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Northern [blue] lights: high-tech fabric in the woods

Exteriors, Features | May 1, 2012 | By:

Woven PVDF frames a cabin on the U.S.-Canada border in brilliant color.

Ahti Westphal, a recent graduate in architecture from the University of Minnesota, has combined a number of personal interests with his design and construction of a luminous “Blue Cube” retreat located on Grindstone Island overlooking Rainy Lake that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border. The hand-built structure constructed for a private client is a testament to the designer’s interest in high-tech materials, their application in architecture and nature as inspiration.

“The Blue Cube is the first example of a woven polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) used for architectural application,” says Westphal. “The blue enclosure is a single layer of the highly nonreactive PVDF that is resistant to UV degradation, wide temperature extremes, chemicals and [when extruded] maintains a hard surface resistant to abrasion and wear.” Rainy Lake is located near International Falls, Minnesota, the “icebox of the nation,” with temperatures often ranging from minus 40F to 90F throughout the year, a true test of material durability. PVDF—or Kynar® from Arkema—shares similar low-friction properties with PTFE and ETFE that prevent dirt and other accumulates from sticking to it. Essentially it is self-cleaning.

Westphal took a large sheet of the woven PVDF and fitted it by friction mounts to a painted carbon steel frame that wraps all four sides of the structure. “I think of it as a tightly stretched curtain,” he says, that counteracts the wind and keeps out insects—no small accomplishment for that part of the world. The fabric is 100% recyclable and has a lower melting point than woven metal meshes, making it, in Westphal’s estimation, a highly sustainable building material. He plans to continue experimenting with it and testing it in other architectural settings.

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