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A case for small fabric structures, Part 2

Features | October 1, 2016 | By:

A collection of temporary structures throughout the “Google on the Beach 2015” (GoB) event in Cannes, France featured small, fabric-roofed pavilions using atypical materials. Photos: Google.
A collection of temporary structures throughout the “Google on the Beach 2015” (GoB) event in Cannes, France featured small, fabric-roofed pavilions using atypical materials. Photos: Google.

The balancing act with new materials for portables.

For Harry Osborne, creative lead at SET-Live, the graphic applications and collection of temporary structures throughout the “Google on the Beach 2015” (GoB) event was 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.”

Part of the structures that made up the GoB were fabric-roofed pavilions that are common structure forms, yet the materials that comprise the pavilions are uncommon. Designed by collaborating event company C6(n) Technology Ltd., 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 OK 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,” Osborne says. “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.”

What’s Pneu?

The Brown University STEAM Pavilion by Pneuhaus is a great example of form following function and of materials helping to guide the physical form of structures. (Pneuhaus’s three partners, Matt Muller, Augie Lehrecke and Levi Bedall, are recent architecture school graduates.)

When asked what led Pneuhaus to use air-supported fabric as a building material, Muller said, “To achieve large-scale spaces at the lowest cost, frankly.” The three partners were still architecture students when they started the company and cost, naturally, was of 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 the materials they were using needed to be more durable and flame retardant 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. The team uses a PVC-coated polyester for the floors in the structures, the kind most often used in ‘bouncy castles,’ but much too heavy to construct the walls and ceilings.

Muller is an enthusiastic fan of 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 reactions when they see a large, unusual structure pop up before their eyes in such a short timeframe.”

Here comes the sun

As described in Part 1 ( of this article, flexible composite PV makes a logical high-tech choice for portables. The Pvilion-designed mobile Coffee Court for the Brooklyn Roasting Co. is constructed of vintage, reclaimed wood from old basketball courts. The relocatable business is powered by a laminated shade canopy incorporating a Pvilion photovoltaic unit that provides up to 200 watts to run a refrigeration unit that cools the iced coffee drinks and powers the cash register.

Composites and inflatables

Perhaps the most sophisticated approach to lighter weight portables comes from Boston-area architects GLD with its method of mold making using computer-driven patterning to layout volumetric shapes on flat PVC-coated sailcloth. In this way, GLD creates shapes that are inflated to make full-sized balloons, each individually serving as a mold. The architects took the inflated form and, using 3-inch-wide strips of 18-oz., resin-infused fiberglass fabric, applied them to the re-useable mold.

“Essentially wrapping it like a mummy,” says GLD co-founder and partner Joel Lamere. “Each of the 12 conical pods was formed separately, with the intersections between the 12 inscribed by a 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 it uses “cured-surface inflatables.” It chose a relatively established method of composite fabrication, rather than more advanced recent technology of high-strength composites, because it has a fast cure time and meets the established construction protocol often required by municipal government code officials.

Viewing the future

For GLD’s partners Joel Lamere and Cynthia Gunadi, experimentation with new materials and methods is the foundation of their practice, and it is ongoing. You might say it’s embedded in their DNA: Lamere is an assistant professor in MIT’s School of Architecture & Planning, where he notes that exploration of new materials and technologies extends back to the late 1940s when R. Buckminster Fuller was a guest professor there.

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,” Lamere says.
The future for Pvilion is looking at licensing its 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’s 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, Muller says. “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.”

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect and frequent contributor to Fabric Architecture, and a consultant to architects and designers through his company Just Wright Communications.

*Anthony Burril is an internationally recognized graphic artist; his design for Google’s GoB Cannes Lions 2015 event was based on nautical signal flags whose colors, shapes and formats were featured in the shapes of the structures themselves.

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