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By Ralph Spencer Steenblik

I am no expert regarding disaster, or refugee housing, but I would consider myself an interested party along with my interest in informal settlements. From where I sit it seems that some of the same technologies and techniques used for temporary housing solutions could be productive for informal housing conditions. Clearly the informal housing needs are not equivalent, yet there are many that overlap.

Hypothetically, if those seeking new habitation in informal settlements were provided with a common construction system it could alleviate some of the challenges now facing them. With a common system which could be seamlessly interlocked, it could provide more secure structural strategies and better access to resources such as plumbing.

A project, part of the Wenzhou-Kean University Public Architecture
and Design Research Institute, called Carbon Natural has a team of students and professors working on a system, while a proto-architectural experiment, could someday be used to solve real world problems. It, along with similar innovative solutions will be tomorrow’s solution in disaster, refugee, and possibly even informal settlements. This research project is a twenty-first century take on space frame technology, attempting to leverage the potential ease of fabrication and the mass production of the system, while allowing for more formal flexibility.

Fig. 1 First iteration of the Micro-Bamboo structure

The project actually began as the development of a children’s toy design, possibly inspired by the work of the Eames and Froebel. It has gone through several iterations beginning with a simple wooden cube and dowel strut system similar to a Tinkertoy. Although there is a constructible simplicity in this original system there is a material over-use factor. This became one aspect of further development. Additionally the rectilinear limitation of the system harkened to an earlier time and did not reflect any sort of advancement beyond woodworking techniques, available for centuries.

Fig. 2 First rapid prototyping iteration of the Micro-Bamboo system.

The original intention was to achieve a simple constructability, which has remained a core tenet of the design exercise throughout the process. Although the original iteration of the system, on its own has merit, the opportunity to develop a system with possibly more potential is a reality because of access to rapid prototyping methods. This shift in manufacturing processes allowed for a move away from pre-made or off the shelf parts, toward completely bespoke units, specifically made to address the needs of the system; allowing custom angled struts, for increased levels of complexity within the system without a sophisticated increase in the nature of the parts.

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Fig. 3. Third iteration of the system, focused on complexity through node like struts

Eventually after a few iterative cycles, the realization came that the process, although faster than molecular evolution, had too many generations of lag to ever hope to catch up to the existing wisdom embedded in molecular physics. Concurrently, the team was exposed to what it termed micro-bamboo which takes the form of mass produced ubiquitous chopsticks, made from bamboo waste product, in general use here in Wenzhou, China. This provided a convenient strut material. Again the material choice focused on effectiveness with a high strength to weight ratio, while maintaining accessibility.

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Fig. 4. This drawing shows the shift away from Euclidean toward molecular logics.

Optimization was critical. The addition of fins may seem decorative, yet they are essential to the structural performance of the node. The micro-bamboo strut material is quite flexible, placing the failure likelihood on the node. A series of structural fins were added to the node. The tribrachidium fins add surface area for directional and gravitational load transfer. The fins were limited to the material coursing previously mentioned. This required them to be thicker than initially desired for proportional considerations, yet in the end proved to be important structurally. Using a more course printing setting allowed for more rapid print times, but this required part optimization to align with material logic, in a similar way to brick coursing. A series of voids were subtracted from the node, to reduce printing time, material use, and a multitude of other advantages, see figure 6.

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Fig. 5. First carbon based node design iterations, prior to more accurate parametric engagement

With adequate nodes developed, the team was able to begin assembling early versions of the system. Initially there were no preconceived configurations identified. In fact the system was left in the hands of several groups unfamiliar with it entirely. Allowing the team to assess the success of the system as a means of making volumetric form. After the initial carbon inspired nodes were made there were more than ten major iterations, and there is still additional fine tuning to maximize potentials within the system.

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Fig. 6. Small scale instantiation utilizing a tensegrity and cantilever configuration
Fig. 7 Focused view of joint and strut extender
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Fig. 8 Part of the project team after sub-hour exhibition installation

At scale the system has been erected for several exhibitions. Figure 8 illustrates the first of these installations. After a few installations there was a desire to again maximize the part to whole volume of the installation. As mentioned previously, one of the benefits of a carbon inspired node design is the multiplicity of available assembly configurations. Figure 8 shows an implied nonagon taking the node count per equivalently dimensioned unit from twenty nodes and thirty struts down to eight nodes and nine struts. The efficiency of the more spars nonagon unit is of course at the cost of structural resilience.

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Fig. 9 Implied nonagon unit, more efficient than the pentagonal dodecahedron configuration

Yet it seems that the structural capacity of two linked nonagon units could be greater than one of the dodecahedron units and still require less nodes and struts. In addition to the opportunities beyond a singular unit configuration. There are opportunities to mix unit types, possibly creating a best of both worlds scenario for structural optimization. One way we have begun to test this is through allowing the strut to continue all the way through the node, creating eight, not four, potential strut connections per node. Additionally the system is flexible enough that transitioning between unit types within an installation has been successfully tested.

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Fig. 10 This tower topped out at nearly five meters tall, made only of micro-bamboo and 3D printed joints.

There are novel opportunities provided by breaking the regimented regularity of the system, by leaving some units incomplete, or through arranging the nodes and struts in configurations outside of the implied logics found in the system. For example, as shown in figure 6 incorporating tensegrity logics into the system it moves into a hybrid or collection of unit configurations within the greater composition. These opportunities provide fertile ground for novel applications beyond the monotony of the single unit system. The team believes the hybrid approach is the key to a compelling application of the system – allowing the system to be whimsically accommodating to user needs and preferences.

An iterative research process, designing a proto-architectural molecularly in-spired micro-bamboo system, followed by some case study examples of actualized instantiations of the system at scale.
Fig. 11 This shows the progress on the system thus far

Other future opportunities include incorporating aspects of cladding through translucent synthetic material, and motorized articulation of the system, see Oliveira 2009. Further abreast still is the opportunity to scale up using alloy for full scale application. You can see the potentiality for this system to have enclosure, incorporate solar panel, and water catchment systems. An early functional model may be able to provide portable hot showers to homeless populations in Los Angeles. From there, the sky is the limit.

Fig. 12 The project was recently featured at an annual sustainability conference, in the San Francisco bay area, called Verge

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