Architectural Evolution: Composites Move from Water to Land

Architectural Evolution: Composites Move from Water to Land

The USC School of Architecture is exploring the relationship between boat design and architecture, focusing especially on role of composites.

Composites do not have a long tradition as a material for building construction. In a conservative industry where a material can be considered “new” for first 40 years, composites are a relatively recent entry. There were a few species of small, self-contained fiberglass shelters (several of them previously featured on these pages) starting in the 1960’s, but that evolutionary line basically dead-ended by the mid-70’s. Corrugated fiberglass panels shaded many a backyard patio in the 60’s, too.  Concrete columns are still being beautified by classically-styled FRP column covers.  But these limited applications did not really advance the technology, nor did they seem to mutate very widely into other FRP construction applications.

The arrival of computer-aided design, however, has led to the creation of curvilinear, irregular building designs.  Architects are increasingly discovering  FRP as a material to execute these designs, using digital fabrication make solid objects from shapes that have previously only existed as a computer model.  (We have presented quite a few examples in these pages.)  Tdid not come from . In a number of cases, the know-how for producing these architectural elements came, not from the construction industry nor from architectural tradition, but from boat-building, specifically, from the world of high-performance racing boats.

Now, Geoffrey van Oeyen, who is on the faculty of the USC School of architecture, is trying to extend that relationship one step further, investigating multiple ways that architecture can benefit from the knowledge of modern boat  design.

It began with a two-day event at USC, Performative Composites: Sailing Architecture on November 3-4, 2014, which included workshops, presentations, a panel discussion, and an exhibition. That was the kick-off for a graduate architecture studio that he is teaching this semester.

The concept is that new materials and techniques in sailing (particularly carbon fiber composites) allow designers to reconsider spatial, formal, and environmental forces in architecture in new ways. Van Oeyen holds a Masters of Philosophy in the History and Philosophy of Architecture from the University of Cambridge, and a Masters of Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  He is also a life-long sailing enthusiast.

“The idea,” explains Van Oeyen, “was to look at new technology in sailing, particularly new composites, and also the design thinking in sailing: how designers and engineers are considering design problems and approaching them. I see sailboats as a microcosm for architecture, and maybe a very direct expression of what architecture can be, in that it’s relating people to the natural environment. A building is a technology that can mediate between people and the environment. In a sailboat, you’re adjusting between the people and the environment, too. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”

The kick-off event included a panel discussion with 6 leaders in the associated fields: architect Greg Lynn, who recently designed a trimaran sailing vessel; William Kreysler, president of Kreysler and Assoc, a leading fabricator of both marine and architecture FRP structures (and – full disclosure – sponsor of this blog); Kurt Jordan responsible for the structural design and analysis of the Oracle Team USA AC 72 catamaran that won the 34th America’s cup in 2013; Bill Pearson , technical director of North Sails, the world’s largest sailmaking firm; Fred Courable of Courable Design & Engineering; Bruno Belmont of the Beneteau Group; and Neil Smith of Composites One.

The exhibition included a massive, 800-pound carbon fiber hydrofoil from the 72-foot America’s Cup catamaran.

The hands on workshop aspect was led by Kreysler, Smith, and Rick Pauer of CCP Composites, and gave the students a chance to experience hand lay-up of carbon fiber composite, and get to understand the material in all its phases.

The architectural design studio, currently under way, is using that November event – exhibition, symposium and workshop – as a point of departure. “We’re looking at how sailing techniques could be appropriated and used towards housing,” explains Van Oeyen. “I’m asking students to look at contemporary techniques in sailing for designing and constructing composite hulls. There’s a second category, looking at spars and rigging, booms, masts, lines, different new rope technologies, composite ropes and that sort of thing, and relating that to building construction. We’re looking at robotic and three-dimensional sail making over molds, and relating that to building. In the studio, we’re looking at architecture in different scales, starting with very small emergency relief shelters. Soon we’ll be looking at single family homes, then multi-unit homes. And thinking about these things from sailing.”

Marine composites are being adapted to life on land, an architectural evolution.