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Plastic bubbles wrap up energy waste in Melbourne

January 1st, 2008 / By: / Case Studies, Feature

Inflated plastic bubbles enclose a shopping mall in Melbourne, Australia, solving a host of problems, including energy waste.

Entering Melbourne’s Federation Square through an oddly shaped opening that pierces a giant inflatable wall must be something akin to Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. But unlike Alice, where home turf is no longer visible after her fall, visitors to Fed Square, (as it is referred to locally), can keep an eye on the exterior world from the inside through the transparent structure.

Fed Square is a sprawling complex or “cultural precinct” comprising art galleries, a museum, auditoria, cinemas, cafes, bars and retail all organized around two public spaces, one covered and one open to the sky. As civic-minded as the space is, it is not functional all 12 months of the year. The challenge? How to close off the entrance to the atrium area during the winter months in order to make the space more efficient and user-friendly.

Fed Square is a sprawling complex or “cultural precinct” comprising art galleries, a museum, auditoria, cinemas, cafes, bars and retail all organized around two public spaces, one covered and one open to the sky. As civic-minded as the space is, it is not functional all 12 months of the year. The challenge? How to close off the entrance to the atrium area during the winter months in order to make the space more efficient and user-friendly.

Traditional bricks, mortar and glass were never a consideration due to the weight load and mobility issues, and the only acceptable, alternative method of closure was a foldaway, glass structural door system that was bid at $187,250 prior to detailing, and was estimated to take 26 days to install.

Enter Giant Inflatables. Their solution? To fabricate a multi-cellular, geodesic-looking inflatable wall manufactured from a transparent PVC material that could be installed quickly. According to Giant Inflatables designer, David Abramowitch, “We came in significantly under budget, and the inflatable was installed in nine ‘after hours,’ when Fed Square was closed at night.”

“The value and huge advantage of designing and installing a self-supporting structure of this nature over a conventional solution of ‘hard’ structure is clear,” states Abramowitch. “The additional costs of a structural engineer, architects and modifications of the existing structure were all eliminated. Also, it is so efficient having a ‘temporary’ self-supporting structure for this kind of requirement.”

Additional advantages of Fed Square’s giant inflatable wall are many. Its very presence created a sense of place or enclosure during the winter months, increasing retail traffic and allowing for more active, year round use of the space. Reduced energy costs for heating the space are considerable and there is noticeable improvement in ambient sound.

In spite of all of its success, the actual aesthetic design of the wall on the front end was challenging. “The radical geometry of the existing building produced some extreme production considerations,” explains Abramowitch. “We were exploring new territory with the material we were using and the manner in which we were using it. Seam lines and the material join position had to be exact in order to achieve the required architectural result. We had to incorporate the dual concerns of function and aesthetic within the stringent requirements. We were fortunate that the client was open-minded and understood that only unconventional solutions would meet their basket of requirements.”

In the end both the client and Fed Square visitors have been impressed. “There were positive outcomes for the client beyond their expectations,” confirms Abramowitch. “That is the reality of inflatable products. The end user, the client, is always surprised at the positive outcomes beyond their original vision.”

Mason Riddle writes frequently about design and architecture.

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