Architecture Design Option Studio — PARADISE LOST: CARBONHOUSE (with Pioneering Manufacturing Industry — Goulthorpe)

Required of: 
MArch students; optional for SMArchS/Urbanism students

The studio will focus on rebuilding in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, in the vivid aftermath of hurricane Irma. Students will select a particular building or type (housing, school, customs house, beach restaurant, luxury villa…) and offer radically resilient new habitation strategies. The 240mph winds, with tornadoes birthing in the eye of the storm, and travelling further north than is typical, seems to confirm the MIT prediction for new strength and trajectory of tropical storms due to oceanic warming – to date just 1 degree over pre-industrial. So there is a latent threat in such paradisaical setting, and many of the areas of habitation such as Apple Bay are on landfill that is likely to be repeatedly inundated (residents were washed out of first story windows by Irma’s storm surge).

The BVI Premiere, Dr Orlando Smith (a surgeon) expressed great interest in alternative building technologies, since even recent buildings constructed to Miami Dade code standards proved entirely inadequate. But like other governments of low-lying island atolls, the BVI recognizes the need for changed patterns of habitation and consumption globally, motivated to thinking-through general norms of civilizational ontology. Can Tortola use the devastation to bring forwards new models of benign and resilient living that might serve as models to be exported elsewhere? Given that BVI is a tax haven to many thousands of international corporations, and to a remarkable density of wealthy ex-patriot homeowners, there is unusual opportunity for it to serve as a pilot project that might indeed carry influence internationally. 

Students will fan out across the island each choose a building type or community that offers a vehicle to pose the question of a lightweight ontology: a mini-thesis of sorts. This can be technically or conceptually pursued (ideally both!), with the goal that they offer a vivid alternative to simply rebuilding. 

At a recent meeting of the US energy research agency, the focus was on gas pyrolysis and thinking-through the likely material paradigm as we transition from oil to gas as the prime source of energy. Implicit in the 3 prior energy paradigms that humanity has engaged (wood, coal, oil) was not just a primary fuel source but a corollary material culture: from wood and stone, to steel and glass, then to plastics and metals of all kinds. So what will be the material palette as we transition to gas, and what fuel source at civilizational scale given the backdrop of alarming environmental change? 

A hypothesis was offered to the audience of scientists and investors: that the price of carbon fiber will likely be reduced by two orders of magnitude as gas deposition offers a radically benign source of carbon nanotubes. Asked what this would mean, my composite racing-boat engineer said it’d be obvious: we’d use nothing else! Talking with groups like NanoComp (who we will visit) and Graphenano, what’s also apparent is that carbon in these forms offers electrical properties as well as remarkable structural ones, so they are already using graphene solar skins, carbon electrical cables, graphene batteries; they have developed paints and radiant heating carbon skins, they can create Faraday cages or use the building as an antenna for 5G, etc – the multiple properties of the allotrope already being witnessed in nascent form, used in aircraft and satellites already. 

So ARPA-e’s prompt allows us to consider a new genre of all-carbon buildings to offer resilient, autonomous, multi-functional building envelopes to shroud the carbon organisms within. So our drive will be to take seriously polymeric composites as an emerging class of materials that start to make their way into architectural use, offering remarkable resilience against extreme loading; but to go further to speculating on what current developments in gas deposition and other processes might offer to rethinking the base logic of buildings and habitation and their “footprint”. Evidently there would be no loss of formal or spatial opportunity given the amorphous nature of composites, where property can be layered spatially to attain a given performance: but what is then needed is a thorough understanding of the varied manufacturing logics they adopt (infusion, lamination, pultrusion, etc). We will seek solutions that are thought-through technically, requiring the invention by students of the protocol that subtends the design: how would your project really get formed in BVI? (Note – there is great interest in establishing new manufacturing hubs in BVI to stimulate the local economy).

Goulthorpe/Baharlou, currently working on composite housing, are aiming at a Media Lab exhibition in May on global housing. For this we are trying to create a CarbonHouse that attains poly-functional attributes in a simple portal frame. So this will offer good insight into the current potentials of these materials and methods.  

We will visit (or be visited by) a variety of leading composite fabricators and engineers, such as NanoComp and TPI (the largest fabricator in the US). We will have access to composites engineers, also. Mid semester MG will organize a Carbon to Building initiative at JEC in Paris, which is the largest composite trade show internationally – all are welcome.  

We aim to visit BVI for students to witness the devastation firsthand, and to meet local communities impacted by the storms.