Recently, Greg Lynn suggested that if we want to know about the future of composites in architecture, we should talk to the architecture grad students who are learning about those materials right now. We had the opportunity to talk to just such a group, the advanced architecture students of UCLA’s SUPRAstudio program (who recently participated in an architectural challenge made by ACMA the American Composites Manufacturing Association. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, the students explained their three entries, two of which won First Place and Honorable Mention in the competition.
Then, we asked them about The Future. It was a wide-ranging conversation that jumped enthusiastically from one idea to another.
“A couple of us have been writing a paper about this studio and seminar and investigation,” replied Jorel Sanchez Soto. “At the beginning of this studio, we did research into what has been done, and we figured out that nothing like what we were doing is being done. But we found out there are a lot of universities doing research into architectural applications of composites other than coverings, or unconventional ways of producing those coverings. Virginia Tech, MIT, Michigan Institute of Technologies, they are doing different research. It surprised me to find out that architects are getting into that venue, researching how they can do their own complex three-dimensional shapes. You have SFMOMA and all those weird things that Bill Kreysler did. It helps you to think outside the box. When the designer has the knowledge that, at the end, it can be built, it gives you more freedom.”
“If you ask me where composites are going in the future?” Marcelo Marcos jumped in. “I think in the next five or ten years, buildings are going to change so much. Composites are not just they’re going to go inside, on a purely decorative or aesthetic basis, also things like SF MOMA. Right now, people are saying, ‘Oh, they’re so expensive.’ But they’re so lightweight! If you design the building from the beginning with these materials, the structure’s going to be light as well, because the dead load is going to be smaller. And the building is going to be less expensive at the end because there’s less structure, there’s less weight on the façade. Life expectancy [of materials] is going to increase. It has insulation qualities. I think it’s going to change a lot. I think there’s going to be a lot of new composite materials coming into architecture.”
We told them about a monocoque FRP house near San Francisco, (fabricated by Kreysler & Associates a few years ago) as an example of a structural composite building. Lyo heng Lui was surprised, and asked if the entire structure was really FRP. “Most projects, it’s used as cladding,” he explained. “It’s used for form, or for some kind of surface definition. Not for structural performance. The places where FRP will increase its role in architecture, where it will be really relevant, will be where we find ways for it to become structural.”
“Isn’t it just a question of the time to make the connection between industry and architectural ideas?” asked Anna Kudashkina. “It’s just a question of time to identify all the resources and procedures. I truly believe it will move into structural applications because of the additional benefits of different thicknesses. Composites have the ability of creating different thicknesses and different strengths through the span of a single beam. There will be opportunities to push this research further.”
“I think what’s missing,” suggested Jorel, “is a bold approach from someone. Like the inventor of [self-braking] elevators stepping onto his invention and being dropped down to demonstrate it, so that everyone saw that you would not die if the thing dropped.” (Jorel was referring to Elisha Otis’ dramatic demonstration of his self-braking elevator technology at the New York Crystal Palace in 1854. He stood on an open elevator (really just a platform) about three floors up, and had a man with an ax cut the rope that suspended it. The platform dropped… about three inches. Then the automatic brake engaged, and Elisha Otis became the king of elevators.)
“I think the biggest issue with composites that has to be solved is fire,” said Luis Ochoa Flores, “how to make the structure fire resistant. When it comes to the structure, when they can make that fire proof, I think that composites will really take off. In our project [Skin and Bones], we were talking about how one part of our product would be used as a shear wall, because it had the waffle panel whose structure is oriented in multiple directions. So if you had a sandwich of two of these pieces, it could become not only a [cladding] panel but also a shear wall. I think being able to use it not only for a façade but for the actual structure of the building, I think that’s where this will go.”
We asked them about the barrier posed by the lack of applicable construction standards for FRP, the difficulty of gathering enough evidence that the technology works (i.e. successful structures) to create standards for it, so that people would be allowed to build it. Those first few buildings are hard to get built.
