Adaptive Architecture (4): Current Adaptive Building Technology

We continue our serialization of Erich Hunting’s landmark essay on a ‘peer to peer’ adaptive architecture, adapted to contemporary needs, which we started publishing on the 25th.

Warning, this part is very long, as it outlines the different types of adaptive architecture currently available.

Eric Hunting:

Let us now explore some of the specific currently available/viable or anticipated adaptive building technologies. Sadly, as noted previously most of the modular buildings systems developed in the 20th century never survived to the present day and wait to be rediscovered by contemporary designers. Still, current technology -crude as some of it may be- still offers us a vast potential for experimentation.

Pavilions, Skybreaks, Lofts, and Tectonic Architecture:

Simultaneously one of the oldest of all architectural forms and the most modern, pavilion architecture represents one of the simplest and most immediate models for adaptive architecture. A ‘pavilion’ is any form of structure based on a free-standing -often column-supported- large-span roof structure without load-bearing walls which is outfit for habitation based on largely free-standing furnishings and partitions. Depending on mode of use, such structures may feature no side enclosure or use any combination of non-load-bearing walls, windows, screens, shutters, or even curtains. Sometimes referred to as ‘open plan design’, functional areas are defined by the type and clustering of furnishings which can often be freely reconfigured on demand. Partitions and opaque enclosure walls can be used to form complete enclosures for more privacy and in some cases furnishings may be designed as free-standing self-contained rooms, as in the case of some enclosed bed and lounge designs. Long an extremely popular dwelling concept among the classic Modernists, it is perhaps best epitomized in the design of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan Connecticut, based on a steel framed glass enclosed box completely open on its interior save for a cylindrical enclosure containing a bathroom and fully functional as the architect’s own home for much of his long life. Dwellings of this sort have evolved in various forms in many cultures and are the basis of many vernacular architectures, typically associated with tropical climates as glass is a relatively modern industrial material. The most advanced of these vernacular forms was realized in the traditional Japanese house, with its extremely refined traditional system of design, very sophisticated wood joinery, modular tatami mat flooring, hanging ceiling systems, and tile roofing systems. In the western tradition, pavilion structures were often the basis of temple and public architecture employing the early civilization’s most advanced forms of stonework, evolving to produce many early domed buildings.

Given contemporary building technology and materials, a countless variety of pavilion structures are now possible, often using repurposed prefabricated structures. Good examples of these can be found among prefab alloy park shelters. Countless materials can now be employed, from earth block to the most high-tech high performance materials, though the concept still favors lighter structures or modular component buildings systems. The ability to define space through free-standing furnishings offers incredible potential for design creativity in furnishings and appliances and can readily make use of Living Structures and their various building systems. However, it remains little used outside of the context of Modernist Minimalist homes in relatively remote locations, largely because of the limitations on privacy imposed by open plan design and the use of large window expanses that demand landscaping for privacy or the use of walled enclosures. These were not such limiting issues in earlier times and in non-European cultures but today many households think it necessary to compartmentalize homes to the point where even every child has a self-contained apartment of their own. Still, there is great potential in this simple form of structure in larger sizes or large compounds as the basis of communal habitats developed through collaborative design, This approach would treat a very large pavilion structure or pavilion complex as a public and communal structure freely and dynamically organized internally by employing various forms of free-standing public and personal structures with as little or as much enclosure and privacy as individuals might want. In such a structure private space becomes defined by furniture -or to put it another way, furniture rises to the level of entire specialized modular rooms within the larger communal space, the chief trade-off being that the more privacy you employ by tighter enclosure of these spaces the less access you have to the ambient light of the overall communal environment. Consider, for instance, a community habitat based on rooms akin to the ‘capsules’ of a Japanese capsule hotel elaborated into much more fully-featured room modules in a large variety of functions. A number of Modernist designers explored this ‘room as appliance’ concept in the 1960s.

This brings us to the concept of the Skybreak mentioned earlier; a large clear-span weather-shelter enclosure for a whole habitat composed of lighter structures. The Skybreak is an evolution of the concept of pavilion architecture and was first devised by students of Buckminster Fuller as the ultimate approach to the use of the geodesic dome in a residential role. Typical ‘dome homes’ employ an inefficient strategy of trying to partition the interior of a dome structure in the manner of a conventional house. The end-result is overcomplicated carpentry and odd shapes that never suit conventional furnishings. The more effective approach is to treat the dome as a largely independent structure -like a pavilion- and outfit its volume for habitation with similarly independent structures. The Skybreak employs this on a very large scale, the idea being to use a transparent dome as a weather barrier over an entire large piece of property then landscaping the interior to one’s tastes and erecting largely independent but light structures -ideally of modular component composition- to make the space habitable. The skybreak structure itself is not intended as a perfect climate control enclosure. It just creates a barrier against the major elements; rain, snow, wind, and intense sun. The smaller interior structures can be heated and cooled independently. This may seem inefficient but, in fact, is much more efficient in that one is not attempting climate control of the whole structure and can more effectively exploit and control the solar gain or reflectivity over the whole structure. In Buckminster Fuller’s time it was never possible to cost-effectively realize a transparent skybreak dome as he envisioned due to limitations in materials. Today, however, we not only have the means to do this using geodesic domes, there are a vast assortment of large span structures based on rigid framing, tension roof systems, and pneumatic structures as well as new material such as teflon impregnated fiberglass cloth and Texlon membrane that allow for the creation of skybreaks in an endless variety of forms. With such structures one can take the concept of the communal pavilion to a much larger scale, employing its same approach to the collaborative creation of an interior habitat based on Living Structure style construction for an entire village community and including extensive interior open spaces and gardens. Skybreak designs at the scale of the individual dwelling have already been explored by a number of designers in recent times. This large scale use, however, remains to be explored outside of the context of commercial buildings employing tension roof covers but seems increasingly likely as we continue to break new records in the construction of large greenhouse and zoo enclosures.

