Canadian Architect

Feature

Getting a Grip

Canadian architects are finding innovative applications for a mechanical adhesion technology originally developed for car brake pads.

February 9, 2017
by Chloe Town

Tye Farrow envisions using Grip Metal to create skyscrapers supported by lightweight structural bracing. Courtesy Farrow Partners.

Tye Farrow envisions using Grip Metal to create skyscrapers supported by lightweight structural bracing. Courtesy Farrow Partners.

Tye Farrow, FRAIC is in an enviable position for an architect. His friend, Ray Arbesman, is the president of a Toronto-based company called Nucap Industries that makes car brake pads. If at first blush the connection between a car part manufacturer and an architect seems un-promising, consider that Nucap start-up company Grip Metal has developed brake pads that entirely eliminate the use of chemical adhesives. Consider that these pads are stronger, lighter, more rigid, and more secure than brake pads used in any car in the 20th century, and it becomes more apparent why an architect might pay attention.

As Montu Khokhar, CEO of Nucap, ex-plains, Grip Metal has developed tooling that extrudes an extremely small pattern of hooks on sheet metal. These hooks are formed on the surface alone, so that sheets as thin as 0.3 milli-metres are not punctured in the process. Pressed with enough weight, the hooks clasp to new materials instantaneously. Like barbs on a thistle, the hooks can attach to any substrate that doesn’t shatter under pressure: another piece of metal, wood, plastic, vinyl, or even some con-crete composite panels. Essentially, Grip Metal makes metal act like Velcro.

For the past several years, Farrow has been testing possibilities for how building construction might benefit from this manufacturing innovation. He has determined that because of the strength of the fastening, wood-and-metal façades could be formed in any shape, including complex curves, and stay put without adhesives, nails or screws. Towers could be sheathed with lightweight laminated bracing, replacing exterior steel framing. And exceptionally strong composite structural panels could be used not just for cladding or small-scale construction, but for walls and entire floor plates in multi-storey buildings.

Mark Tholen’s Steam Canoe was installed in Toronto last winter. Curtis Ho and Mark Thole.

Mark Tholen’s Steam Canoe was installed in Toronto last winter. Curtis Ho and Mark Tholen.

Unlike the adhesive-bound structural insulated panels currently on the market, Farrow pro-poses ribbon-like, exterior-finished framing members called Grip Timber Metal that are 12’-6” long and 10 1/2” in depth, with laminated aluminum and wood at their core. Testing at Nucap’s labs has proven that the idea is not only viable but could increase the speed, structural efficiency and, ultimately, scale of modular construction. Structural engineer David Moses calculates that Grip Timber Metal could be used in towers up to 44 storeys in height. The proposed panels could support substantial compressive loads while significantly reducing the amount of material in buildings.

OCAD University Assistant Professor Mark Tholen, along with a group of students, has already tested Grip Metal in practice. They pressed an extremely thin exterior oak veneer over a light Grip Metal shell, adding laminated spruce underside, to create an arched pavilion called Steam Canoe as part of last year’s Winter Stations competition in Toronto. The shelter emerges from the ground like an enlarged boat bow, but without an independent structural frame holding the curved skin. The team has won several accolades, including a German Materialica Award for innovation, and the project will remain on display at the OMI Sculpture Park in Ghent, New York until 2018.

When Steam Canoe does come down, all its parts will be recycled: the wood can be de-laminated from the metal because no adhesives were used to bind the form together. And if Farrow’s research moves into mainstream practice, we’ll soon also have recyclable skyscrapers—the result of Canadian innovation.

Chloe Town is an instructor and lecturer at the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto.