple of weeks ago.
Everyone who sees this system used or explained is tempted to draw comparisons with the Erector Set, first marketed by A. C. Gilbert in 1913. But while the Erector Set embodied Gilbert’s belief that children learn through play, what is less well known is the role of the Erector Set as an engineering prototyping tool. Donald Bailey of the Royal Engineers used an erector set in 1940 to prototype the famous portable Bailey Bridge that allowed allied forces to cross rivers quickly. Yale Medical School student William Sewell created the first working artificial heart in 1949 with Erector girders, motor, and some pieces of rubber from a party noisemaker. Using this device, he succeeded in keeping a dog alive for 63 minutes. (See Susan Adams, “Boy Toy” Forbes, 11 Nov. 2002)
The value of the Erector Set as an educational tool was cemented when in 1918 the US Council of Defense ordered all toy factories to stop manufacturing toys and retool to produce war materiel. Gilbert lobbied successfully to keep his and other toy factories making toys by meeting with the Council and bringing Erector Sets for them to look at. Before long, the legislators were all down on the floor playing with the sets, and came away convinced that toys such as Gilbert’s were necessary to shape the minds of future engineers and architects.
Now, imagine the Erector Set taken to the next order of magnitude.
Before launching into more detail about grid beam, allow me a tangent on the intimate relationship between invention, engineering, and play. The examples I cited above in which Erector Sets were used to model or prototype a new invention are interesting because they embody the fusion between play and engineering. But what is remarkable to me is that this even has to be pointed out. I submit that the reason for this is that when a creative child (i.e., most children) gets older, their accustomed tools of creativity normally do not follow them into adulthood. Instances of using toys as part of the “grownup” process of building and engineering are sufficiently unusual that they are considered newsworthy.
One of the reasons I found the grid beam system so fascinating is because while it can be described as “an Erector Set for adults”, I hasten to point out (as the book does) that this system is simple enough to be used by children. And if some children’s passion for building and tinkering follows them into adulthood, they need not leave behind the tools that nurtured their nascent construction and engineering skills. It’s harder to maintain the child’s interest in creativity when one’s creative tools (and, by implication, the activities associated with them) are considered “toys” to be “outgrown” at some point.
Using the grid beam system requires a remarkably small amount of specialized know-how. There are a few styles of joints one will become familiar with, and you have to allow for the fact that this system favors 90-degree joints. In theory this would seem like a serious restriction, but in practice it isn’t. Angular joints are doable and functional. The book details different categories of projects in increasing complexity, from simple tables and stands to furniture to shop and building tools, structures, alternate energy projects, vehicles, and so forth. Along the way you get lots of good tips and info on specialized adapters and related hardware that extend the usefulness of a basic grid beam setup.
How to Build With Grid Beam also provides a lot of good information on basic engineering concepts necessary to construct items that will bear up under their intended use. The book points out how most projects are built around a frame, and constructing the right kind of frame is key. You will learn how to create box frames, offset frames, stem frames, and when to use which one. Bracing, and building beams and trusses is also covered, along with lots of noteworthy safety tips.
The ability to quickly assemble, disassemble, and “revise” a design on the fly makes grid beam the perfect prototyping tool. The ability to reuse just about every piece of a grid beam project make this ideal for teaching engineering concepts. One of A. C. Gilbert’s beliefs was that inventing could and should be taught as a subject in schools. While I suspect that the constraints of educational practice might make this difficult to do well, Chapter 12 “Learning and Innovation” gives numerous examples of how kids with zero building or tool-wielding skills have used grid beam systems to create working electric cars and other complex projects.
Another important advantage of grid beam concerns documentation. Unlike conventional engineering projects, grid beam projects can be replicated with little more than a couple of decent photos. They just need to show where the sticks go and let you count the holes, and you can usually build your own version. And if you make a mistake, fixing it is easy. This has significant implications for grid beam as a prototyping and building tool of choice among the DIY fraternity.
Later chapters provide more detailed information about the components of the grid beam panoply, such as where to get the beam materials, the specifications to look for (or look out for), and the appropriate uses for different kinds of materials, add-ons, and modifications. There are instructions for ambitious types who want to drill their own sticks. A list of suppliers is also included.
If your scientific bent includes engineering, or if you are just looking for a new set of options for building support structures for your science activities, or even if you’re just looking for something to make your life more interesting, fun, and probably cheaper, this book is a must. It’s simply jammed with lots of ideas to get your started.
Grid beam is part of a growing trend in smaller scale, even personalized technology that nonetheless can potentially rival the reach and influence of conventional production and manufacturing. Where once we had “desktop computing” and “desktop publishing,” we now are seeing “desktop engineering” and even “desktop manufacturing.” Several emerging technologies such as 3D printers or “fabbers,” increasingly user friendly microcontroller technology, and open source everything are enabling this phenomenon. What comes out of this confluence of technology is the potential for a revolutionary shift in how things get designed, built, and distributed. I predict that grid beam will be a critical element of the resultant mix of technologies that shapes the next stage of technological evolution.