19th century bicycle inspires design for climate change today

UB architecture student Tom Cleary rides "Impulse" during the laufmaschine relay race in Cleveland. "Impulse" won the faculty award for best design.

UB architecture student Tom Cleary rides "Impulse" during the laufmaschine relay race in Cleveland. "Impulse" won the faculty award for best design.

by Dave Hill

Published February 27, 2019 This content is archived.


The laufmaschine was a funny looking contraption with an even funnier sounding name. But it was invented by a German nobleman in 1816 in response to a very serious climate crisis that impacted the entire world.

Some 200 years later, this rudimentary precursor to the bicycle remains relevant.

Junior architecture students at UB spent the first three weeks of this semester learning about the laufmaschine (also known as the dandy horse). Then, they designed and built their own vehicles. One intrepid team fashioned theirs out of hockey sticks and skate laces.

Earlier this month, they tested them — the class built 15 in all — on a newly opened bike path in the Cleveland Flats area, where they’re proposing designs for a bicycle institute and community center as part of the studio project.

The studio is being coordinated by Nick Rajkovich, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning. The faculty co-leads are Brian Carter, professor; Elaine Chow, adjunct instructor; Kenneth MacKay, clinical associate professor; and Brad Wales, clinical assistant professor.

“The laufmaschine was designed 200 years ago in response to a climate crisis. It still holds valuable lessons today because there’s a lot of interest in the bicycle as a carbon-neutral mode of transportation,” explains Rajkovich, whose research focuses on climate resilience, specifically how buildings and cities need to respond to climate change.

Watch the evolution of one student team’s project, “Gazelle,” from fabrication in the shop to its run in the studio-wide relay race in Cleveland. Video by John Lauder

The 'year without a summer'

The situation was dire in 1815. Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in what remains the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The eruption spread nearly 36 cubic miles of ash into the atmosphere, which reduced the amount of sunlight that was able to reach the Earth’s surface. Historians have argued that this led to an approximately 3 degrees Celsius drop in temperature. Crops couldn’t grow. It snowed in the Northeastern U.S. in the summer — 1816 became known as the “year without a summer.”

“It caused people to completely change their modes of transportation because they had to kill off their oxen and horses, which were dying from a lack of food,” Rajkovich says.

This spring, Rajkovich and his faculty co-leads asked their 74 students to think about how climate change is impacting the world today while they examine the laufmaschine and the events of the early 19th century.

“Developing our own laufmaschines in studio will encourage us to research issues of personal transportation, climate resilience and structural techniques,” Rajkovich says.

“The other thing that we’re going to be exploring as part of this project is the idea of climate resilience,” Rajkovich told the class recently. “We’re going to be talking about how buildings need to begin to respond to climate change and how we need to begin to have facilities in different cities that can act as an area of refuge for people in the event that there is some kind of climate-related emergency. The laufmaschine was designed and built as a response to climate change in 1816.”

Imaginations run wild

Students got pretty creative with their laufmaschines. Take, for instance, team Zamboni, which won the relay-style race the class staged in Cleveland. The team constructed its vehicle out of used hockey sticks, with a goalie pad for the seat.

“Hockey sticks are made in ply, so it’s basically plywood but it’s reinforced with fiberglass resin. When you take a slap shot, right at the point of impact where it takes the most force, it’s reinforced with fiberglass so we said, ‘OK, let’s see how many sticks we need to make a laufmaschine,’” explains architecture student Adara Zullo, who played hockey as a kid in Albany.

The group — which included Camilo Copete, Nicholas Hills, Griffin Perry and James Renda — discovered that while fiberglass is strong, the structure becomes compromised once it’s drilled into. To solve that problem, Zamboni dipped hockey skate laces in fiberglass resin and used Japanese lashing techniques to join the angles together.

“We doubled them up where the torque would be the greatest,” Zullo adds. “We were going for speed. There was a slight hill and I think that’s where we won. We hauled butt down that.”

Students work on their assemblies in the Fabrication Workshop.

Students work on their assemblies during a project review in the Fabrication Workshop earlier this month. Photo by Yifan He

Kevin Medina and his team built Impulse, a laufmaschine that deftly incorporates curved wood into the support frame.

“The curves kind of show the narrative of something that’s in motion,” says Medina, whose laufmaschine won the faculty award for best design. “An engineering feat with this was the discovery of how we could bend wood at those angles.”

To achieve that, the team — which included Lovepreet Kaur, Ben Ezquerra, Tom Cleary and Carlos Cuadrado — soaked pieces of oak, steamed them and then set them on a jig that curved them. “The faculty felt it was pretty remarkable what this team had tried to do in terms of pulling together and working through bent wood as an entire process,” Rajkovich told the class after announcing the design award. “This really was a labor of love for this team.”

Impulse also fared pretty well in the laufmaschine relay in Cleveland. “It was amazing to see our project come to life,” Medina says of the experience. “And it helped us relate to the site better. It was three weeks of a lot of work, but it was rewarding. I’ve shown it to a lot of people and they’re amazed by it.”

Laufmachine lounge.

Team member Jaidon Ramirez shows how LoungeMachine got its name, and why it won the People's Choice award in class — mostly because students thought it looked comfortable. Teammates included Yaliana Hernandez, Cristopher Hopkins and Xiaofeng Jiang.

Designing bicycle institute for Cleveland’s Flats

There was a good reason Rajkovich tasked his students with researching laufmaschines and bicycles for the first part of the semester: The second half will see them develop designs for a proposed bicycle institute/community center/resilience hub in the Cleveland Flats area.

The bike institute would offer workshop space where people could learn how to fix or build bicycles. There would be additional space in the approximately 23,000-square-foot building for a community center.

It ties into an exercise Rajkovich had his students do on the first day of class: They were each given an index card and asked to sketch a bicycle. It seems simple. However, when you break it all down, the way the frame and wheels and gears all come together is actually much more complex. A building is the same.

As they design their bicycle institutes, students will have to consider how the building will be affected by a changing climate in the decades to come. Cleveland’s average temperature has increased 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, Rajkovich notes. Meanwhile, there’s been a 20 percent increase in precipitation.

“That’s a lot of water, and it’s a pretty significant amount of change,” he says. “Some of that is attributable to urbanization and building out the city. But part of it is also due to climate change.”

For the class critique at the end of the semester, Rajkovich hopes to invite representatives from various Cleveland organizations, including LAND studio, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.