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Module 2: Radical Redesign

BookshelfI live with a short person. My wife's lack of height means that I am often helping her reach things in high places. This can range from higher shelves in kitchen cabinets to the top shelf of our bookcases. It occurs to me that a lot of storage elements are designed for tall people and their only recourse may be to pull out a step stool or short ladder and climb to that height in order to reach their desired items.

It seems reasonable to expect this to become tiresome, not to mention the burden of having yet another tool to store away. So for this project I've taken one of the tallest storage elements in our house--our bookcases--and sought to modify their design to make them more functional for people of all vertical stature.

The Classic Bookcase

Bookcases have been a staple for bound book storage for centuries. In England, the oldest known bookcases can be found at Oxford and were installed in the sixteenth century [source]. Yet since then the design has rarely changed.

The sheer mass of the case becomes prohibitive at some point. In the same way large cities find themselves building upwards to create more space in less ground area, bookcases decidedly became taller to accommodate more volumes with smaller footprints. In a small house, a wide but short case would dominate most of the living space. However, a floor to ceiling case could house the same number of books in half to two-thirds less space (considering typical 9-ft ceilings). The obvious choice seems to be: Build taller.

But that leaves out our target: short people. If the top shelf is at 7' 6", then a person that is only 5' 2" literally must jump to reach a book without employing a step-ladder.

A Solution

[caption id="attachment_2240" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Full bookcase sketch"]Sketch[/caption]

Keeping in mind the practicality of tall bookshelves versus wide, and the challenge that height poses to shorter people, I've devised a concept that I think can provide relief. I am not an engineer, I know a little physics, so this is somewhat conceptual.

  1. An ideal shelf height for someone around 5-feet tall is 6-feet. So first, let's remove the section above 6-feet high. We are left with two pieces: A 6-ft tall section and a 3-ft tall section.
  2. In order to keep storage maximal we need to still utilize the 3-ft tall section. I propose using a hydraulic hinge system to allow the top section to slide forward and lower easily.

The scenario might go something like this:

Our shorter person (let's take my wife Jessica for example) wants to reach her favourite copy of Middlemarch but it's on the top-most shelf of her bookcase. Normally she would need to go and get the step stool (or her husband!) and pull the book down.

But she has a newly design set of shelves. She grabs the sides of the top section of her shelves and pulls forward. The top section slides smoothly forward and then, utilizing its hydraulic hinges, lowers gently to her height. The top of this section aligns with the top of the bottom section. The base of the bookcase is attached to the wall, as normal, to keep it from toppling over when utilizing this slide function.

After removing her book, she pushes up on the bookcase and it slides back into place atop the base section.

[caption id="attachment_2241" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Two pieces"]Two piece bookcase sketch[/caption]

The Hinge System

[caption id="attachment_2242" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Like this but with an hydraulic element."]Hinge and rail[/caption]

The hinge system could be hidden on the inside of the shelving to maintain the classic aesthetic of the bookcase. The hydraulic system functions to give the resistance necessary to provide a fluid motion. The smoother the process, the more natural the emotional connection to the system will be.

If we utilized simple a set of rails slide the top section forward and then down we would run into a few major issues. To begin with, the physics wouldn't work. It'd be likely that the shelving would rip out the rails. It would also be extremely rough and noisy considering the wheels having to scrape against the rails.

The shelf unit itself would be too heavy for the average person to comfortably lower and lift without hydraulic assistance.

If taller bookcases were needed--say for a house with 15-ft ceilings--a vertical carousel system could be devised to allow multiple vertical sections to be rearranged and lowered at will.

Ease of Use

Ease of use is important. If it takes too much effort, or as much effort as employing a step-ladder, to retrieve a book, then the process isn't worth it. Shorter people struggle with or have to put more work into these tasks already, the purpose is to ease their quality of life.

Future Iterations

There's all kinds of potential in this sort of system. Automation could be applied to lower and raise the shelf unit by push-button, for instance. This is merely the first draft for a short-friendly bookcase that maintains the original aesthetic features of a classic bookcase while providing a useful function for those who cannot reach the top shelf.