Concrete Dreams

The pursuit of architecture is a schizophrenic endeavour in which we are forced to craft a synthetic union between technical requirements and creative desires. While it is easy to adopt an approach where creative form-making is punctuated by the occasional scientific reality check, this diminishes the true and potential nature of the discipline. It is the interaction of research and practice, and the exchange and synthesis of ideas from various perspectives, that make architecture. Too often, however, the various facets of architecture work independently from one another; a symbiotic process or relationship that links creative research and inspiration to practical realization allowing each to influence the other is virtually nonexistent. Bringing the numerous dimensions of our personality together is a lifelong pursuit: from academia to practice to industry we must strive to develop networks of communication and feedback to benefit us as practitioners and the profession as a whole.

The integrative nature of architecture–science and art, form and function, theory and practice–is embodied in the materials that bring architecture to life. Concrete is exemplary in this respect; its physical and formal manifestation is a direct reflection of the science of its making. From the rough power of le bton brut to the sensual smoothness of fabric-formed concrete, the physical character of the artifact is a product of science and art; formal desires, technically exact moistures, the human touch of the craftsperson, all combine to affect the final form.

More than a century ago, Thomas Edison was intensely aware of the importance of innovation and the architectural potential offered by concrete construction. In 1906, Edison gave a speech claiming that one day, all buildings–even houses– would be constructed of concrete. He spoke of this vision particularly in terms of concrete’s potential to provide affordable and safe housing to the world’s poor. This idea garnered so much attention from around the globe–dozens of articles were written and Edison received hundreds of letters of interest–that he embarked on a philanthropic research project, eventually developing materials, methods and techniques which could be used to construct concrete homes. Using a series of cast-iron molds that were robust and reusable, this system allowed a builder–in one day with a continuous six-hour pour–to cast a concrete house, complete with walls, floors, stairs, sinks, bathtubs and more.

For Edison, the true merit of the system was the economic opportunity it presented: the initial cost to purchase the cast-iron forming system– an expense borne by the builder–would be earned back quickly due to the speed with which the houses could be constructed. In turn, the builder would sell these houses for a modest amount of money. Edison’s research was successfully demonstrated under his supervision, but was not wholeheartedly adopted by the construction industry. By 1920, Edison had entirely moved on to other interests, and his grand aspirations were limited by the practicalities of transportation economics and technology transfer. The cast-iron forms were extremely expensive to transport, and Edison had finely tuned the materials, methods and techniques such that purchasers of the patents would find it difficult to reproduce his results, and may be tempted to cut corners.

More recently, the world of fabric formwork presents examples of the role of innovation and research in academia, practice and industry, though the paradigms are not without limitation. This innovative research may suffer the same fate as Edison’s unless the value of fabric formwork is demonstrated on a widespread basis to practitioners and industry.

Fabric formwork boasts many practical advantages over traditional forming. The quality of the resulting concrete surface alone makes it a patently marketable idea: the porosity of the fabric used allows air bubbles and excess water to bleed out, while retaining the precious cementitious materials at the concrete’s surface, masking the brute stone mixture that lies stalwartly beneath. This is concrete’s dream.

Mark West, Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, has long extolled the virtues of fabric formwork even outside of the boundless formal possibilities that it presents. West has shown, through his collaborative work with his students at CAST (Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology) at the University of Manitoba, that the fabric produces softer, smoother, stronger concrete. CAST is currently involved in four construction projects ranging from an in-house collaboration between architects, academics and engineers to design and construct an addition to the CAST building, to a consultancy project, where fabric-formed panels designed by CAST may be used as exterior cladding. This type of project-driven academic research, though innovative, collaborative and cross-functional, may not push fabric formwork into mainstream industry and practice.

The visionary work of Japanese architect Kenzo Unno with fabric-formed cast-in-place concrete takes the poetic utility of fabric formwork to another level: he demonstrates that the formwork can be hung directly from an erected rebar–the skin suspended from the endoskeleton. One can immediately imagine the opportunities this presents– reduced requirement for skilled labour, significant reduction in forming material requirements, and the vibration necessary to consolidate the concrete in all concrete construcedison tion is accomplished by simply tapping on the outside of the formwork.

