New materials take portable structures to another levelOctober 1st, 2016 / By: Abbie Fiedler / Category: Advanced Textiles, Markets
For Harry Osborne, creative lead at “brand experience agency” SET Live, headquartered in London, the graphic applications and collection of temporary structures throughout the “Google on the Beach 2015” (GoB) event were an exercise in balance.
“A balance between getting the most from Anthony Burril’s incredible artwork,” says Osborne, “but also satisfying the local council’s requirement for everything built on the beach to be predominately white when viewed from the Croisette (the beach-side promenade of Cannes, France).
“Balance also between the need to bring a diverse selection of Google product brands together with a look and feel developed specifically for the beach and, at the same time, make the whole thing look seamless, integrated and not like a load of graphic panels stuck to structural walls.”
Some of the structures that made up the GoB were fabric-roofed pavilions that have common structure forms, yet the materials that comprise the pavilions are uncommon. Designed by collaborating event company C6(n) Technology Ltd., Dorset, England, the structures are a sophisticated combination of traditional and high-tech materials.
“Our structure is made from carbon fiber—the uprights, decking panels and guard rails—and was placed onto a platform of cassette flooring with support underneath using wooden chocking,” says Charlie Hall, managing director of C6(n). “It was a little counter-intuitive to put our kit on the flooring, but it worked out okay for the project.”
The fabric used is a stretch fabric that C6(n) designed and had manufactured in South Africa. “It allowed us to create interesting shapes in the fabric,” Hall says.
To complement the white sail-like C6(n) structures, SET Live used minimally printed large-format print media in places, and then contrasted these by using brightly colored timber where appropriate.
“On the walls facing the Croisette we used a silicone-edged stretchable light box substrate which sat in an aluminum frame,” says Osborne. “This material is a clean, white color, takes the print well, but also allowed us to hide some neon-effect LED rope behind it so we could make a change in the appearance at night. The low-profile extruded frame combined with continuous printed sheets allows the construction of huge, seamless walls in a very short time.”
The Brown University STEAM Pavilion by Pneuhaus, Providence, R.I., is a great example of form following function with materials that guide the physical form of structures. Pneuhaus partners Matt Muller, Augie Lehrecke and Levi Bedall are recent architecture school graduates. Pneuhaus used air-
supported fabric as a building material, Muller says, “to achieve large-scale spaces at the lowest cost, frankly.” The three partners were still architecture students when they started the company, and cost was a natural concern.
“Our first structure was meant to fill space and display student work without making any reference or context to any particular department on campus,” Muller says. “It was very cheap and made from the plastic film tarps you’d find at hardware stores. It cost all of $200 and was a 40-foot dome. It soon became clear to us that with lightweight fabrics and air support, large spaces could be created that had a profound impact on people interacting with the spaces and structures—a very different feeling than structures made of standard construction materials.”
Muller and team quickly realized that their materials needed to be more durable and FR-rated if the structures were to be up for any length of time in a public setting. “We now mostly use urethane-coated nylon (the type developed and used most often in hot air balloons) for our walls and ceilings,” he says. For floors, the team uses a PVC-coated polyester, most often used in “bouncy castles”—a material that is too heavy for walls and ceilings.
Muller says he is enthusiastic about high-strength-to-weight flexible composites. “Using such lightweight fabrics helps to make incredibly mobile structures that can be set up in 30 minutes to one hour by only two people. It’s great fun to see people’s reaction when they see a large unusual structure pop up before their eyes in such a short time frame.”
Viewing the future
Leaders at Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Pvilion are looking at licensing company photovoltaic (PV) technology
to industries in multiple markets. “The applications, ranging from clothing to umbrellas to stadium roofs, are numerous, and the growth of the business will be dependent upon partnerships,” says Colin Touhey, Pvilion co-founder and CEO. “The technology itself is getting thinner, lighter, more powerful and cheaper every year. We see that trajectory continuing until it has price parity with the traditional [PV] options.”
“We’re interested in industrial materials that can apply to inflatables but that are out of reach to us now, such as a material being used in stab-proof vests that is highly durable,” says Muller. “Other qualities we have our eye on would be some combination of Kevlar® and nylon that could work for our structures, or a type of Kevlar that upon impact can expand to be rigid—a one-time use sort of application. These materials would give us some exciting creative possibilities.”
Perhaps the most sophisticated approach to lighter weight portables comes from GLD Architecture, Brooklyn, Mass., with its method of mold making that uses computer-driven patterning to lay out volumetric shapes on flat PVC-coated sailcloth. GLD creates shapes that are inflated to make full-sized balloons, each serving as a mold. The architects take the inflated form and, using 3-inch-wide strips of 18-ounce resin-infused fiberglass fabric, apply the strips to the re-useable mold. “Essentially wrapping it like a mummy,” says GLD co-founder and partner Joel Lamere.
For one project, “Each of the 12 conical pods was formed separately, with the intersections between the 12 inscribed by CNC-controlled router with a pen marker attachment,” according to the information on GLD’s website. “Each pod was then cut open and joined with fiberglass strips to create a single large composite shell used for the installation.”
GLD calls the technique “cured-surface inflatables.” A relatively established method of composite fabrication was used, rather than more advanced, recent technology of high-strength composites. The method was used because it has a fast cure time and meets the established construction protocol often required by municipal government codes.
For GLD partners Joel Lamere and Cynthia Gunadi, experimentation with new materials and methods is the foundation of their practice. Lamere is an assistant professor in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. He notes that exploration of new materials and technologies extends back to the late 1940s when R. Buckminster Fuller was a guest professor at MIT. Lemere’s independent research is in developable surfaces and the fabrication of complex geometries. “The ideology of our practice is premised on materials research leading spatial creation,” says Lamere.
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect and frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source, Specialty Fabrics Review, and Fabric Architecture magazines, and a consultant to architects and designers through his company Just Wright Communications.