Though such grand demonstrations of communal pavilion architecture remain in the future, there is one form where it has been well demonstrated; lofting. As we discussed earlier, the conversion of older industrial and commercial buildings into loft apartment buildings is a very common, practical, and commercially very successful demonstration of the principles of adaptive reuse. It also represents another variation of the concept of pavilion architecture, these old and functionally generic structures adapted to habitation in essentially the same way and thus being akin to pavilions with multiple floors. The key difference is the employ of much more substantial demising walls in what is intended to be a largely unchangeable division of space. And as we also mentioned earlier, the commercial success of loft apartments has also resulted in new buildings being built specifically for this for of use. Such buildings have already been used as the basis of co-housing communities and so their potential as the basis of community architecture is well demonstrated. However, this concept remains very crudely implemented to date because, curiously, few professional architects have shown much interest in the potential of functionally generic structures, even though most commercial buildings are exactly that in practice. The basic ‘wedding cake’ structural form common to commercial buildings and earlier industrial buildings is an exceptionally versatile form -as well demonstrated by the vast diversity of forms among contemporary commercial buildings and their remarkable ability to physically adapt to sometimes peculiar urban property boundaries. This offers unexplored potential in the context of community design based on the concept of functionally generic communal structures of large size -in effect, taking that notion of the communal pavilion to the level of multi-story complexes that could comprise not just an entire community but an entire city. This is much the same concept as Paulo Soleri’s arcology, which is exactly this kind of functionally generic structure taken to extreme scales.

This brings us to the concept of tectonic architecture; macrostructural systems that mimic and integrate into natural landscape. The term ‘tectonic architecture’ has been used in a variety of ways but this author chooses to use it to refer to architecture that mimics natural landscape through the use of large conjoined terraced superstructures where the individual terraces are sculpted into organic profiles akin to the lines on a topographical map or terraced farming as seen in Asia and topped with gardens to create a naturalistic appearance. Based on the usual ‘wedding cake’ structures of large commercial buildings, terrace edges become the primary basis of habitation, serving as loft space for any variety of uses. Such structures can blend easily into pre-existing landscapes and can employ a variety of facade treatments and smaller scale convex or concave articulation in order to highlight or conceal different areas and accommodate variations in unit dwelling configuration -creating, for instance, more private atriums or more free-standing protrusions. With structures such as this, based on conventional commercial construction methods using predominately reinforces concrete, it would become possible to explore collaborative community design on a truly vast scale -essentially, as the basis of a form of arcology.

Living Structures:

the term ‘Living Structures’ was coined by designer Ken Isaacs in the the 1960s for the series of freely adaptive indoor structures he developed bridging furniture and architecture and based on his simply DIY Matrix construction system, later to become Box Beam and today known as Grid Beam. Here we use the term in a bit more general sense to denote a now large variety of indoor and occasionally small outdoor structures similarly bridging furniture to architecture and often based on a large variety modular and other building methods. Examples include such ‘furnitecture’ as the many forms of canopy or enclosed beds employed in pre-industrial times and recently seeing a revival in modern times as ‘pod’ beds. The many forms of ‘pod furniture’ experimented with by designers in the 1960s. Andrea Zittel’s ‘Raugh’ Furniture, Comfort Units and Living Units, Cellular Compartment Units, indoor Escape Vehicles, and outdoor Wagon Stations. (http://www.zittel.org/) N55’s various space frame based structures. (http://n55.dk/) The Z-Box designed by Dan Hisel. (http://www.danhiseldesign.com/) The similar but more elaborate Pod Living system devised by Jade Jagger. (http://www.jadenyc.com/) And, of course, the many forms of Capsule Hotel units employed in Japan. Though many of these examples are fixed structure objects whose adaptability is based on their collective arrangement in a living space, the term is more appropriate in terms of structures whose forms are user-adaptive by virtue of some modular building system and can potentially be combined or conjoined on demand, thus representing a kind of indoor building system.

