The Architecture of Quilting
Opening the book The Quilts of Gees Bend, Fisk enthusiastically points out the colorful and striking geometric patterns produced by the women of a small Alabama town. He uses the metaphor of quilting when explaining his center's approach to design problems such as rebuilding the storm-ravaged Gulf.
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"The art of quilting relies on spatial boundaries, rules of composition, and a methodology of stitching many diverse materials together," Fisk asserts.
Post-Katrina recovery in the Gulf presents a microcosm of issues worldwide, he continues. His "quilting" pattern concept moves through nine levels of engagement, beginning with identifying and mapping local and regional resources, from natural materials to vocational schools. Community involvement is critical to the plan, to give residents a sense of ownership.
At the center of the efforts at CMPBS — also known as "Max Pot" — is the development of the GroHome. The concept involves a "starter dwelling" that is meant to form an armature for gradual expansion. The GroHome is a kit of prefabricated, interchangeable parts. Fisk is an advocate of rigorous product design in the manufacturing of architectural components.
The GroHome consists of prefabricated elements anchored by "fatwalls" and "growalls" which contain many of the service features needed in a house, such as kitchen and bathroom fixtures.
"Architects generally have little idea what it takes to manufacture components," Fisk says. He sees fluency in the intricacies of fabrication processes as critical to understanding how buildings of the future will be made.
The Solar Decathlon
One testing ground for the GroHome has been the Solar Decathlon, a student design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Every few years, a "solar village" of entrants is assembled on the Washington Mall from universities from the United States and abroad. In the first decathlon in 2002, the University of Texas team, with Fisk as advisor, assembled a lightweight modular structure using off-the-shelf components in innovative ways.
The centerpiece of their project was a small Airstream trailer retrofitted with solar panels and other energy-efficient features. The trailer housed much of the machinery for the house that was plugged in and removable. The trailer epitomizes Fisk's penchant for modified industrial design that has flexibility, mobility, and efficient service space.
For the 2007 Solar Decathlon, Fisk is heading up a team from Texas A&M University, where he is on the architecture faculty. The GroHome T is a culmination of many of his principles — focusing on refining a whole system for making houses rather than building a prototype. The Airstream trailer is gone and has been replaced by high-tech industrialized modules fit together to make a flexible and affordable house. It incorporates green materials, is fueled by solar energy, and rests lightly on the land with low-impact pedestal footings.
Max Pot's Potluck
At a regular Tuesday lunch, the CMPBS group gathers for a meal and brainstorming. These meetings show the range of minds at work, from young interns to veteran research scientists and the man who builds the prototypes and keeps the machinery going. Everyone offers input; they break bread and divide up tasks.
The breadth of their work is evident in a stroll around the compound. An array of intriguing steel connectors lies on a cart under a large, adjustable, vaulted pavilion that is used as an outdoor staging area. A miniature aircraft hangar houses the fold-up commuter plane Fisk uses for his trips to Texas A&M. The plane is currently being modified to use biofuels.
Past the short runway, at the far end of the complex, a small prototype house is being assembled. This basic version of the GroHome is intended for display at a conference on hurricane relief efforts. This version of the GroHome uses manufactured metal framing systems for structure and thin concrete panels for skin.
Among his several projects in China, Fisk is working with authorities on developing magnesium oxide — a material that is plentiful in some provinces — as a substitute for cement in concrete panels.
"The use of magnesium oxide produces a concrete that is CO2 neutral," Fisk says. This means that any greenhouse gasses emitted during cement manufacturing are reabsorbed in the curing process. The concrete is strong enough to be extruded into sturdy half-inch- (1.25-centimeter-) thick panels that can be directly connected to framing members. CMPBS is also working with artists to design patterns that can be printed on the slick white surface of the panels.
At the front of the CMPBS site, in experimental garden plots, biologist Jason Avent works at breeding a hardier strain of amaranth, an important grain in parts of Asia and South America. Avent is also developing the use of vegetable and fruit dyes as a substitute for the chemical coatings in solar cells.
"The plant extracts don't last quite as long as the chemical coatings but they have the great advantage of being easily removed and reapplied, making the panels easily reusable," Avent says. In his workshops for teaching grade-school children to build solar panels, he has noticed that raspberry is the favorite "flavor" for coatings.
My first encounter with Pliny Fisk III was at a lecture he gave in the early 1990s. At that time he had been traveling to South America, mapping the resources of the United States, and experimenting with bamboo as rebar and with steel rebar as structural framing.
His slide trays had been knocked over en route to the lecture, and he had gotten the slides back in, but in no particular order. It didn't seem to matter — his work is anything but linear. It encompasses global to local variables, from large-scale regional planning to the application of a fastener. He and his team have established CMPBS as an anchor and important voice in the effort to build a more sustainable future.
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Michael Cockram is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. He is the director of the Italy Field School Program.