Composite Materials In Architecture
Composites and Architecture was a source of information on projects in architecture and design utilizing composite materials.
Here are some selected highlights from CompositesandArchitecture.com that sparked our interest in contemporary architecture.
Zaha Hadid’s “Z-Stream”
A slightly older project, but worth a re-visit: “Z- Stream”, Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, UK. This fiberglass slide/installation on the castle grounds is a part of Reconstruction, an annual show founded in 2004 by Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst and Elliot McDonald. For the 3rd year’s show,
Zaha Hadid Architects have this to say about their design: ”Interpreting the theme ‘art and play’ our installation for Reconstruction 3 reinvents the conventional playground slide- utilizing a ribbon which emerges from a fissure in the garden landscape to create an unique object/experience, part slide, part climbing frame, part shelter- embodying differing speeds of geological and pastoral time.” This is a good example of fiberglass operating in high traffic exterior conditions, while maintaining a high degree of detail and complexity in form. Zaha Hadid has a number of furniture/installation scale projects utilizing these benefits of fiberglass.
The Modular Airplane Hangar
Builders discovered long ago – about 5000 years ago, in fact – that molded building elements increased construction efficiency. If you could make multiple elements from a single mold, you could increase the production of building materials, and if the mold was designed intelligently, the parts would fit together predictably well. This is the essence of brick construction, or unit masonry, one of the oldest construction methods still in use.
Molding is also the basic operation of FRP fabrication. For this reason, FRP is a natural for modular construction.
A Greek company, DASYC S.A. has taken the modular approach for the creation of a versatile transportable building system, which they call the Composite Modular Transportable Hangar (CMTH). It is, at its essence, a self-supporting corrugated barrel arch of variable (potentially infinite) length, which can be closed off on either end with fabric walls.
The basic modules are corrugated sandwich panels, each 3.7 meters wide and comprising two “waves” of corrugation. They are made in two different lengths, 2.1m and 1.15m. Panels are bolted together to form an arch, which can reach 30.6 meters across and 11.2m high. Multiple arches are bolted edge–to–edge to form a hangar, as long a hangar as desired.
The two standard sizes each consist of ten arches, for a length of 30.7m. The larger size is 30.6 meters across and covers a ground area of 935m2. The smaller size is 26.16m across (6.9m high) and covers an area of 822 m2. Either size can be customized by adding more arches for a longer hangar or reduced in height and width be reducing the number of panels used to form an arch.
The sandwich panels are built on a 72mm thick core of hard polyurethane foam, with 4mm glass fiber composite skins on either side. Due to the foam and the good insulating properties of the composite, they have good thermal performance.
The system is designed to be shipped unassembled. They are designed to stack for shipping, (due to the wave shape of the panels, you can’t exactly say they ship “flat”) and bolted together on site. DASYC says in its brochure that the only tool needed to assemble it is a screwdriver.
Critical Mass: A Studio Tour with Greg Lynn
Greg Lynn is an architect, designer, and visionary with a long track record of accomplishments and innovations using composites. Some would call him a composites guru (a term he himself might back away from). He is, at the very least, a designer with unusual expertise and experience in the use of composites in new and insightful ways.
His studio is located on a busy thoroughfare in Venice, California (the beach town that is part of the City of Los Angeles), in a nondescript building that was originally a storefront.
The first thing you notice on the interior is the variety of strange shapes decorating walls and shelves everywhere, many of them 3-D print-out models or prototypes for various projects. There is no “reception” area. It’s a work environment for people who bring shapes and concepts from an inner vision to software, and then into physical reality. There’s a conference space, a couple of rows of computer workspace, and, walled off in the rear, a small machine shop for cutting and milling molds, 3-D printing, and other acts realization.
Greg Lynn Form doesn’t just think stuff up, they make it, too… At least in prototype.
Frankly, it was hard not to be distracted by all the curious forms lurking on all sides. But, having an innovative visionary sitting in front of me, it was even harder to resist the temptation to ask his opinion about the future of composites in architecture. At first, he tried to dodge the question by deferring to a greater authority.
“You should talk to our students,” he suggested, referring to the studios he’s been involved with at Julia Koerner’s programs at UCLA IDEAS. “That’s always where you see change happening. Digital tech, [20 years ago], you could have talked to practitioners, and they would have had all kinds of opinions, but if you would have talked to the students, you would have known what was coming.”
As we talked more, though, the term “critical mass” came up. Critical mass is a concept that comes from nuclear physics. It refers specifically to the minimum amount of fissionable material necessary to create a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. What this means if that, for a particular radioactive material such as uranium or plutonium, there is a specific amount of the stuff that needs to be gathered together at a certain concentration for a nuclear chain reaction to initiate and keep itself going. Any less (sub-critical mass) and the subatomic particles being emitted from the unstable molecules won’t hit enough other unstable molecules to emit enough other sub-atomic particles to keep the reaction going, and it fizzles and dies. But above that minimum quantity, critical mass, the reaction continues and grows larger. Nuclear bombs are made by taking two separated sub-critical masses and bringing them together, rapidly, into a single critical mass. An electricity-generating nuclear reactor works on the same principle, except that crossing the threshold to critical mass is done in a more controlled manner.
The concept of critical mass has been extended widely in society, talking about a critical mass of believers in one particular movement, or a critical mass of knowledge about a certain subject being necessary for growth. In industries, it often refers to the combination of a) enough people who want to use technology (demand) to make it economically feasible to manufacture and market the tech in question, and b) enough of the tech available to enough people (supply) to create the basic interest that drives demand. A chicken and egg problem.
There now is a critical mass of people who understand composites,” continued Greg Lynn, still referring to the students. “It’s like what Geofff Van Oeyen is doing at USC. I would say it’s starting here in Southern California.” The programs at ITK-ICD in Stuttgart, Germany, and at the Illinois Institute of Technology were also mentioned. “I don’t know of other schools looking at this stuff. But you hear people talking about it a lot. At MIT, Harvard I think it tends to be more an of academic discussion more than practical knowledge.”
“I think a lot of it is because of a very small network of people. At UCLA for the last 3 years now, we’ve been running these two to three-day long intensive workshops with our students with Composites One, with Kreysler and Associates… There are three or four key people who’ve been coming down. The students have now hit that threshold where you can say, ‘build a mock-up, build a model’ and it’s not even a discussion. Just three or four days later, it shows up built in fiberglass. They know infusion, they know mold-making, they know laminating. Now they have the skill set. They understand materials so they’re not asking the materials to do things that are needlessly complicated. They have a working knowledge now of composites.”
On the other side, fabrication (supply) Lynn thinks we’re almost at critical mass. He describes a recent project, a free-standing composite monocoque, built at a public university. The design was approved, bidding presented a challenge.
“Because it was a public university, they needed three bids, so they were scrambling. They needed three [companies] at a certain scale with a certain experience to qualify.” They got three bids, but one of them was not a big enough company to get the necessary bonding, and their bid got thrown out. “Until the industry gets scaled up, it’s going to exclude them from a lot of public projects. So that’s probably the other thing that’s just now starting to happen.”