Issacs first devised Living Structures as a simple means of maximizing the utility of limited space with structures one could build with little carpentry skill. A way one could better use the volume of the space through a volumetric furniture structure rather than relying on the 2D area alone and a way of circumventing the hegemony of factory-produced furnishings by eliminating the barrier of skill overhead associated with traditional carpentry. Many of his designs were based on creating multiple levels of space within the usual single floor space. But what intrigued people most about this designs was the way they were built, and its potential s a DIY building system. This inspired a brief wave of creativity and ingenuity among some designers who not only experimented with Matrix but also many other simple modular building systems. Isaacs himself did likewise, particularly exploring the possibilities of stressed skin box structures and the use of the pre-cursors to today’s pipe-fitting building systems like Kee-Klamp. Because these were designed to be indoor structures, relying on other buildings for their full climate shelter, the limitations in weatherproofing common to simpler modular building systems was no particular problem.

A Living Structure is generally any adaptable furniture object elaborated to where it can integrate many functions of a room or several rooms and potentially provide independent enclosure like a room without being connected physically to the rest of an overall structure. The classic example is the cabinet-like enclosed bed, which developed in ancient Asia and medieval europe as a means to provide both greater privacy in homes housing extended families and greater insulation given limited climate control performance of early dwellings. This later evolved into the curtain-enclosed canopy bed intended to provide greater privacy for the nobility who often kept attendants in their bedrooms almost continually. Across the 20th century many designers experimented with the concept of evolving major pieces of room-function-defining furniture into appliances; turning sofas into lounge units complete with built-in TVs, kitchen or dining room tables into dining machines, shower stalls into all-in-one ‘ensuite’ bathroom modules, and so on. The notion persists to this day with various kinds of all-in-one lounges and meeting pods, personal computer workstation pods, serenity pods intended as personal relaxation escape capsules, and the most sophisticated of all, the CAVE or CAVE Automated Virtual Environment; a room using displays as an enclosure projecting a computer-generated virtual environment.

Employing modular building systems, Living Structures are capable of being integrated into large freely adaptable interconnected complexes that can be perpetually customized and rearranged to suit personal tastes and varying needs. This allows simple large span structures to be organized into freely adaptive functional and personal space without physically modifying that larger structure. Thus this is an effective strategy for the use of pavilion and skybreak architecture and the adaptive reuse of large structures. In the future we may see this tactic employed in space, with orbital habitats based on larger generic pressure enclosures outfit by smaller retrofit structures and large sealed excavated spaces below the surface of the Moon or Mars made habitable by similar modular retrofit structures. This author has previously proposed that very realistic mock-ups of such habitats are quite feasible today using such facilities as the Kansas City Subtopolis complex as a host for a large Living Structure habitat.

Today, a huge variety of light modular buildings system are available for repurposing to Living Structure use in addition to Grid Beam, T-slot, and Kee-Klamp -far more than exist in general construction because it is so much easier to manufacture and market such light and often application-specific systems. There are now various scaffolding systems, modular electronic enclosure systems, many kinds of aluminum profile extrusions, light space frame systems used for store and trade show displays, DIY space frames such as N55’s. modular theatrical truss systems, modular industrial shelving and mezzanine systems, tension or tensegrity truss systems, pultruded fiber reinforced plastic profiles, increasingly sophisticated office partition, access flooring, and suspended ceiling systems all of which have Living Structure potential. There are also many interesting new materials and new ways to use very traditional and simple materials. New means of attaching textiles to structures such as the famous Grip Clip (http://www.shelter-systems.com/gripclips). New textiles made of bamboo, hemp, and other more renewable fibers. High-tech textiles made of alloy, glass, and carbon fibers. Extruded interlocking clay, gypsum, and cast stone panels and planking. Weatboard and strawboard made of compressed wheat straw. Aluminum foam panel, cast stone panel, various kinds of structural insulated panels, fiber-cement panels. Elastomeric membranes more transparent than glass and far stronger. New kinds of insulation made of mineral and glass foams, cotton, and wool. Paints with microencapsulates offering insulating or phase-change properties. Many kinds of industrial and shipping containers, from marine and air shipping containers to various forms of roto-molded polyethylene tanks, offer adaptive reuse prospects. There are also many new kinds of prefabricated products that can suit Living Structure use schemes such as the small wood pavilions made by Tony’s T-Houses (http://www.tonysthouse.com/), new sophisticated tent and geodesic dome structures such as those by Shelter Systems (http://www.shelter-systems.com/) and Pacific Domes (http://www.pacificdomes.com/), and various pod-like kitchen systems and the various pieces of current pod furniture. Still, the simple systems, like Grid Beam and T-slot, offer the best and cheapest prospects of diverse experimentation with the concept.

Living Structures present a very convenient and low cost way to explore the possibilities of adaptive architecture and still remains little-explored by contemporary designers, presenting a wide-open field for innovation and product development. Though the concept is old, we’ve hardly scratched the surface of its potential. Ken Isaacs’ work with this provided a bridge to the pursuit of adaptive architecture systems that were fully capable of independent weatherproof building on their own, without another larger shelter structure. The experimenters of Suntools did likewise with Box Beam. Though these earlier building systems proved less capable for this, T-slot has now made the move to a full architectural building system.

