The Bartlett School of Architecture


Mengdi Mao

Image: Bespoke Bricks by Mengdi Mao


Limited Bespoke: The Architecture of Freeform Vaults with Interlocking Blocks

First and second supervisors 


In traditional freeform brick vaults, geometric complexity emerges from the arrangement of standard bricks rather than bespoke brick blocks. Furthermore, binding identical bricks into a stable structure requires significant resources including mortar, formwork, and skilled labour for complex onsite assembly. This research will develop an interlocking brick system using digital fabrication technologies to create a freeform compression-only vault. In this mortar-free system, the number of bespoke blocks will be minimised. 

The research methodology will combine design practice and material practice and will have a circular workflow with timely feedback into iterations. Both academic and industrial environments are considered, and prototypes will be produced in multiple scales given the variable characteristics and materiality of local clay, brick modules, and overall geometry. The research findings and their applicability in practice will be evaluated through a final built project. 

Using digital tools in the pre-fabrication of brick revitalises this traditional construction material, providing new horizons for its creative use. By increasing the repeatability of interlocking blocks, the fabrication process is simplified. The feasible large-scale production of these bricks could have a meaningful impact on the contemporary architectural industry.


Mengdi obtained a bachelor's degree in Landscape Architecture and is a Landscape Urbanism MSc graduate from Architectural Association (AA). She later received a Design for Manufacture MArch from The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL in 2022. In the same year, she was interviewed on The BBC1 Countryfile programme with her master’s graduation project “The Flimwell Kiln”.

Mengdi is currently a PhD student at The Bartlett School of Architecture. Her research interests include digital fabrication, architecture of freeform masonry vaults, compression-only structures and bespoke bricks.


Image: Bespoke Bricks by Mengdi Mao