Tag Archives: Buildings

Scientists develop origami inflatable structures that are stable both inflated and deflated

This inflatable shelter is out of thick plastic sheets and can pop up or fold flat. (Image courtesy of Benjamin Gorissen/David Melancon/Harvard SEAS).

In 2016, cyclism fans watched in shock as an inflatable arch at the Tour de France deflated and fell down on a cyclist, throwing the race into disarray. Organizers later blamed the accident on a passing spectator’s wayward belt buckle, but we all know who the real culprit was: physics.

Inflatable structures, which are used for everything from temporary hospitals to weddings and parties, are monostable — they are stable in one state and one state only, when they are inflated. If they deflate, they fall down.

It makes sense: if you think about common inflatable structures, they have a completely different shape when they’re inflated versus when they’re not. But what if, through some clever geometry, you could design a structure that’s stable in both configurations? In other words, one that’s bistable.

That was exactly the reasoning of a team of researchers at Harvard. Inspired by origami, they started with the simplest geometrical shapes (triangles) and developed a library of triangular building blocks that can be used to build bistable shapes.

Their idea is all the more impressive since it doesn’t need specific materials to work.

“We are relying on the geometry of these building blocks, not the material characteristics, which means we can make these building blocks out of almost any materials, including inexpensive recyclable materials,” said Benjamin Gorissen, an associate in Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering at SEAS and co-first author of the paper. 

They put their idea to the test and developed a tent-sized shelter out of plastic sheets.

The origami approach comes in handy because structures of different shapes and sizes can be designed. Researchers built several structures based on their design, including an archway, an extendable boom, and a pagoda-style structure.

This clever invention could be put to good use. Arches and emergency shelters can be safely locked in place after deployment, without needing a stable inflation source. It’s more robust and easier to install.

“This research provides a direct pathway for a new generation of robust, large-scale inflatable systems that lock in place after deployment and don’t require continuous pressure,” said Katia Bertoldi, the William and Ami Kuan Danoff Professor of Applied Mechanics at SEAS and senior author of the paper.  

The shelters require just one or two people to set up, as opposed to about a dozen, which is the case with current military inflatable hospitals.

“You can imagine these shelters being deployed as part of the emergency response in disaster zone,” said David Melancon, a PhD student at SEAS and co-first author of the paper. “They can be stacked flat on a truck and you only need one pressure source to inflate them. Once they are inflated, you can remove the pressure source and move onto the next tent.”

The study was published in Nature.

A look at the harmony of organic architecture

One of the simplest and most intuitive definitions of organic architecture is that it aims to design buildings that are in harmony with nature and their surroundings.

You hear the word ‘organic’ quite a lot these days, usually from people trying to sell you something (or from those annoying friends who shop at Whole Foods and can’t shut up about it). Architecture also uses the term. Thankfully, it doesn’t have anything to do with pesticides or fertilizers — but everything to do with function and form.

A miniature model of the Fallingwater house.
Image via Wikimedia.

The term ‘organic architecture’ has been in use for quite some time, it was probably brought to the public’s attention by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his spectacular works. It refers to a particular way of designing that strives to balance a space’s or building’s function and its environment, follow natural forms, and seamlessly merge buildings with their surroundings.

The style isn’t limited to playing with shapes. Organic architecture often uses local materials for the building itself and furnishings, and works to include the exterior area in the design process to create a unified whole. Like an organism, such structures are meant to take materials from their environment, grow in it, and finally become a part of it.

Along with brutalism — which is in many regards its diametral opposite — it is my favorite architectural school. Since I’m the guy in charge of the keyboard and there’s nothing you can do to stop me, strap in and let’s take a small detour into the world of organic architecture.

Wright’s Principles

The Bavinger House in Oklahoma, United States.
Image via Wikimedia.