Unit Module Systems:

As was noted earlier, unit module systems are one of the major forms of modular construction and were very popular among Modernist designers of the past. However, none of these systems have survived to the present day and, though reemerging among the designers riding the current Modernist prefab craze of the present, no systems of the type are currently in production. Their chief problem is scale.

Unit module systems are based on the use of modules containing an entire room, often with most of their appliances and furniture included as built-in fixtures. They interface through portals which plug-together as a direct rigid connection between modules or by use of modular corridor units. This is largely an elaboration of the idea of pod furniture, where a pod unit is expanded to a size and made of such materials that it can withstand the elements alone, standing on its own foundation system. However, they need not necessarily be designed to withstand the full environment and can be employed as a variation of Living Structure. They also don’t necessarily need to be interconnected, being used in the manner of ‘compound’ architecture where a series of small self-contained buildings house separate parts of a complete home linked by walkways, a courtyard, or partial free-standing roof structure. Not an uncommon approach in milder climate areas and once characteristic of traditional Mission Style architecture.

Because these modules comprise at least one entire room in a more-or-less monolithic self-contained structure, they tend to be rather large units to fabricate and move around whole, which has severely limited their ease of prototyping and limited the number of designers able to explore the concept. And their aesthetics is entirely dictated by the module design standard, which for this sort of structure typically results in something akin to the NASA design for a lunar habitat, radically removed from anything people are normally familiar with in dwellings. Thus their mass production prospects are very poor despite their appliance-like characteristics. However, today we can work with materials like fiber reinforced composites, steel frame systems, and polyurethane structural foams with far greater ease than in the past which should result in far more experimentation with this concept in the future, particularly where designs keep individual modules to a smaller size.

A typical system of the type can be visualized by imagining a Japanese Capsule Hotel unit elaborated into a small self-contained weatherproof cabin of rigid composite outer shell construction, a fireproof mineral foam core, and semi-rigid soft interior foams with a combination of rigid, soft plastic, and textile-covered surfaces inside with marine-style windows, perhaps its own miniature heating and cooling system, some entertainment electronics, and possibly even solar power and wireless communications all standing on the ground on simple legs. This is a notion this author explored himself for the design of long-duration vacation cabins suited to winter climates that could be towed by small ATV or by hand. Now imagine units like this fashioned for each of the different functions of a dwelling; an all-in-one bathroom akin to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Bathroom, a lounge composed of a built-in circular conversation pit with built-in TV and alcohol mini-fireplace, a dining room composed of a circular booth and table, a kitchen fashioned like a single multi-functional appliance, an office/workstation composed of integrated desks and cabinets with built-in computer fixtures, and any number of other specialized room modules functional or fanciful, from walk-in closets or greenhouses to playrooms and hot tubs. Each of these modules would have at least one standardized ‘portal’ interface that plugs into those of other modules and connects with a tool-less quick-connection, such as built-in screws or key locks. These portals would also include utilities interfaces with the utilities ‘bus’ designed for external maintenance access. The overall structure might be mounted on concrete pilings, pre-cast piers, or steel screw pilings that lock to their support legs. These legs would also allow for the attachment of large wheel casters, somewhat aiding the movement and positioning of these units. And external frame structure might also be included to allow for multiple storey combinations. Though the size and shape of the individual modules would vary along with the number and position of their portals, they would freely allow any combination of modules to be linked together, sprawling in either 2D or 3D complexes. These individual room modules would be swapped-out whole when worn out, severely damaged, or made obsolete in design or resident’s needs just like an appliance, their quick-connect design making this easy, though sometimes requiring multiple modules to be dismantled. Likewise, the dwelling could freely expand or reconfigure its shape and at any time be disassembled and transported whole to other locations. A very good model for adaptive architecture, albeit that one is dealing with individual ‘parts’ that may be at least 3 meters cubed and weigh as much as a compact car.

Container Module:

Container modules systems are a particular variant of the concept of a unit module system that is based on the repurposing of ISO marine shipping containers to create the unit modules. As we noted, no unit module systems are currently in production. However, repurposed container architecture has become a particular obsession for many contemporary designers, owing to its recycling aspect and the very low cost of containers as an extremely durable raw material. Many commercial developers have also seen the potential in the container and a number of companies now purposefully manufacture containers for modular building construction, such as the German Erge Corp. (http://www.erge.de/)

Container module systems are typically less specialized in their module design, since the same basic structure is being repurposed for every type of room. Combination modules are common, where two or more containers are used in sectional series to form a single larger room. Owing to the often inordinately high costs of container mod metalworking in places like the US, it is best to employ the simplest approaches to modification as possible -though in general few architects working with these prescribe to that rule. Interfacing containers together is more complex than one would have with a dedicated quick-connect portal system and so container combinations often rely on less demountable forms of interface. Using containers as the basis of compound architecture -where each container is a self-contained free-standing room/building that needs no direct interface to others- is the easiest, cheapest, and most freely adaptive of approaches but limited in where in can be employed.

