Making a better mask

Designer Mike Tunkey leads community effort to improve DIY masks

Mike Tunkey, BPS '00, and COVID-19 masks designed by Josef Bajus.

Mike Tunkey, BPS '00, and COVID-19 masks designed by Josef Bajus.

by Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Published June 4, 2020

To date, MadeToAid has produced and delivered almost 2,000 masks, valued at around $24,000, to three local community service organizations and to Veterans Health Administration hospitals in Buffalo and New Jersey.

Architects, accustomed to working on project teams, are natural collaborative problem solvers.

Buffalo architect Mike Tunkey (BPS ’00) has put that approach to work during the COVID-19 crisis, mobilizing a diverse network of partners to make more effective DIY masks for at-risk community members.

“A lot of my job is putting people together,” says Tunkey, a principal at CannonDesign, a global architecture, engineering and design firm headquartered in Western New York. “Architects are trained to lead multidisciplinary groups—structural engineers, neighborhood stakeholders—to craft a vision and understand the value of design.”

Called MadeToAid, the coalition is a partnership between UB’s School of Architecture and Planning; CannonDesign; MaterialsIn, a funding start-up collaborating with materials science researchers in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Stitch Buffalo, a sewing collective of female refugees. Corporate and industry partners include Fisher Price, Arc Building Partners, Rigidized Metals and Abasco Inc. As project manager of the entire effort, Tunkey also oversees volunteer sewists throughout the country.

A mask for all faces

Inspired by his experience designing healthcare facilities, Tunkey conceived the idea earlier this spring and is consulting with local health professionals, especially nurses, on the mask’s design.

A big problem with PPEs (personal protective equipment), according to health care workers and front-line organizations receiving mass PPE shipments, says Tunkey, is the “hodgepodge” of sizes and materials. Varying designs also make fabricating masks difficult and inefficient.

The MadeToAid masks are cotton, with an adjustable clip on each side to help improve the fit and streamline production. Tunkey says the “pattern-less pattern” allows sewists to fold material “like origami” without printing out the design first, and the elastics are attached to the clip, not sewn into the mask.

Initial prototypes of the clips, 3D printed out of plastic, were expensive and time-consuming to produce. Researchers in the School of Architecture’s Digital Fabrication Workshop reengineered the design and fabrication using laser cutters, which reduced production time for a single clip from two hours to seconds. As the design evolved, stainless steel became the material of choice for its durability, ease of cleaning and reusability. Now area manufacturers Rigidized Metals and Abasco are donating time and materials to produce the clips.

The project took off when Tunkey reached out to the local arts community—textile artists, costumers, and other professionals and amateur sewists—for help designing and constructing the new mask. “We knew a lot of them through the theaters and colleges, and as hobbyists. That’s when it really started coming together, combining academics with the DIY sewing groups and their practical knowledge.

Tunkey has been overwhelmed with the creativity and enthusiasm from the Buffalo community. From a well-known contemporary artist who jumped in to make one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed masks—some auctioned to support MadeToAid—to sewists who are innovating new design features and carefully choose prints suited to their customers, “people bring love and beauty to the product,” Tunkey says. “It doesn’t have to look utilitarian.”

Enabling a community to lead

To date, MadeToAid has produced and delivered almost 2,000 masks, valued at around $24,000, to three local community service organizations and to Veterans Health Administration hospitals in Buffalo and New Jersey.

Donations and profits from mask orders go to Stitch Buffalo, helping fund the incomes of refugee sewists re-settled in Buffalo from around the world. Stitch artisans hold weekly sewing drives to make the masks, as well as their own creations.

Tunkey first hoped to scale MadeToAid for use in other communities as a way to distribute the masks and provide jobs, but he says the project quickly became something unique to Buffalo. “We have a very interconnected community with top-flight health care and design talent, and ordinary people who all jumped in to work together.”

With each mask delivery, Tunkey sees his community-based design idea becoming much more in a post-COVID world, from the obvious (designing buildings) to the out-of-the-box (helping restaurants re-open) and designing public spaces, information and processes driving other aspects of modern life.

“Ultimately, there’s a potential here in Buffalo to design together.”

Materializing An Idea

The MadeToAid project has been made possible by a diverse group of UB faculty researchers, alumni and staff.

Korydon Smith, MArch ’01, BPS ’99, Professor of Architecture and Chair
School of Architecture and Planning

Michael Tunkey, BPS ’00, Project Manager and Principal, CannonDesign

Randy Fernando, MArch ’18, BS Arch ’16, Adjunct Instructor

Lindsay Romano, MArch ’06, BS Arch ’03, Director of Fabrication

Daniel Vrana, MArch ’15, BS Arch ’13, Manager, Fabrication Services, Digital Fabrication Workshop, School of Architecture and Planning

Prathima Nalam, Assistant Professor, Department of Materials Design and Innovation, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Anirban Dutta, Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences