by Michael Cockram
When we think of sustainability, images of solar panels, thick insulation, and rainwater cisterns might come to mind. But Canadian architect and researcher Mark West is rethinking the bones of concrete structures to find ways to make them as efficient as possible.
West is director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST), where the research revolves around fabric-formed concrete. The process uses pliable fabric to make innovative, efficient structural shapes.
Researchers from around the world join architecture students in a 5,500-square-foot (510-square-meter) hands-on laboratory that looks more like a precast plant than an educational space. Out of this marriage of art, architecture, engineering, and construction comes a unique vocabulary of organic, sensual, efficient structural form.
Breaking the Mold
West's premise is that fabric forming can free us from the "uniform section," meaning the consistent shape from end to end of an element such as a beam or column. "Concrete is unlike most other building materials because it's not produced from a milling operation," West says. "Just about everything else we use comes out of a mill in sticks and sheets."
He points out that in many situations, the uniform section is the perfect solution, since it adapts well to different loading conditions. But the fundamental reason that concrete beams are rectangular is because the mold material comes in rectilinear shapes. "Anything besides a box becomes expensive and difficult," he says.
West is bucking this paradigm by using flexible fabric molds, and by using three principles to guide his research: simplicity, sustainability, and accessibility to people with limited skills and resources.
In making the molds, CAST often incorporates geotextile fabric, a tough material that's used in everything from landscaping weed barriers to underlayment for roadways. To make a mold, the fabric is usually held in place by a wood support structure.
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Byoung Soo Cho Architects designed the two-story Hanil Visitors Center and Guest House in Yeongju, South Korea, a building intended to showcase uses of recycled concrete.
Photo: Yonggwan Kim
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The Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (CAST) has simplified the process of making open-web concrete trusses while reducing the dead weight of the member in comparison to solid beams.
Photo: Courtesy CAST
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