Ironically, despite their huge popularity among designers today, little progress has actually been made in developing tools and devices to facilitate easier handling of the containers by fewer numbers of people. In most cases heavy fork lifts, cranes, and large trucks are employed at great expense even though the militaries of the world have advanced to the use of more sophisticated container handling devices such as the Container Lift-Transport; a modular wheeled hydraulic driven unit that attaches directly to containers turning them into trailers or letting them be self-propelled at low speed -all installed and controlled by a solitary operator.

Modular Post-And-Beam Systems:

This is the most traditional class of modular component building systems -perhaps the first form of modular construction ever developed. Though often regarded as obsolesced by contemporary stick frame wood composite construction, it remains the much more sophisticated technology and today has seen great advance with the introduction of concealed steel plate joinery systems such as the Kure-tec system featured in the Volkshaus housing concept (http://www.tatsumi-web.com/new-site/eng-manufact.html) and sophisticated modular kit products such as the Bali-T manufactured in Bali. (http://www.balithouse.com/) With such technology free demountability, and hence adaptability, of structures become possible, though with some limitations compared to more high-tech materials. The chief limitations of post and beam construction is the weight of wood, larger span structures demanding progressively heavier and larger individual components that quickly become too much for the solitary individual to handle. Thus the most flexible deliberately adaptable systems model themselves after traditional Japanese framing using beams of about 15-20 centimeters with room spans of no more than 3-4 meters and structures no more than two storeys high. They may also employ many other elements similar to traditional Japanese architecture such as sliding screens/windows, suspended ceiling systems, and modular mat flooring -if not tatami mat- which aid in quick assembly and demountability.

As modular as post and beam construction is itself, very rarely is it used today in modular architecture owing to the complication of roofing systems, which remains the single-most problematic area in the design and engineering of modular component building systems for true full-scale building use. Truly weatherproof and demountable roofing technology remains a difficult engineering problem. Though much alleviated by the advent of modular alloy panel roofing systems, these remain incapable of free planar expansion, leaving the roof of a modular building the least adaptable part of the structure. Usually one can freely expand in one planar axis but then remain incapable of expansion in the opposing axis without replacing a whole roof or employing some complex layering or terracing contrivance. This is a problem faced for many centuries by builders using post and beam construction and which has never been definitively solved.

T-Slot Building Systems:

Technically a derivative of post and beam building systems. T-Slot building systems are based on the use of large scale versions of the same aluminum profiles commonly used in industrial automation and laboratory structures and relies on repurposing many of the accessory components originally developed for uses in those areas. Three companies currently pursue development of housing products based on this; Tomahouse in Bali (http://www.tomahouse.com/), TK Architecture in California with the iT House (http://www.tkithouse.com/), and the Jeriko House company in Louisiana. (http://www.jerikohouse.com/) These companies products represent the current state of the art for this technology and modular component building systems for housing in general. Other aluminum profile building systems have also been developed, but using proprietary profile and interface designs that have drastically limited their potential production and doomed most to the same demise as modular building systems of the past.

Originally developed as a solution to the problem of rapid obsolescence of industrial automation technology, resulting in frequent and large capital investment losses when adopting automation, T-Slot framing’s virtues over other modular building systems have made it a good solution for modular architecture -though this potential has only just recently been recognized. (T-slot component manufacturers, for cultural reasons, generally remain oblivious to the full and remarkable range of applications their customers put the technology to…) T-slot profiles feature one or more T-shaped slots on the sides of their profiles which allow for an assortment of quick-connect joint fittings and gusset plates usually installed with a simple hex-key. A huge assortment of accessories also attach to these slots. channels within the hollow profiles serving as cable runs and also designed to be used as pressurized distribution lines for pneumatics and hydraulics, making T-slot useful as the basis of robot and machine tool construction. It is commonly used for prototyping most new machine tools today. Housing scale profiles, usually in the 160-200mm profile width range, offer tremendous strength to weight performance compared to wood and can readily integrate housing utilities infrastructure inside their channels and unused slot spaces as well as along their faces, thus allowing the primary structure of a home to function as its ‘backplane’ like that of a personal computer. Using a typical module span of about 4 meters (much more when profiles are combined with truss web plates that fit into the slots) in simple post and beam structures with flush-in-line floor deck grids of cross beam joists, enclosure is provided by systems of standard panels which can attach to the structure in a variety of ways such as; surface mounting to the outer profile face, flush mounting to attachments on the inner profile face, and simple press-fit or spring-clip mounting using slots alone, without screws or locking mechanisms, to hold a panel in place. Virtually any materials can be employed in these panels, allowing for a huge diversity of pre-finished components that take no particular skill to install. Integration of appliances into panels is also possible and particularly well suited to heating and cooling, home entertainment, computing and lighting. Though current designers often employ the exposed aluminum post and beams as an architectural feature, innumerable surrounds and concealment panels are possible to hide or disguise the aluminum framing. Tomahouse commonly employs this to make their structures appear indistinguishable from wooden post and beam. Anodized and backed enamel finishes can also be applied to the aluminum, making it appear like other metals such as brass or gold or giving it any desired color. And since these same components are commonly employed for automation, it becomes possible to literally design an entire house or building that functions as a robot with any number of integral active mechanisms and electronics! This could be employed in medical and workshop applications as well as for disability and elder assistance. And, of course, it all comes apart and can be reconfigured on demand.

