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UB architects, engineers push limits of sustainable materials and construction

As part of the “Waste Fibers in Architecture” project, students in a spring 2016 studio taught by Stephanie Davidson employ scanning electron microscopy to study the material behaviors of paper fibers and their potential at an architectural scale. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Davidson

By Lisa Gagnon

Published May 6, 2016

Imagine: Habitable structures made from paper fibers. Zero-energy façade shading that adapts photo-chemically to light. And an ancient building technique carried out by 21st century robots. 

UB Architecture professors Stephanie Davidson, Jin Young Song and Georg Rafailidis will research all this and more as part of three new interdisciplinary projects awarded exploratory funding through UB’s SMART Community of Excellence.

Selected from 14 departments and 32 investigators, the projects are among five to receive the exploratory grants in support of innovative, interdisciplinary research, teaching and industry and community engagement. Davidson, Song and Rafailidis have each partnered with faculty from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in their research.

One of three Communities of Excellence at UB, SMART (Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies) aims to develop advanced materials, technologies and processes that enable the sustainable, data-driven and cost effective production of high quality, customizable products, in order to make Buffalo a center of innovation in advanced manufacturing, train the industry’s future leaders and give the nation a leg up in a fiercely competitive global industry.

Zero Energy Adaptive Façade (ZEAF) for Energy Efficient Buildings

Haiqing Lin: Assistant Professor, Chemical and Biological Engineering

Jin Young Song: Assistant Professor, Architecture

Jongmin Shim: Assistant Professor, Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Made of light-sensitive polymers, ZEAF achieves zero-energy adaptive shading by smoothly responding to the amount of light entering the space, creating a dappled effect.

With buildings accounting for 38% of all CO2 emissions and 73% of electricity consumption in the U.S., energy efficiency in the construction and operation of infrastructure is desperately needed. While recent dynamic systems based on mechanical actuators use additional energy and require high maintenance, ZEAF, made of light-responsive polymers, pursues zero-energy adaptive shading by smoothly responding to the amount of light entering the space, creating a dappled-light effect. This exploratory grant will allow the team to fabricate a prototype of ZEAF and explore its commercial potential through technical and economic analysis. As interdisciplinary collaborators, Lin will focus on optimizing the photo-chemical reaction, while Song advances the parametric design of the envelope system, and Shim develops the innovative pattern and alternative actuation.

Waste Fibers in Architecture: Finding New Applications for Short-Fiber Lint in Structural Shell Casting

Stephanie Davidson, Clinical Assistant Professor, Architecture

Jongmin Shim, Assistant Professor, Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering 

This research explores the architectural application of waste fibers as shell structures, opening new avenues in sustainable material life cycles in architecture. Pairing material culture and structural engineering, the program will analyze the physical properties of short-fiber lints - including byproducts of paper waste - through microscopy. Structural potential will be explored at multiple scales by casting test swatches and building larger thin-shelled structures, such as spans or spatial enclosures. The effort represents a new trajectory of material research for architecture and engineering at UB and creates new opportunities for industry partnership and student engagement in the SMART community.

Davidson has already begun advancing the research through a spring 2016 studio exploring architectural possibilities for waste by-products from Georgia Pacific, one of the world’s leading makers of tissue, pulp, paper, packaging and building products. Georgia Pacific donated hundreds of paper tubes, paper rolls and cotton fibers – waste by-products from its production facilities in Western New York and Memphis, Tenn. In addition to studying their material properties using a scanning electron microscope, students tested the resilience of the material through test swatches and, ultimately, an architectural-structure unit and assembly strategy. 

An architectural structure and assembly strategy developed by a team of students in Stephanie Davidson’s paper studio. The structure is composed of paper tubes – waste by-products donated by Georgia Pacific from its production facility in Western New York. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Davidson

Long-lived Structures and Materials: Investigating Materials and Construction Methods for Dry-Stacked Corbelled Structures

Georg Rafailidis, Assistant Professor, Architecture

Nils Napp, Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Engineering

Andreas Stavridis, Assistant Professor, Civil Structural and Environmental Engineering

Some of the oldest known human buildings are dry-stacked, corbelled structures, which do not require mortar, fasteners or reinforcement and eliminate the need for frequent construction. Today, these structures are well suited for assembly by robots since they require precise placement in complex geometries, and the lack of fasteners and mortar makes recycling the building materials much easier. Under the exploratory grant, the team will produce a prototype as proof of concept highlighting the synergy between technical and aesthetic questions that arise at the intersection of advanced automation and architecture. The SMART exploratory grant will trigger an in-kind sponsorship by a global concrete manufacturer to fabricate concrete blocks at full scale to answer the following questions: 

  • How can these novel corbelled typologies found empirically, at model-scale, be scaled-up to full, architectural scale? 
  • How can the novel structures and their respective stacking strategies be translated into construction-grade materials like concrete and brick? 
  • How can the complex corbelled geometries accommodate unforeseen conditions on site and be made robust through robotic automation?

In addition, the team will seek out other external grants such as Robust Intelligence (National Science Foundation) and the National Robotics Initiative.

Dry-stacked corbelled structures gain structural integrity through compression rather than mortar, fasteners or reinforcement. They are among the oldest-known human-made structures, such as the Tholos of Atreus Vault in Greece, pictured above.

Corbelled, compressive structures are well suited for assembly by robots since they require precise placement in complex geometries. 

Two other projects from the engineering departments round out the Exploratory Funding group. Elastomeric Balloon Based Transfer Printing (EBTP) of Conformal Sensors, led by Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professors Rahul Rai and Gary Dargush and Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering professors Jongmin Shim and Amjad Aref, proposes an innovative strategy to directly manufacture electronics on 3D curved surfaces by utilizing an extremely deformable balloon type stamp as media. Meanwhile, 3D Printing Flexible Solid-State High-Energy Graphene Supercapacitors, headed by Industrial System and Engineering professor Chi Zhou and Chemical and Biological Engineering professor Gang Wu, will explore the unique electrical and mechanical properties of graphene that make it a promising material for fabricating high-performance supercapacitors.