We have the materials. These non-metallic composites – such as carbon fibre, fiberglass panels and other structural plastics – are lightweight, often much cheaper than traditional industrial materials and offer physically stronger systems for designers to work with.
In fact, composite materials are more like rigid fabrics. Sticking them together results in building-sized components that can sometimes be set hard in just a few seconds, depending on the adhesives used. Composite materials are already used to make high-performance yachts, wind turbine blades, large passenger aircraft such as Boeing’s carbon fibre Dreamliner and even commercial spacecraft such as SpaceShipOne.
“These are fundamentally different material systems,” says architect Bill Kreysler, who began his career making composite sailboats, but later moved on to designing structures such as family homes and art museums. His firm recently worked on the modular exterior panels for the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’, which is currently the largest composite-based building facade in the United States.
The connective strength of architectural adhesives can be astonishing, says Kreysler, surpassing that of mechanical connections such as bolts and screws. But composites are not well understood in the building industry – the invisible magic of glue is distrusted in favour of brute force. As a result, they have not yet been widely adopted.
Even when assembling a structure using carbon fibre panels, contractors will often still use screws, rivets or bolts. This is both redundant and expensive. Glue would be much stronger than a bolt, especially when standing up to sheer forces.
Despite being niche for the time being, there are already successful building projects that use these techniques. Take the Bridge in a Backpack project from the University of Maine, which is exploring the construction of lightweight bridges. Made from carbon fibre tubes, with individual arches weighing so little they can be carried by four people, these road bridges can be assembled in less than two weeks. In the US, 18 have already been built.
Lynn thinks it is just a matter of time before we see skyscrapers held together entirely by adhesives.
‘The use of composites and adhesives could revolutionise engineering in every building type, says Lynn. It could change the way we design around natural disasters, for example. By drastically cutting the weight of a building, you could stop it swaying so much during an earthquake.
Lighter buildings are also cheaper. “If you can take 30 per cent of the weight out of the upper section of a building by using lightweight composite materials, you could end up saving between 70 and 80 per cent of the material in the entire structure,” says Lynn.
And these aren’t the only advantages. Most skyscrapers are built around a steel frame, which expands in the heat much more quickly than other materials, such as masonry cladding. But composite buildings are monocoque structures, like the hulls of sailing boats. Such buildings fare much better as they expand and contract. “The skin is the structure,” says Kreysler.
What’s more, composite structures are typically made from fewer parts, so assembly is simpler. But this also makes those structures stronger – sticking a smaller number of parts together along large surface areas beats bolting or nailing them together at specific, vulnerable points.
Of course, there are down sides. Most adhesives deteriorate rapidly in a fire and can even feed a blaze. Recently, composites have been blamed for a hotel fire in Dubai – materials used on the building’s exterior are thought to have fuelled the flames.
Oiling the cogs
Kreysler and Lynn think we need to get composite and adhesive-based construction methods better incorporated into building regulations. But this will involve testing, which takes time and money. Few architects or clients today have much of an incentive to pay for the extra steps that mean the one-off use of a novel material becoming a permanent part of a city’s building code. The new Apple headquarters, designed by the London-based architecture firm Foster and Partners, has a lot of exposed carbon fibre. “But that’s a billion-dollar building,” says Lynn.
However, maybe the impetus will come from elsewhere. It is worth bearing in mind that most composites are actually petroleum products, says Lynn. They potentially offer a massive untapped market for the oil industry to exploit.
Premier Composite Technologies, a manufacturer of composite components based in Dubai, has been involved in the construction of movable, lightweight domes made from carbon fibre that provide shade in mosques, as well as a composite-based rail station in Medina. Similar to a heavily forested region promoting timber, the oil-producing nations of the world could see this natural resource used not as a fuel to be burned but as a raw material to be converted into futuristic building components.
If anyone is prepared to invest in turning petroleum products into a new form of architecture, Dubai is a good place to start.
Photo 1’s caption: Just stick it together. Credit: WestEnd61/REX Shutterstock
Photo 2’s caption: Arch rival of regular bridges. Credit: Advanced Infrastructure Technologies/University of Maine
Photo 3’s caption: Medina station has a roof built out of composite panels. Credit: Premier Composite Technologies