Like traditional post and beam structures, the chief limitation on adaptability is roofing which, as we noted, remains limited in its adaptability with current materials and technology. T-Slot buildings can employ any style of roof desired, from thatched and tension roofs to traditional shingle or flat composite roofs, but maintaining demountability tends to limit one to the use of alloy panel products in long fixed lengths. Some T-Slot housing designs employ a variation on the skybreak concept by using a pitched and easily swapped-out fabric or membrane tension roof over flat modular insulated panels, retaining more adaptability but requiting whole replacement of the membrane or some kind of ‘fish scale’ layering of tension roof sections. Though less durable and problematic in its tendency to create nesting spaces for unwanted animals, this remains the most freely demountable and adaptable form of roofing in existence today.

Even with three companies currently pursuing this technology, only the surface has been scratched in the potential of this building system and though not capable of truly massive community structures, it is far superior to wooden post and beam with potential for structures up to ten storeys -more than enough for any village scale projects. There is also great potential in this technology for the cultivation of an industrial ecology, where many small to large businesses are producing standardized components for these structures. The entrepreneurial potential is vast and since this standards for T-slot components are basically public domain, this is well suited to an open source design and development program.

Plug-In Building Systems:

True plug-in building systems represent the most advanced form of modular component building systems and perhaps the most advanced form of modular architecture in general. They differ from other modular component building systems in that the components are designed as more sophisticated units that quick interface to each other without any tools through integrated mechanisms and which will also link-up pre-installed utilities busses. They may also be designed for assembly by robots using special robot handling points and active communication of their identity and status with electronic assembly management systems. Integration of appliances and fixtures into major components is another common characteristic. Sadly, though long speculated, no true plug-in building systems currently exist, though they are more possible to develop today than ever and they are very likely to evolve from T-Slot building systems.

Typical speculative plug-in building system concepts are based on three basic elements; a deck system that serves as floor, ceiling, and roofing and serves as the primary backplane for all other components and utilities, plug-ins which plug into both ceiling and floor, may or may not be load bearing, and take the forms of panels, columns, and other forms like cabinets and pods, and fixtures which surface-attach freely to the other two types of parts where they have plug-in space. Plug-ins can freely integrate furnishings and appliances or be whole pieces of furniture or appliances and rely entirely on their plug-in interface for utilities connection. Often, concepts call for all components in the system to have a kind of distributed intelligence such that the house as a whole represents a simple computer that is aware of the status of all its parts the way a personal computer is aware of all it’s peripherals and can track structural integrity so that it can tell you when parts are failing or if you try to unplug something that is critical to holding the roof up, for instance, it will automatically warn you that you can’t do that unless you put up temporary column jacks or the like first to take the load.

Though still speculative in design, there really are no technical or engineering obstacles to the development of these systems save that same problem of roofing which effects all modular component building systems and which can at least be circumvented in the near term in the same manners. There is simply no interest in the concept in the mainstream building industry itself -which, left to its own devices, would continue using current centuries old technology forever- and, aside from very occasional experiments by places like MIT, no current designers have proven technically sophisticated enough to pursue it. However, there have been some very interesting designs that approach this concept, albeit indirectly. One of the best examples are the ‘furniture house’ designs of architect Shigeru Ban. (http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/) Observing the marked difference in quality and robustness between contemporary Japanese furniture manufacture and housing construction (like most places in the westernized world where costs tend to be keyed to labor, mainstream housing construction often tends toward the quick and shoddy), Shigeru Ban developed a series of houses based on simple pavilion designs where a strong modular cabinet system served as the basic load bearing structures. (http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/SBA_WORKS/SBA_HOUSES/SBA_HOUSES_14/SBA_Houses_14.html)(http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/SBA_WORKS/SBA_HOUSES/SBA_HOUSES_17/SBA_Houses_17.html)(http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/SBA_WORKS/SBA_HOUSES/SBA_HOUSES_34/SBA_Houses_34.html) Though this system was not designed to allow for spontaneous adaptability, here we see the basic principles of a plug-in architecture system well demonstrated even though it is not employing the kind of sophisticated demountable component interfacing such a system would ideally employ. We can also see how various kinds of Living Structures can potentially evolve into this concept as well though pavilion architecture by the shifting of an infrastructure backplane to ceiling and floor and the assumption of a load-bearing structural role.

