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Architecture student’s thesis project looks to beetle for concrete inspiration

Inspired by the evolving use of concrete in structural forms, particularly architect Rudolph M. Schindler’s use of concrete for housing units in La Jolla, San Diego, as well as how it was incorporated into La Jolla’s Salk Institute building, Zachary Alan Smith proposed a concept in his thesis, “High-Performance Concrete in Architecture,” to use the material to build contemporary structures with multiple functions. A senior at NewSchool of Architecture and Design, he based the form of the design on the Namibian Desert Beetle as its ribs and rigid shell serve two distinct yet critical functions. First, they serve as a strong shelter for the beetle, and second, they form a water collection system to condense fog and channel the resulting water into the beetle’s mouth. In his thesis, Smith used 3D digital design and applied the design proposal to three different scenarios.

According to Smith’s thesis, a curved form can be pixilated into several rigid polygonal plates and connected with a flexible membrane to generate complex molds, similar to the way 3D modeling programs break down complex curvature into polygonal meshes for accuracy and flexibility. By using Glass Fiber Reinforced concrete, the molds would be thin, and therefore extremely flexible. “From an efficiency standpoint, the system of curves and deep surface pleats can increase the overall performance of the structure without the need to increase its overall thickness,” said Smith. He further notes that a system achieves greater environmental responsibility when it is able to utilize less material to attain an equivalent or superior design.

The case studies discussed in Smith’s thesis were housing pods in Oxnard, Calif., that could be used by migrant farm workers during the farming season and tourists during the remainder of the year; using the system to place a pavilion near a water treatment plant in Chicago to collect rainwater; and lastly, provide customized solutions for homes collecting water run-off in suburban areas for slow-drip irrigation.

In a follow-up discussion with Smith, he noted that there was also a wide range of possible applications in smaller architectural scales for his system, such as 3D-digitally designed furniture, architectural facades, and wall panels. “Really, the opportunities are limitless where one can envision the design, create the 3D digital model, and construct a mold to support production,” stated Smith. In fact, Smith is currently working with Mark Rogero at Concreteworks in Oakland, Calif., in processing a few smaller projects implementing 3D digital design explored in his thesis.