Composite materials are on display in the undergraduate-built FIBERwave PAVILION.
Carbon fiber’s unique properties would seem to make it an ideal building product. Untreated, carbon fiber cloth is flexible and easy to cut. After an epoxy cure, it is as hard as steel. But while the automobile and aerospace industries have made widespread use of the material, it has gone virtually untouched by the architectural profession. Alphonso Peluso and his undergraduate students at the IIT College of Architecture set out to change that with their FIBERwave PAVILION, a parametric, sea life-inspired installation built entirely of carbon fiber. “We want to make the studio an expert resource for people trying to get into carbon fiber in terms of architecture,” said Peluso, whose students designed, funded, and built the pavilion this spring. “There’s a studio in Germany that’s in their second year of working with carbon fiber, but I don’t think anyone in the United States is working with it.”
Peluso’s studio began with an internal competition. Because the spring semester course followed a class dedicated to the exploration of various composite materials, many of the students were already familiar with the pros and cons of carbon fiber. “Toward the end of the first semester we started working with carbon fiber, and it wasn’t the greatest result,” said Peluso. “But we knew we had to keep working with it. That played a big part in the selection of the design for the second semester.” The students judged the submissions on constructability as well as aesthetics, he explained. “It was interesting to see the students as the pavilions were being presented, see their minds turning on: ‘Okay, this one is feasible—this is one we can actually build.’ Sometimes the design was a little better, but the overall project seemed less possible within the time frame.”
The winning design is based on a bivalve shell structure. The student who came up with the idea used parametric design software to explore tessellations of the single shell form. “What I was pushing them to do in the first semester was large surfaces that weren’t repetitive,” said Peluso. “In the second semester, it was like they intuitively knew there had to be repetition of the unit.” As a group, the class further developed the design in Rhino and Grasshopper.
But while the students used parametric software to generate the shell pattern, in general FIBERwave PAVILION was “less about designing in the computer,” said Peluso. “Most of it was fabrication based.” The studio was hands-on from the beginning, when students were asked to submit a small-scale carbon fiber with their competition entries. They went back to Rhino to make the molds. “We had to make six molds,” explained Peluso. “Even though it was one identical shell unit we had to produce 86 of these shells. When you make a composite unit, if you have one mold you can only make one shell per day.” In the end, the students fabricated a total of 90 shells (including several extra to make up for any defects) over the course of about four weeks.
“The actual assembly was pretty quick, the pavilion itself went together in less than a day,” said Peluso. Laterally, bolts through CNC-drilled holes connect the shells at two points on either side. The overlapping rows of shells are secured vertically through bolted pin connections. The installation remained on the IIT campus for one month, after which the students disassembled it in just 25 minutes. The Chicago Composite Initiative, which provided crucial technical guidance during the project, has since erected FIBERwave PAVILION in one of its classrooms.
The fundraising component of the project was as important as its design and fabrication elements. Peluso initially hoped that the carbon fiber industry would donate materials, but “we didn’t have as much luck as we anticipated because we hadn’t done anything before that would warrant their interest,” he said. “That’s one of the goals of the pavilion itself, to create an awareness in architecture that this could be a great material to use.” Peluso’s course did have help from West System Epoxy, which provided the curing resin at a discount. To fill the funding gap, the students ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $6,937 from a $6,500 goal. They made incentives for the donors, including 3D-printed necklaces and earrings. “I don’t think we realized how much work was going to go into that,” said Peluso. To raise additional funds, the class held bake sales on campus.
For Peluso, the process of designing and building FIBERwave PAVILION proved as valuable as the finished product. “The way the students collaborated made the project a success,” he said. “Sometimes in group projects you get a few drifters, and some really strong ones. But all twelve students really stepped up. This wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t all come together as a group.”