Intelligent Block Systems:

Another variation of the plug-in architecture concept that has seen a little more experimentation in recent times, this concept is inspired largely by the famous Lego building toy and is based on the notion of very small modular elements of uniform shape that feature some kind of built-in locking multi-axis interface that is also mortarless and may be waterproof/air-tight. Obviously, the technology for making a hermetic seal between so many discrete interfaces over a large area does not exist and may remain an insurmountable problem until solved by some nanotechnology means well into the Diamond Age, but this has not hampered the modest interest in this concept. The concept also calls for distributed intelligence in blocks and the use of more specialized blocks for utilities integration and to accommodate various architectural features. These too have proven a bit beyond any current technology and so most experiments remain concerned with the issue of the mechanical interface and the design of robotic systems to manipulate these modules.

The more speculative technology aside, the basic idea of small mechanically interfaced bricks or blocks as a tool-less building system has potential. It has a definite advantage over other plug-in architecture systems where individual components may still end up being several meters in width and weigh hundreds of pounds, making them very difficult for the solitary person to handle. And, of course, the smaller the components the easier and more efficiently they pack for shipping. But the concept faces the problem that such numerous small components are difficult to mass produce economically if they are mechanically intricate and they present a vast number of potential failure points for a structure.

Intelligent Foam Systems:

Though we commonly envision such things today in the context of nanotechnology, the idea of ‘intelligent foam’ goes back at least as far as the early 1960s where speculative designers such as Rudolph Doernach envisioned future polymer chemistry producing a plastic foam capable of behaving like a simple organism and growing, through molecular self-assembly, into any form desired when directed by some electronic or computer-based means. Doernach envisioned entire large scale buildings, cities, and artificial islands cultured whole with such foam, their inhabitants directing the material to form internal caves and caverns for their homes much as envisioned by later free-form organic designers. This would represent the ultimate in modular component building systems -a system where the modular components are molecular in scale. It may be quite a long time yet before even nanotechnology affords us a material with that remarkable capability, but currently we do have the potential to realize a kind of ‘intelligent foam’ based on foamed masonry materials that can exhibit the much simpler and more attainable properties of variable density, direct recycling, and free bonding. This combination of properties would result in a material with which one can construct whole monolithic structures by mounding up or form-casting large rough volumes of foam material then milling out their final shapes and surface, perhaps with the aid of simple robotic milling systems, the waste material collected and immediately recycled on-site for the production of more foam. The process could be performed in layers, allowing for foam of different density to be employed internally for different physical and thermal characteristics and to allow for the creation of concealed inclusions for utilities. Later, when the structure required adaptation, the same process would be employed, some older features milled-away as new foam is added to accommodate new features. A computer model might be maintained for the structure at all times, allowing its structural integrity to be continually analyzed and to allow the whole structure to be demolished and recreated on demand in new places. Such a material would be the ideal structural material for the use of free-form organic design and would afford this field of design the potential for structural evolution it’s more common ferro-cement materials are not capable of.

Though no such material currently exists on the market, it is technically feasible with known chemistry and many forms of geopolymers or ceramics may be suited to this. It remains, however, a largely unexplored concept.

Robotic Self-Assembly Systems:

This concept is based on the notion of modular components that incorporate not only built-in tool-less interface mechanisms but also active powered mechanisms which allow the components in the system to traverse their own structural surface in some way, allowing them to collectively self-assemble themselves into a whole structure. The point to this is to eliminate the human labor involved in construction (and allow construction in places where human beings cannot readily go), to afford a structure the means to self-evolve in form in response to different needs and environmental conditions, and allow it to perform self-repair. Again, though no actual off-the-shelf products exist for such systems, the concept has seen extensive experimentation and speculation. One of the most promising concepts is the Trigon Self-Assembly concept developed by industrial designer, teacher, and aerospace industry consultant Scott Howe (http://www.plugin-creations.com/us/ash/) who has focused especially on automated assembly technology. The Trigon system is a plate space frame system -a space frame where, instead of struts connecting at nodal joints, one uses plates connecting along their sides- where the individual plate modules incorporate motorized locking hinge mechanisms that allow the plates to climb end-over-end over the surface of one another to find their positions and then lock into place edge-to-edge. Intended primarily for space applications, this scheme allows for a frame structures components to be tightly stacked and self-interlocked for shipments and then can deploy itself for form any shape within its geometry, both triangular and box space frames having been explored. With all the necessary mechanisms and structural elements of the frame concentrated at the perimeter of the plates, their interstitial space is left open like other space frames or can host other active components of a structure like sensor and antenna arrays, solar panels, fans, radiators, lights and display, electronic and computer systems and their control panels, and so on. Ideally, one would design these as a plug-in backplane for other types of components mounting to their faces. Already prototyped in simple demonstration forms, this is something very well suited to fabrication with Fab Lab tools and so is open for further experimentation.