“I think the projects will speak for themselves,” said Marcelo. “SFMOMA was the first. Codes will change after that. If there’s another building that does the same, then five buildings will soon be doing that. Construction contractors will be looking at that, and saying “Oh, if it costs the same to do a box or to do this shape, let’s do this shape.” Construction is all about money. When you get a new shape costing the same as a box shape or a cube, a lot of new constructions will happen. SFMOMA is the first one, but in three to five years you’ll see five projects, ten projects, and after that, it’s going to be like the new fashion for construction. You know, ‘Oh, I’m doing this,’” and Marcelo gestured a fantastic shape in the air, “and the other one is going to say, ‘I want to do the same.’ It will be a new fad for the construction companies.”
We asked if they think that the method of making whole architectural elements, rather than having to construct them out of pieces, would change design?
“We all start,” answered Roulin Xu, “by taking the characteristics of the material: It’s soft at first, and it will take any shape you want it to, until we add glue into it. So it actually works like concrete. When concrete arose, a lot of architects thought, ‘We don’t need skilled labor anymore, we just need the material and laborers, and we can tell them how to make any shape out of the stuff.’ When we [in the class] made those big pieces, we divided our jobs into very small steps. So, we don’t need laborers skilled in composites, if we make the composites wisely, if we use smart design.”
“In architecture currently,” added Julia Koerner, the instructor of the Studio, a lot of architects design, and then bring the design to the engineer and say, ‘here is what I would like to build, tell me if this works, and what material, and what structure, and how are we going to do this?’ My focus with the students, and the direction in which they’re going, is that they actually understand a specific material and how to design with that material. So, that they have a feedback loop between the physical exploration and the digital exploration. They specifically learn from their prototypes and design specifically to make that technique efficient. I think that opens a lot of designs ideas that are not based on aesthetics or form finding, but more on emerging technologies and digital design. What the students came up with, they wouldn’t have designed that way if they had designed with molds, or plastic casting, or any other material. I think the specific technique opens up new ways of design.”
“In the real world,” offer Lyo, “we cannot separate the design process from all the other parties who are involved. Like having a façade consultant that helps you put together a scheme and all the shop drawings for a facade. It involves all these different consultants. The more layers of material that are involved in a building system, the more different disciplines are involved. It complicates the design process, even convolutes the design idea. By having a building or a façade that’s made out of six pieces instead of six hundred pieces or sixty pieces, you eliminate a lot of communication back and forth with specialists during the design process and the fabrication process. I think that is one of the biggest impacts, the simplification and the streamlining of the collaboration process.”
“Lyo was saying it brings a new way of designing,” added Jorel. “For me, that applies to the way it’s seen in the construction codes, too. It should not be analyzed as if it was steel or concrete. It should be analyzed as itself. If you have glass fiber I-beams, you’re just trying to mimic something that is already well-established, it’s well known in the architectural/construction industry. Composites needs to start finding its own niche. If fiber has more strength, maybe it doesn’t have to have an I-beam shape, maybe it can have another shape.”
“Every new material brings its own opportunities to the designer,” said Pegah Roshan, “and becomes a new designing tool. In our case, [Skin and Bones] we embedded a structure in it. That’s what it provided for us. Maybe in the future, it will provide an opportunity to put some holes in it, like tubes inside the prefabricated parts of the building to carry electricity. It may help the designer to have more design opportunities.”
“You could put all the mechanical, electrical and plumbing all into one piece,” added Marcelo. “Incorporate everything.”
Anna: “You look at a composite facade as a big monolith, but that’s not really what it is. We still have limitations because of transportation. It will probably end up being made in pieces to bring it onto the site. But composites can be easily joined together using the same techniques [as used in initial fabrication], connecting the pieces onsite. I think that’s a big opportunity, to have those seamless-looking surfaces, even though there are actually several pieces connected together on the site.”
“But don’t you think that if composites are going to become a big player in the construction industry,” asked Lyo, “wouldn’t the system have to be developed to be more versatile, so it can work seamlessly with other materials like steel. It has to be compatible with other materials to put a building together. I think lots of those questions need to be answered, instead of like, ‘Oh, I’m the big player, I can be monumental. It’s the system behind it that supports it.”
They have many ideas, a few big expectations, a lot of questions. They are asking all the right questions, because they understand the challenges of design, and they know the potential of composites. This is the next generation of architects, hands-on architects who have gotten up to the elbows in the material, and are ready to build with it.