Composite Fibers Weave Buildings

Event: Composite Crossover: Technology Transfer from Aircraft to Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.14.09
Speakers: Charles Blomberg, AIA — Technical Director, Rafael Viñoly Architects; Michael Silver — Principal, Mike Silver Architects & 2007 RVA Research Fellow; Rob Langone — Vice President, Automated Dynamics
Introduction: Ned Kaufman — Director of Research and Training, Rafael Viñoly Architects
Moderator: Susan Szenasy — Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis
Organizer: Center for Architecture
Sponsors: Underwriters: The Center for Architecture Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Patron: Con Edison; Lead Sponsors: Arup; Buro Happold; Material ConneXion; Thornton Tomasetti; Supporters: The American Council of Engineering Companies; Josef Gartner USA/Permasteelisa Group; Weidlinger Associates; Friend: Grimshaw

Cleveland Museum of Art atrium proposal incorporating composite structures.

Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects Training and Research Program

“Building is always a one-off experiment,” said Charles Blomberg, AIA, technical director at Rafael Viñoly Architects. He meant that technologies employed in architecture are usually developed by other industries, such as the automobile industry’s advancements with glass. This is often due to the fact that clients do not want to pay for extensive research. In response, Rafael Viñoly Architects created a Training and Research Program, and its 2007 grant recipient, Michael Silver, has been exploring the architectural potential for composite fibers long used in aerospace fabrication. Working with a team of professionals, he explored this material within the conceptual context of an actual project: a 114-foot-long, clear-span skylight atrium for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Composite fibers are comprised of two materials: carbon or glass fibers, and a matrix of resin or high-strength epoxy. Constructed in numerous layers with unidirectional plies, composite fibers are anisotropic — they only work in tension. Silver explored many different forms with varied fiber placements, resulting in a triangular truss with a spiraling fiber structure. Within the design of the proposed museum atrium, the trusses are oriented tip-down and taper together at the joints. As described by Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis, the result is “a woven building.”

As with any complex project, this one required close collaboration: Silver worked with programmers, architects, engineers, manufacturing experts, and students at Pratt. Chipp Jansen, a painter and computer scientist, wrote a code from scratch in Java to generate paths for the three-dimensional surfaces. These paths were then transferred to the coordinates of a CNC-milling machine at the facilities of Automated Dynamics, a manufacturer specializing in composite structure engineering. With the company’s assistance, Silver tested his design with real material, a process that he maintains allowed him to “discover problems you’d never figure out just in drawings.”

Composite fibers have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Their lightness makes them a sustainable option — one can literally lift an eight-foot-long mockup with one hand. However, at $200-$250-per-ound for finished material, they are prohibitively expensive for most building projects. While the composite structure “behaves like a normal beam,” according to Blomberg, due to its complex structure, orientation is crucial. Therefore, it must be installed by highly skilled laborers.

Silver’s exploration held such promise that the Viñoly Training and Research Program extended his fellowship a second year. He continues to explore its possibilities and hopes that someday composite fibers will become a viable building material.