3 Ways Composites Are Influencing Architecture

It has been said that architecture is a reflection of culture and societal values. If that is true, what does the emergence of composite materials in architectural design say about us? A lot, actually. By studying how architects are including composite materials in their designs, we can see changing cultural attitudes about how we use building materials ranging from wood to concrete and sustainable alternatives.

Composites like carbon fiber and fiberglass are being used more frequently by architects and engineers. And the more composites are utilized, the more we are learning about their usefulness during multiple phases of a construction project. Simply put, composites are not limited only to the actual components used to build a structure. They can be applied to construction methodologies as well.

To illustrate the point, consider the following three ways composites are influencing architecture:

1. Enabling Better Use of Concrete

Concrete continues to be a favorite construction material for certain kinds of building projects. Concrete is tough, durable, and capable of carrying tremendous loads. But it can also be difficult to work with. Consider construction of the BHP Billiton Pavilion in San Antonio, Texas.

The pavilion’s walls were to be made from concrete poured over forms standing upwards of 30 feet high. Each form had to be strong enough to withstand the weight of wet concrete which, according to designers, would equal to about 500 pounds per square foot. Everyone assumed that the forms would be made of wood. That is standard practice for pouring concrete.

The architect wanted to use foam forms instead, mainly to cut costs. The builder wouldn’t go for it. So instead, they compromised on fiberglass forms. Fiberglass turned out to be less expensive than wood because the forms could be reused multiple times. The fiberglass retained its shape and strength where wood is prone to warping and malformation as it absorbs water. In the end, the project was a great success. The fiberglass forms did their job at a lower cost than wood.

2. Modern, Unique Designs

Next, consider the unique new designs of some of the world’s most famous buildings. From Abu Dhabi’s Capitol Gate to the weird and wacky Krzywy Domek in Sopot, Poland, composite materials make it possible to construct buildings of all sizes and shapes. Architects are no longer limited to boring towers and boxes on steroids. They can design all sorts of angles, curves, and anything else their minds can imagine.

Utah-based Rock West Composites says that the beauty of materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber is that they can be molded into just about any shape and still retain their structural integrity. It may cost a bit more, but sometimes achieving a unique design is worth it.

3. Stronger and Lighter Buildings

Lastly, use of composite materials enables architecture to grow larger while still being stronger and lighter. Composites are critical to this sort of design in crowded urban areas where building up remains the only option. Think places like Tokyo, New York, and London here.

Replacing a steel and glass facade with carbon fiber significantly reduce weight. Throw a carbon fiber roof on top and you reduce the weight even further. Thanks to composites, architects have a lot more options for maximizing limited footprints. And in doing so, they still are not sacrificing strength or structural integrity.

What does modern architecture say about our culture and societal values? If nothing else, it says we are willing to explore new ways of building that do not involve wood, steel, and other traditional materials. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing.

Monique Hall

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