Armed with didacts Edison, West and Unno, my personal research has taken the form of a design investigation into the possibilities of fabric formwork through a critical reinterpretation of Edison’s work, as part of a larger exploration of the contemporary tectonic and economic promise of concrete construction.

A series of experiments were conducted in order to explore the nature of concrete, its interaction with forming media, solid/void relationships, and the possibilities of design and construction using these methods. Analysis of the individual investigations and the resulting artifacts speak to the tectonic and spatial possibilities of fabric-formed concrete.

We can begin to understand the implications for low-cost rapid-construction housing, from inherently urban projects to remote post-disaster housing, particularly if we imagine a kit of parts and the infinite possibilities presented by DIY concrete forming. In the same way that Edison erected a double-walled house of cast iron in order to cast a concrete house inside of it, one can imagine the double layers of erected fabric formwork acting as temporary or emergency shelter, until the permanent concrete structure can be built.

Fabric formwork research has the opportunity to challenge the status quo of concrete architecture and construction. How, then, can academic research-based inquiry converge with practice and industry to allow these ideas and techniques to be effectively absorbed by the norms of the mainstream? How can our profession foster stronger linkages between this research, practice and industry? Do we need to follow the engineering school model and have student research work be borne out of industry interests and funding?

West and CAST have avoided the pitfalls of being beholden to industry sponsors, opting instead to operate in a gift economy, where CAST projects receive no direct funding or direct compensation for CAST’s contribution. The example of CAST and its research and working methods can be useful in terms of how academic institutions might approach the integration of research, industry and practice; but to take these partnerships beyond academia and firmly into the realm of practice is a goal worth pursuing. Unno’s work establishes that there can be a dynamic research component to practice; however, the insular quality of this type
of innovation remains.

The recent First International Conference on Fabric Formwork, hosted by Mark West and CAST, was an important first step in the development of these partnerships and feedback loops, though only for this specific technology. The backgrounds and interests, research and built work of the speakers was diverse in content, but the confluence of sentiment was clear: there is something very special about this work and we are all very excited by it. Attended by over 100 academic researchers, students, architects, engineers and constructors from across the globe, this conference saw the genesis of the International Society of Fabric Forming (ISOFF), which will serve to–in broad terms–advance this particular field. As the fledgling ISOFF grows and strengthens, it will unquestionably be a useful forum to promote the specific cause of fabric-formed concrete, and will allow for valuable cross-functional collaboration, particularly if more industry representatives are enticed into involvement.

Beyond academia, specific interest groups and the world of fabric formwork, there is a need for an overarching model to foster innovation and to positively influence the profession and associated industry. Encouraging research and collaboration with our particular “sister industry”–the behemoth that is construction–will certainly necessitate the active pursuit of architects and potentially government support. Perhaps a publicly or privately funded “incubator” might play a role in fostering innovation in architecture and construction–its materials, methods and techniques–and help bring these ideas to the marketplace. An example of this type of system can be found in Toronto’s MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences) project, which defines itself as a “non-profit innovation centre connecting science, technology and social entrepreneurs with business skills, networks and capital to stimulate innovation and accelerate the creation and growth of successful Canadian enterprises.”

If such a body existed for architecture, exploratory collaborative research would become more prevalent in practice, potentially gaining traction with industrial partners. Not only would this allow practitioners to contribute to the profession in meaningful ways but it may also inspire greater collaborative research-based work in graduate schools.

From academia to practice to industry, working to synthesize ideology and theory, science and creativity, research and technics, is critical to the advancement of the profession. Edison had an innovative proposal to mitigate a societal problem. He designed, prototyped and developed materials, methods and techniques to implement this idea, tested it against industry norms, but did not carry it through into the realm of adaptable technology to the marketplace, as he had successfully done with his other inventions. When the champion disengages, how does the world carry on the dream? Lamentably, few of us have Edison’s talents or his resources, but as emerging architects, we certainly have his enthusiasm, and occasionally, his determination. From inspiration to realization, with some thoughtful planning we can develop a model that allows this to happen. CA

Anne Miller loves concrete, collaborative research and innovation. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Architecture program at the University of Toronto. She is also a professional engineer with an MBA who worked for ten years in the environmental field, six of them in the cement and concrete industries.