Friday 12 April 2013

Composite future

An article in the RIBA Journal this month stressed the importance of the close working relationship between architect and structural engineer.  It stated that many great architects have gained success from teaming up and working closely with great engineers.  This is true, but the article mentioned innovations such as lime mortar to eliminate movement joints in brick panels, which is hardly twenty-first century cutting edge stuff.  We as an industry can do better than that.

It is commonly believed that technology advances quicker outside the building industry and this is a product of the the maturity of our industry and the professional structures within it.  (How we are stuck in our ways).  It is useful to take a look at innovation in other industrial sectors to and see what we might learn from them.

Composite future
To illustrate how the fusion of designer and structural engineer might work, a great example is to look at composite structures:  One product to incorporate all the requirements of both parties, as if architects and structural engineers are working in a symbiotic relationship.  (Can you imagine that?!).  The Lamborghini Aventador is a good example to spark the imagination, with its carbon-fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) monocoque structure and body panels.

The Lamborghini Aventador

More within the realistic grasp of us architects there is the carbon monocoque cycle frame.  Design aesthetics and structural integrity in one.  I bet many architects ride one to work every day, before specifying mortar colours.

Kuota carbon monocoque frame

This technology is not standing still (excuse the pun).  Companies like BAE Systems by necessity invest heavily on innovation.  One development to watch is the use of the carbon within carbon-fibre structures as a fuel cell material.  If this were to catch on in the building industry we would have architects, structural and service engineers all investing their input in to a single integrated item.  Could this ever happen?  But it might have enormous potential for the our industry by buildings making lighter, better performing, with fewer component parts and less messy to assemble.

The Lola-Drayson electric racing car experiments with cells integrated within the carbon
monocoque structure to power the car's controls

 This technology and design approach is not outside the reach of the building industry.  These are specialist consultants out there ready to be involved in forward thinking building projects.  Optima Projects, run by David Kendall specialises in the mechanical and structural design of FRP products for the building industry.  By the nature of his work, not only does he connect very closely with the design team, but he also works very closely with specialist FRP manufacturers.  It is a model of working which might prove useful to furthering innovation within the building industry.  Currently Optima has many projects abroad (even though the engineering knowledge is here), but as Britain catches on, I hope more composite structures will develop within the UK.

FRP foot bridge currently in design with Optima Projects

Optima Projects were also involved with
Zaha Hadid's Chanel Pavilion

There are structural engineers branching in to composites, and typically the path is being led outside the UK. Jan Knippers (academic and practicing structural engineer) at Knippers Helbig in Stuttgart is taking this lead. His talk at the New York Digital Crafting Symposium is well worth watching for an insight in to how that jump is made and what it means to the professional structure of the building industry, not just for engineers.  An example project is the 'One Ocean' pavilion at the South Korean Expo 2012 in Yeosu.  External FRP blades move and twist to modulate the environment within the pavilion, in a way to simulate nature.  (His work draws a lot biomimicry).

'One Ocean' pavilion

FRP flexible blades 

There are many specialist FRP manufacturers around.  Those involved in the transport sectors (trains, boats etc) are normally of the right size and willing to turn their attentions to building systems.  David Kendall knows many, but some examples are Brecknell Willis Composites, Advanced Composite Structures and Prodiction Glassfibre (manufacturing building products) in the UK, as well as MMS Technologies in South Africa, who manufactured the FRP cladding for the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station.  MMS also have the capability to do engineering, analysis and some testing in-house.

Halley VI cladding consists of a single air-tight and insulated layer,
encapsulated in FRP skins

It is important to look outside the confines of the building industry and see what is happening in other industrial sectors.  There is a lot of exciting stuff developing of which this is only an example, and when you start looking the possibilities start unfolding.

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