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Upjohn Research Grant Winners Investigate New Sustainable Materials
By Zach Mortice
Every entry in this year’s AIA Richard Upjohn Research Initiative deals explicitly with sustainable building, and they all, to a greater or lesser extent, tackle the issue of material and building component sustainability. From a general marketing perspective, this has been the part of green building that everyone gets: bamboo good, VOC finishes bad.
What the general public (and sometimes clients) often don’t understand are the elements of sustainability immune to greenwashing, namely building performance, and how well each material component plays its part in the overall scheme. As the Upjohn grantees can attest, any material is only as sustainable and valuable as how it performs and what it can do, no matter its supposed green pedigree. And some of these materials do it all, dynamically reacting to the world around them and playing a part in the interdependent symphony of energy, climate, and form that each sustainable building requires.
COMPOSITE ARCHITECTURES: Sustainable Applications for Computer Automated Fiber Placement Technology
Mike Silver, Architects
New York City
Mike Silver’s Richard Upjohn Research grant project is looking to perfect an enduring dream of generations of architects: a material that can act as structure and façade simultaneously and completely—architectural skin and bone that are indistinguishable from each other. Silver’s new composite building material is made from palm fiber and high-strength glass, and can be formed by a CNC mill into walls, floors, ceilings, and windows.
There’s more at stake here than using a new material that’s both structural element and primary object in wild new formal arrangements, though. This composite holds massive potential for making buildings more sustainable. Beyond simply collapsing the need for discrete structural and façade elements, it can be created and milled faster than traditional components, it has a lower carbon footprint, it can help regulate day lighting and thermal heat transfer, and it’s extremely light. A 100-foot beam could be 10 times lighter than a similar structure of concrete and rebar. Silver will be using the material to build a house for a victim of January’s earthquake in Haiti.
Lower-Technology, Higher-Performance Construction
Kiel Moe, AIA, Northeastern University
It is often accepted as an article of faith that the next great sustainable building breakthrough is just one high-tech invention away. Building monitoring devices, real-time responsive energy generation systems, and computer-modeled pre-fabricated materials have made buildings greener, but they’ve also reduced sustainability to competing layers of technology.
Kiel Moe’s, AIA, research asserts that more and more new complex technology isn’t the answer. His research is founded on the supposition that often the simplest solution is the most efficient and sustainable. His research grant will help him explore “de-escalating building technology” and examine “more solid and simple monolithic construction systems.” He’ll be studying how various building systems and materials react to thermal and moisture migration tests, embodied energy life cycle assessments, and other structural and construction efficiency issues. Moe is not only studying building systems. In a brave example of meta-research, he’s reevaluating some basic assumptions people make about architecture, science, and progress.
Smart Sun-Shading: A Demonstration of Smart Thermo Bimetals as a Building Skin
Doris Kim Sung, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Architecture, University of Southern California
An example of a building material whose ability to react dynamically to its environment requires no external technology, Doris Kim Sung’s Upjohn research project offers both new possibilities for solar shading and natural ventilation, as well as an aesthetically rich and engaging building component. Thermo bimetals naturally curl and change shape when heated, reacting automatically and dynamically to the energy output of the sun. Sung’s work centers on ways to use them to reduce HVAC loads on buildings, either as sun shades or elements that allow natural breezes the flow through buildings. Her first step with the Upjohn grant money will be to assemble a large outdoor canopy made of individual thermo bimetal tiles to assess the material’s capabilities and also its aesthetic possibilities. Early prototypes show an easy potential for sculptural, artistic form.
Climate Camouflage: Phase III High-Performance Masonry Enclosure
Jason Oliver Vollen, Associate Director and Associate Professor, CASE Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Jason Oliver Vollen’s Upjohn research grant project is founded on the idea that if buildings were able to work completely in concert with natural climatic forces, like all natural parts of ecosystems, the entire conversation around sustainable building would sound a lot different. Instead of working against and seeking protection from climatic conditions in an antagonistic way, Vollen wants buildings to actively harness these forces and use the thermal energy the sun broadcasts, and not in the manner of traditional solar voltaic panels. His system of modular ceramic masonry curtain walls absorb the sun’s heat and redistributes it to the rest of the building actively and dynamically, effectively making each structure an energy transfer station.
COMPOSITE ARCHITECTURES: Sustainable Applications for Computer Automated Fiber Placement Technology. Image courtesy of Mike Silver, Architects and Phil Kahlil of Front, Inc.