Wright is perhaps most responsible for turning organic architecture from a quirky rarity into a full-blown style. Over the course of his career (which started around the 1880s,) he developed a group of principles that he described as “solidly basic to my sense and practice of architecture,” which he adhered to in his work. While not exactly a ruleset, some later architects were very eager to adopt them and develop on the style. As such, they’re a pretty reliable summary of the philosophy that underlies organic architecture. As per the website of the Meyer May House, designed by Wright, they are:

  • Shelter — the fundamental role of a building is to provide shelter. Wright, however, “saw a building primarily not as a cave, but as shelter in the open,” and guided his designs toward this goal.
  • Kinship of Building to the Ground — best summed up by Wright as “make the building belong to the ground”, make it fit into its environment.
  • Interpretation — that the “space outside becomes a natural part of space within the building”.
  • Addendum — because of the integration between outside and inside spaces, these buildings are “profoundly natural” and “never dull or monotonous”.
  • Form — “Arrangements for human occupation in comfort may be so well aimed that spaciousness becomes economical as well as beautiful, appearing where it was never before thought to exist.”
  • Space — Wright saw homes as both useful implements and works of art, adding that their “intrinsic beauty [makes them] more a home than ever”.
  • Tenuity and Continuity — this principle advocates for the elimination of “any constructed feature such as any fixture or appliance whatsoever,” and continuity between shapes — in essence, that the design be kept simple with shapes that grow out of and build on one another seamlessly.
  • Materials — this principle doesn’t advocate for specific materials, but it does ask that those materials stay true to themselves, in a sense; “wood and plaster will be content to and will look, as well, as wood and plaster,” Wright hold adding that “they will not aspire to be treated to resemble marble”.
  • Decentralization — Wright believed that “the natural place for the beautiful tall building – not in its present form but in its new sense – is in the country, not the city”.
  • Character is Natural — while a building’s design should follow its function, it shouldn’t focus solely on efficiency.

If they sound a bit abstract, worry not — I had a difficult time understanding what these principles meant until I actually saw them in action. Let’s take a look at some of the more famous organic architecture buildings out there, then.

Fallingwater — Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania.
Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pexels.

The Fallingwater house was designed by Wright in 1935 as a private weekend getaway for American businessman and philanthropist Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. In 1963, his son Edgar Kaufmann Jr. entrusted both the house and the 1,500 of land that made up the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He saw the house as a place where people can come and experience the beauty of architecture, art, and nature, or a place of study.

The Fallingwater Institute remains true to that vision even today, creating a setting for learning through classes, workshops, and residencies at the house.

View of the living room from the kitchen.
Image credits Jack E Boucher / Historic American Buildings Survey / Library of Congress.

Fallingwater embodies the design philosophies of Mr. Wright and is often seen as one of his masterpieces. It’s also the first of his works that I learned about, but it’s not my favorite one on this list. Currently, the house is listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Lotus Temple — Fariborz Sahba

Image via Pexels.
Image credits SridharSaraf / Flickr.

Designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba in 1986, the temple was inspired by a lotus flower. It’s an actual temple, which sees actual worship right now — in fact, being a temple of the Baháʼí faith, which accepts all current religions as valid, it’s open to everyone, no matter their beliefs or creed.

A model of the Lotus Temple displayed at its information center in New Delhi, India.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila — Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila, front facade.
Image credits Ian Gampon / Flickr.

Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera or “The stone quarry”), built in Barcelona, Spain, was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi between 1905 and 1910. The more astute among you might have observed that there’s something unusual about this building — it’s quite wobbly.

The design is dominated by honeycomb sections and a rippled exterior and was very controversial in its early days. The city of Barcelona actually required the demolition of certain portions of the building during construction (as they exceeded allowed heights at the time) and beefed-up building codes in response to this structure. Gaudi envisioned the building as a spiritual place (he was a devout Catholic), but in the end built it for a wealthy couple returning from the US. Today, however, Casa Mila is held in high regard by locals and serves as an apartment building.

Interior yard of Casa Mila.
Image via Pikrepo.
Casa Mila, roof panorama.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

Taliesin West — Frank Lloyd Wright

Taliesin West.
Image credits Artotem / Flickr.
The garden room at Taliesin West.
Image via Wikimedia.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, served as Wright’s winter home — and school — from 1937 until his death in 1959. It was named after the architect’s summer home Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Today it houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and acts as the main campus of The School of Architecture at Taliesin. The building is dominated by striking terraces and walkways meant to display the surrounding desert landscape of ever-shifting sandbars. It is open to public visitation and also listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Onion House — Kendrick Bangs Kellogg

Image via Wikimedia.
Image via Wikimedia.

