The whole lifecycle of buildings must be considered: by making projects that are lasting architects can invest more on the quality of materials and reduce the environmental impact.
International Architecture office HENN, founded in 1947, has designed the world’s first building in carbon concrete. The building will be experimental at all levels: a pavilion inside the Technical University of Dresden campus and built with an innovative material, it will be dedicated to interdisciplinary laboratories, host events and conferences and set an example for architectural and structural novelties. The whole project, from developing the idea to designing and building it, is based around collaboration: Professor Manfred Curbach of the
Institute for Solid Construction at the TU Dresden and his students will be involved, as well as designers, architects and experts for material performance, visualizers and model builders from architectural office HENN.
Is Carbon Concrete the material of the future?
«Reinforced concrete» explains HENN, «is the most used building material, but its production is resource-intensive and polluting». Carbon concrete is a practical alternative that drastically reduces emissions. Concrete has been around for more than a hundred years, it is widely used because of its practicality, but has a heavy impact on the environment. In such a rapidly changing climate as the one we live in it is necessary to eliminate as much emissions as possible – especially in a field like architecture that produces forty percent of global annual CO2. With this aim in mind, researchers are working to replace concrete or at least modify it. Carbon concrete has proved to be a viable substitute, but it is still being tested and understood. The reasons to keep experimenting are many: to start with, traditional concrete is reinforced with bars of steel; in order to protect the steel from corroding, thick layers of concrete are needed, the production of which is associated with high CO2 emissions. Carbon concrete is made by substituting steel with carbon, a material that does not rust, allowing the use of thinner layers and reducing pollution. Carbon concrete is also up to six times stronger and more durable than reinforced concrete. For instance, a bridge built in reinforced concrete can last around forty to fifty years without needing reparations – with carbon, the number rises to around eighty. The biggest disadvantage observed so far are costs: one kilogram of reinforced concrete costs around one euro, while one of carbon concrete is around twenty. Yet, this esteem does not reflect true costs, considering that with carbon the amount of material needed is roughly seventy-five percent less.
Lampoon reporting: The Cube
With carbon concrete «the fibers can follow the structure and you are more free to design spaces and forms that don’t necessarily have to respect Euclidian geometry», for this project «you also end up using fifty percent less of the material, making a great contribution in the performance». The Cube, a collaborative research pavilion inside Dresden Technical University, is designed to mirror and reinterpret the textile and fluid nature of carbon fibers: ceiling and walls are merged into a single form-structure «suggesting a future architecture in which environmentally-conscious design is paired with formal freedom and a radical rethinking of essential architectural elements.» Henn explains how «the core concept» behind the design «was to develop a building where the space and the structure would be one and the same». It is all about organic geometry: «the challenge was to celebrate the material with the building and the geometry». Lights follows: a narrow opening runs diagonally across the entire volume, emphasizing the building’s geometry and creating bright skylights across all spaces. The interior and the exterior merge as well in a dual structure: «you have the actual cube, sitting underneath the structure, which houses the laboratories – here they are doing material tests and using the façade to mount prototypes» and then there is the adjacent space, «hosting meeting spaces and offices, but the idea is for it to be mainly an open space for events and lectures, and for students and the general public to come together and exchange ideas and learn about new possibilities». This also has to do with the way architects and developers normally work: «they tend to work with materials and techniques that they know, so if you find something new, it’s also important to share it, to make it known and let people know about the possibilities and potential it offers».
Collaborating to discover
It is important to spread knowledge and exchange views among people from both within and without the industry, if the idea is to make these new and more sustainable materials as widely used as possible. The work with the University follows the same principle: interdisciplinarity can help to include a plurality of views and try to walk different paths. «We were closely collaborating with Professor Manfred Curbach. Their intention was to use the material in the best way, and we created a close collaboration with architects, engineers and material scientists – we used this pavilion as a prototype to study and optimize the form». The ultimate aim of the building, which will be finished in 2022, is to learn how to take full advantage of the material. Which is going to be achieved through «the performative aspect of architecture». Each project at Henn starts from a study of pre-existing conditions, climatic, environmental and social, along with understanding the people who are going to use and interact with the space to be designed. Attention is also paid to finding solutions that are respectful of the environment and locally sourced materials where possible, as well as studying the production in detail to put the best processes in place. During the design phase of The Cube «all of this worked well» with «the industry and academia working closely together». This, according to Henn, was an instructive experience especially because «university tends to teach theory and do research, and then students come to our firm to practice, but it’s rarely the case that an architecture office and a university work on an actual project together».
Re-imagining the Architecture industry
Even as a relatively small building, The Cube can serve as a symbol and as an example that it is possible to change what is currently the most polluting industry from within; by means of using experimental materials and techniques. Henn explains how the pavilion should be «a way to show that it is possible to push on the performance of a building and use innovative materials as well as composites that are intelligent». Most of all, The Cube must be a way to «showcase environmentally conscious design but at the same time also an example for rethinking the most basic structural elements and demonstrating that this is not contradictory». In a word, form and substance should not be mutually exclusive. It is about pushing the boundaries to do something that is both environmentally friendly and liberating from the common aesthetic norm. To be able to achieve this different way of thinking one has to consider costs and the economy of the project: «when thinking about buildings we have to start considering the time factor and their lifecycle», explains Henn, «if you build a construction that will last longer – and will be used not for ten or twenty but for a hundred years – that means you can also invest more money in the quality of materials that may be more expensive to manufacture but that are less harmful of the environment». As for The Cube «the façade will change almost on a daily basis, exemplifying the notion that certain elements are fixed while others can be adjusted to changing needs». One of the main challenges ahead remains the scalability of the project – and there may be a long way to go before carbon concrete can really be figured out.
International architecture office in Munich, Berlin and Beijing with 380 employees from more than 40 nations. Interdisciplinarity is a key element of the studio.