Breaking the Mold: Architecture students win national attention for industry-changing designs
In the creation of two graceful, curving, luminous columns, undergraduate Clemson students have taken an artistic yet strategic approach to changing the manufacturing practices of an entire industry.
And while one could argue over proper descriptions for these stunning structures—a tulip or a chalice? Columns of lace or light?—their purpose goes beyond their visual appeal. Each structure is serving to transform how the world thinks about fiberglass and other composite materials, showcasing new design ideas and innovative thinking that may change the future of manufacturing and architecture.
Let’s change an industry norm.
These large, handmade structures were created as the final projects of an undergraduate industry-related research project established on campus by assistant professor of architecture Joseph Choma. The goal of the course, “Composites Manufacturing for Architectural Applications,” was twofold: first, imagine and design new structural possibilities for manufacturing composite materials; then find a new process to replace the traditional use of molds in manufacturing for architectural use.
According to Choma, the composites industry relies heavily on molds to make parts. However, molds are only advantageous for manufacturing many repeating parts, not the unique parts needed in many other industry applications. But in today’s manufacturing model, making and assembling infinitely unique parts is not economical. So while the initial goal of the course was to shake up how composite materials could be utilized, Choma pushed the students to go further: the class was tasked to do nothing short of disrupting an industry by innovating the entire manufacturing process.
New ways to use an old material.
Composite materials are produced when two or more materials of different physical or chemical properties are combined to make a new material, or composite. When successful, the new material is stronger, lighter or less expensive that its component parts. Common examples of composites include concrete and plywood. For this course, the Clemson students used fiberglass as their composite material and were challenged by Choma to figure out “what fiberglass wants to be.” In other words, free of the constraint of using molds, what can fiberglass truly achieve?
The students’ creations ended up pushing the boundaries of technology and design, and yet were beautifully simple in their approach.
Group 1included students Caleb Roberts of Irmo, South Carolina; Sarah Pyne of Dixmont, Maine; Tyler Rodgers of Charleston, S.C.; Christian Bravo of Walhalla, S.C.; Brent Sosebee of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and R.J. Wilson of Goose Creek, S.C. Their creation, “Manifold,” is an 8-foot tall structure formed by making multiple accordion and diagonal folds on sheets of fiberglass. As the students discovered in their research, fiberglass reinforced plastic is naturally flexible, like cloth, but can be made stiff with the application of resin. Through the creative use of applying resin to certain sections, making a crease pattern and folding, the lightweight fiberglass can be constructed to bear significant weight and yet still allow for flat packaging.
After experimenting with various folding techniques, the students combined techniques to create the ideal pattern. They then applied resin, folded the sheets, installed the structure and added additional resin to the creases, creating a rigid, load-carrying column that is elegant, durable and lightweight. Their presentation highlighted the pragmatic simplicity of their innovative solution: “Anything we can fold with paper, we can fold with fiberglass, without a mold.”
The students in Group 2 were Harrison Polk of Greer, S.C.; Diego Bazzani of Kennesaw, Ga.; Heather Kimbrell of Mt. Pleasant, S.C.; Erin Doering of Bluffton, S.C.; Will Franzreb of Simpsonville, S.C.; and Carrie Bull of Lynchburg, Va. They created “Columns of Double Curvature” by employing a weaving technique to construct large columns with a central twist. The students had to build a rotisserie-like jig to weave the fiberglass cords, then they covered the woven column with epoxy. The final columns are strong enough to support roof structures, yet open enough to allow light to shine through. And each structure uses fiberglass thread to weave the three-dimensional, seamless columns, with no need for molds.
Both groups received support and supplies from David Riebe at Windsor Fiberglass, Composites One and Ashland Composites. Brian Leounis, manager of the Digital Design Shop and Materials Lab at Clemson University, served as the groups’ fabrication consultant.
National acclaim connects students with industry.
In the spring semester, the Clemson research teams were invited to submit their work to the second annual Composites in Architecture Design Challenge, a national competition presented by the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA). The teams’ entries won first place for “Manifold” and third place for “Columns of Double Curvature.”
The winning entries were exhibited in late April at the 2017 American Institute of Architects National Convention in Orlando, Fla. At this large and influential industry event, both Clemson teams received their awards at a ceremony during the first day of the convention. Later, the first-place team gave a formal presentation about “Manifold” to an audience filled with industry leaders.
“The ACMA Composites Challenge was an excellent opportunity for all,” says Choma. “It began with industry leaders sharing their expertise, and ended with students and faculty sharing their design research investigations. The reciprocal dialogue between industry and academia energized the explorations—knowing that what we do could contribute to advancements in composites manufacturing for architectural applications.”
The Clemson School of Architecture embraces opportunities for students to seek innovative solutions to challenges in the built environment and the critical issues of our time.
As Kate Schwennsen, director of the Clemson School of Architecture remarked, “The students were challenged by the competition and by their instructor to be radical in their thinking about the possibilities of composites in architectural design and construction. The students were more than successful in accepting this challenge, inventing proposals that are not only ingenious, but simultaneously pragmatic and beautiful.”
Ingenious. Pragmatic. Beautiful. While these terms may not have been used often to describe fiberglass, Clemson students are well on their way to changing that—and influencing the manufacturing and architecture industries along the way.