This delicate structure was designed and hand-built by Mr. Kellogg in Hawaii.

The buildings includes stained glass and translucent roof panels to allow as much color and light inside as possible — both during the day and during the night. The structures are surrounded by gardens, pools, and fish ponds — and it all rests on a magmatic rock terrace over the Kona Coast.

This is my favorite one on the list.

Image via Wikimedia.

Why does architecture matter?

Beyond the obvious pleasure and creature comforts these buildings promise, our environments play a big role in shaping our mood and behaviors. We spend most of our time inside buildings, so their effect on our lives is profound.

However, the field that studies the interactions between the human mind and its surroundings, environmental psychology, is still in its infancy. What we do know so far is that the way we design our buildings and cities can affect our well-being and moods, and that certain cells in the hippocampus of our brains react to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. On a more cultural level, architecture is an indirect representation of a culture’s values, ideals, and concepts of beauty. On a personal level, I think we can all easily tell the effect a nice home or space has on our moods.

In the end, there are still many unknowns here — but not the fact that architecture has a direct impact on our lives. In the words of Winston Churchill, as he was addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924:

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

Foldable drone.

Search and rescue operations might soon call on foldable drones to find victims

A new shape-shifting drone promises to offer rescue teams robotic help even in those hard-to-reach areas.

Foldable drone.

The drone in it’s T-shape configuration (more on that later).
Image credits UZH.

Teams digging through collapsed or damaged buildings are often the only chance of salvation for those trapped after fires, earthquakes, or similar events. It’s obviously dangerous and laborious work. Not only are such structures very unstable, but they’re usually also very hard to navigate (on account of all the fallen rubble).

Needless to say, having drones scour collapsed buildings ahead of human teams would be the safest course of action. However, drones would often have to enter such sites through narrow points — a crack in a wall, a partially open window, through bars — something the typical size of a drone does not allow. A team of researchers from the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Lausanne Federal Polytechnic School (EPFL) plans to address this issue.

The little drone that folded

“Our solution is quite simple from a mechanical point of view, but it is very versatile and very autonomous, with onboard perception and control systems,” explains Davide Falanga, researcher at the University of Zurich and the paper’s first author.

The drone’s most obvious advantage over counterparts is its ability to morph in shape to tackle cramped environments. and guarantee a stable flight at all times. The team says they’ve drawn inspiration from birds that fold their wings mid-air to navigate narrow passages. In a very similar fashion, the drone can squeeze itself to pass through gaps and then go back to its previous shape while flying. The drone can also transport objects, including during this morphing process.

Both teams collaborated closely to design the drone — a quadrotor with four propellers that rotate independently, each mounted on mobile arms outfitted with servo-motors that can fold around the frame. It also sports a video camera. What really keeps the drone aloft during these foldings is a control system designed and programmed by the team. It keeps tabs on each propeller’s position in real time, adjusting their thrust as the drone weaves and bobs through the air.

The drone’s standard configuration is the traditional quadcopter X-shape (like these drones here), with the four arms stretched out and the propellers at the widest possible distance from each other. When faced with a narrow passage, the drone can morph into an H-shape, with all arms lined up along one axis. It can also take on an O-shape (with all arms folded as close as possible to the body) or a T-shape, which can be used to bring the onboard camera as close as possible to objects that the drone needs to inspect.

“The morphing drone can adopt different configurations according to what is needed in the field,” adds Stefano Mintchev, co-author and researcher at EPFL.

The researchers plan to further improve the structure of their drone so that it can fold in all three dimensions. They also want to develop software that will make the drone truly autonomous, so it can find its own way through rubble and collapsed buildings in real-life scenarios. “The final goal is to give the drone a high-level instruction such as ‘enter that building, inspect every room and come back’ and let it figure out by itself how to do it,” says Falanga.

The paper “The Foldable Drone: A Morphing Quadrotor that can Squeeze and Fly” has been published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.