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Institute for Computational Design
Schwabisch Gmund, Germany

Achim Menges is adapting Mother Natures structures for the built environment.

By David Sokol
August 2014
Photo © ICDITKEIIGS University of Stuttgart

Just as Velcro inventor George de Mestral created his famous fastener by replicating the enclosure formed by burrs hooking into a fabric’s loops, so Achim Menges channels the ingenuity of nature. Through his work as founding director of the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD), the young architect is devising biomimetic construction systems.

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Unlike de Mestral, whose legend suggests that he conceived and almost individually developed Velcro to production reality, Menges explains that his investigation is anything but solo. Speaking of his recent project, Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall, he says, “We developed the technical innovation in parallel to the biological investigation. The biological investigation entails a screening of a wide range of biological systems that share certain principles with the technological system, which becomes increasingly specific the further the technological system develops.”

ICD completed Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall earlier this year with the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design and the Institute of Engineering Geodesy, both of which are also based at the University of Stuttgart, and in collaboration with the timber company Müllerblaustein Holzbau. The hall is part of the biannual Landesgartenschau garden show.

In the research leading up to Landesgartenschau, the microscopically interlocking plates that form a sand dollar’s skeleton promised large-scale application. The design partners identified the sea creature’s calcium-carbonate exterior as one of the most materially efficient modular systems in nature, and then interpreted that system as a series of finger joints in lightweight timber construction. With the exhibition hall they ultimately created the first building wholly comprised of robotically prefabricated beech plywood plates.

The load-bearing plate structure measures less than 2 inches in depth, and requires only 423 cubic feet of beech. The 1,345-square-foot interior comprises domed entrance and exhibition areas connected by a strip-like passageway.

Landesgartenschau “depended on and was enabled by computational fabrication, and its integration in computational design,” Menges adds, emphasizing, “It would not have been possible otherwise.” The team’s computational design tool took material characteristics, as well as the parameters of robotic fabrication, into consideration, and through simulation and optimization the software generated plate shapes on its own. All 243 modules are different, and they interlock via 7,600 finger joints.

The beech plates were realized using 7-axis robotic fabrication, and Menges again notes how the myriad finger joints could not have been produced without it. High technology not only made the interlocking construction possible, but also lightning-fast. Prefabrication of the unique plates was completed in just three weeks, and off-cuts were reused as parquet flooring. “In this way, the projects show what we can do today with wood—arguably one of the oldest building materials of mankind—using advanced technology. Thus, both projects are truly contemporary architecture.”

Spectacularly contemporary as Landesgartenschau may be, Menges makes a point that the installation contributes substantively to the sustainability movement. “Wood still is the best building material in terms of environmental virtues—fully renewable, low embodied energy, positive carbon footprint, etcetera,” he says. Deploying wood in a lightweight and self-supporting fashion may lend itself to long-span construction on top of existing buildings, “for urban densification of metropolitan areas,” too.

For this project specifically, structural beech plywood and other materials were harvested and processed within southern Germany and northern Switzerland, about which Menges says, “The transport energy is very low and the value chain remains regional, thus being ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable.” In another nod to economic sustainability, the methodology behind Landesgartenschau has potential as an affordable development solution by virtue of reducing labor costs. Because the hall’s insulation, waterproofing, and cladding were also digitally prefabricated, overall assembly only took four weeks.

Lightweight, locally sourced construction is just one avenue that Menges is pursuing through biomimicry. Among others, for example, he talks enthusiastically about the HygroSkin Meteorosensitive Pavilion, a similarly recent project that leverages the elasticity of wood, and the way it behaves according to the weather. Looking beyond the installation, which was commissioned by FRAC Centre Orleans, Menges says, “We see potential applications for self-regulating building skins of semi-interior spaces, such as stadium roofs that operate without the need for energy supply.” The clarity of the architect’s vision is perhaps as inspiring as nature itself. 


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