With such a system, one could simply place stacks of these mass produced components on the ground and, with a personal computer modeling their ultimate structural shape, direct them to self-assemble into any desired form within the limits of their geometry. Likewise, one could direct them to change shape at any time later. However, they have the same limitation as most space frame systems that they have no means of their own to provide a weather-tight enclosure and it remains an open question how practical and cost-effective incorporating such active systems into parts that are otherwise stationary once deployed would actually be. For applications in space, where the costs of sending humans there outweighs the cost of robotics, this makes sense. Also in the case of structures based on very large and heavy components where this would eliminate both large amounts of human labor and the use of heavy construction equipment. And also nomadic structures which must rapidly deploy and disassemble quickly and which are moved and changed very frequently. Clearly, this is probably not practical for general building or housing applications today as the costs of these active components is simply too high. But its a concept with much promise and a novelty that compels further experimentation. Even if not practical for housing any time soon, one can readily imagine many other practical uses for it and even deliberately impractical one -such as toys.”

4 Comments Adaptive Architecture (4): Current Adaptive Building Technology

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  3. Michel Bauwens

    Response sent by Eric Hunting, via email, on BAMBOO Technologies:

    I’m familiar with the Bamboo Living company. If I recall correctly, they were employing some of the technology that was being developed by the Bamboo Village project;

    http://www.bamboovillagehawaii.org/intro.htm

    Bamboo is legendary for its strength but has long been a difficult material to work with because of its dimensional variability, its brittleness along the grain, and its high susceptibility to weathering. It can’t be nailed, joined by mortice and tendon, or glued along external surfaces. Traditional building methods have relied on lashed joints relying on bamboo fiber. (the Japanese and Polynesians traditionally used bamboo AS nails) This remains it’s most adaptive approach but, despite the obvious strength of correctly fashioned bamboo lashing (it’s about as strong as steel cable), this method is considered unreliable for large structures. This has favored the modern use of bamboo in very highly processed forms such as laminates, common for bamboo flooring. Bamboo Tech has adopted a phosphate infusion technique for structural bamboo preservation and a system of internally reinforced bolted joints. It’s effective, but the processing is relatively labor intensive and they still require a polyurethane surface sealant used both indoors and out. This coupled to the fact that they still import all their structural grade bamboo from Vietnam prevents them from realizing a real economic advantage and their stated goal of establishing a native Hawaiian building materials industry. They’ve also made no attempt to realize a truly modular building system. Their kits are, of course, modular in the context of a specific home design but not modular in terms of being a generic building system for a large diversity of structures. And they aren’t really designed for or intended to be demountable. Still, I think they’ve done amazingly well at helping get bamboo architecture toward mainstream use. No question that they’ve advanced the state of the art in this.

    Another innovator in bamboo use is a German company called Bambutec.

    http://www.bambutec.org/

    Its founder devised a clever system for bamboo joinery based on the use of milled laminate lumber joints bonded with a high performance casein-based adhesive pressure-injected into ends of structural bamboo members. The system also works with wood struts. This allows for the construction of extremely strong large span trusses, space frames, and geodesic domes with uniform modular components in structures that are literally glued together without any metal elements. The only limitation is that the joints are quite permanent and repairs or adaptations tricky. There’s no demountability. However, it has employed the strategy of larger component modules mechanically joined at their wood block joints, which can then be dismantled at that large component level. Still, it’s an interesting technology.

    Ultimately, the use of bamboo in the form of engineered laminate lumber may be the most practical way to use it for adaptive structures of scale, though there really is nothing wrong with lashed structures at small scales beyond the minor complication of integrating other materials to it by tied attachment. As a milled laminate, it can be employed just like lumber in alloy joint systems or simple bolt joint systems like that of Box Beam and have dimensional uniformity of parts. However, there has been little development outside of research labs of laminate bamboo lumber in thicknesses beyond that of flooring planks. Bamboo textiles is another new material that has surfaced recently and its potential in architectural applications remains unexplored. Woven reed and bamboo was a common material for wall systems in traditional light pavilion architecture and bamboo lattice common in the Asian equivalents of wattle & daub clay composite wall systems. We can expect these new textiles to see use in carpeting and wall coverings early on, but their potential as the basis of a variety of composite materials is great, especially in combination with newer plant-derived non-toxic non-petroleum resins and polyurethane foams. I’ve suggested their potential for interior finishing even in space habitats, where the cultivation of fast growing plants like bamboo as a source of industrial materials is very practical when a settlement still has a nascent industrial infrastructure and limited energy sources. There may be remarkable similarities in character between Asian design and the artifact design in space settlements because of the tendency for modularity and the very similar mix of likely indigenously produced materials with low energy processing; bamboo, paper, reed products, textiles (silk worms are a lot more efficient to cultivate in limited spaces than sheep or cotton), clays and ceramics, carved or cast stone, laminates, etc.

    I know there is a UN program for global development of bamboo industry and its use in relief architecture. Frank Toma, of Tomahouses, was supposedly exploring its use for relief housing in combination with T-slot structures for a friend who worked in this program, though there it was only being used in the form of laminates and woven screens for modular paneling, flooring, and ceiling systems. Another strong analog to space applications.

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