2016 - The Year of Composites?

2016 – The Year of Composites?

Architect magazine recently published an article, The Tech to Expect in Architecture in 2016, where they solicited opinions from 12 architects about what they see on the horizon. Stephen Van Dyck, of LMN Achitects, suggested that this might be the year that composites really emerge in architecture. He based this prediction on three factors: the availability of the software to design effectively with composite materials; the expected issuance of guidelines for using composites; and the presence of the new composite façade of the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which Van Dyck believes could overcome the “fear factor” surrounding a new material in the architectural world.

We talked to Van Dyck and asked him to elaborate on this prediction and the thinking behind it. He is a passionate believer in composites, (aka fiber-reinforced polymer – FRP) as architectural materials.

“I’ve done a lot of composite projects, more so than most architects probably,” Van Dyck enthuses, “but nothing compared to what I’d like to be doing.”

Van Dyck has experienced the efficacy of composite construction through a lifetime of sailing, where composite design has been advancing continuous for the past 30 years. “I grew up sailing, I’ve been around boats my whole life. I come at this as somebody who understands the functionality of it. I’ve always been interested in performance-based design, not what it looks like, just what it needs to do. Composites are interesting, their properties are so different. You wind up making things that, just by sheer need, look different than anything else. You don’t have to worry about making it look different, it will.”

His journey into architectural composites began several years ago, while working at SHoP Architects in New York City. They were working on a project to improve a pedestrian bridge in lower Manhattan. It was a steel girder bridge, originally installed “temporarily” shortly after 9/11, but as the years stretched and the bridge stayed, there was a move to improve it, visually and functionally, with a canopy and guard rails. Van Dyck evolved an idea for a composite frame holding a pillow-like canopy made of ETFE. Although funding for the project was eventually cancelled, he went far enough into the design process (even working with a yacht engineer and a boat fabricator to determine how to build it) to become convinced that the material was viable for architectural applications, and would open up new possibilities.

The main obstacle he has encountered is that his practice centers on infrastructure projects, structures owned and built by the public sector, where the aversion to risk and change is perhaps the greatest of any part of the construction industry.

“The consistent hurdle we find is that people don’t want to be the first one.  It’s my personal crusade, to some degree, to try to crack this nut.”

A second hurdle is that the architectural composite industry is still so small, there aren’t a lot of players. “It is really hard to come up with a composite design in a traditional design process and then have it competitively bid.”

As to his prediction of 2016 as the year of the ‘coming out party’ for composites, tools are of central importance to the process. “At the most fundamental standpoint, we have Rhino [Rhinoceros 3D, a design app by Robert McNeel & Assoc]. It is ubiquitous in the design factory of any architect’s office. Rhino is the tool. There’s a wonderfully easy workflow between Rhino and digital fabrication. The other [design apps] were geared towards telling a two-dimensional story. What we do now is, we have tools that we use to explore these ideas, and we take ideas in the model and send them to the digital fabrication facility.

“We’ve got tools in the design shop, too. Several of our firms have CNC tools in our offices now. Now we can approximate the form. We’ve had 3-D printers for fifteen years.”

Van Dyck believes that the broad availability of these tools will lead to the creation of buildings that not only look different, but are structurally different, taking full advantages of the material properties of composites.

To aid in that process of discovery and design, the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) is expected to issue a comprehensive document later this year. “I think they smartly realized a few years ago,” says Van Dyck, “that while there were some codes, there really were no guidelines to help the composites designer or specifier. They’re trying to make this more accessible through a series of guidelines.”

“The biggest help,” adds Van Dyck, “is a project like SFMOMA.” The 10-story façade of the museum’s new expansion, designed by Snohetta, is comprised of 700 glass fiber-composite panels, no two the same, that were fabricated by Kreysler and Associates (full disclosure: sponsor of this blog.) It is probably the largest composite façade in the world, and features a new fire-resistant form of fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) called Fireshield 285.

Van Dyck sees this building as a message to the design community and the pool of potential building owners, a major blow against the fear to be the first to use an innovative material. “It’s going to say, here’s a major publicly exposed client who’s willing to take a risk on something like this.”

Moreover, he sees the composite future continuing to enlarge because of the generation of architects who are in school now are learning about FRP right alongside concrete and steel.

“Architecture schools are helping to push this agenda. Greg Lynn has been teaching design studios around the idea of composite fabrication. He’s literally bringing the needs of the composites industry into the Academy. When I came out of school, I was one of the few. Now there are probably 200 of me being pumped out of the Academy.”

Stephen Van Dyck is, perhaps, on a crusade, but it is inspired by a bright vision of the possibilities. He envisions functional shapes that not possible with older materials. He talks, for example, about the ability to build sensors into the structure of a composite bridge, vastly improving the efficiency and effectiveness of bridge inspection and monitoring.

“We have a completely new material. How might this change bridge construction? It might look completely different than any design we’re doing now.”

That doesn’t mean that the resistance to innovation is going to vanish, but Van Dyck clearly believes it will change in the long run. “It’s going to take persistence. We continue to sink our own research money into this. That’s what it’s going to take, designers who are committed.”

Images via Stephen Van Dyck and SHop.