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Material Economies and Innovation: Resilient Planning by Graduate Architecture Students

Jan 2013

Recently we have discussed how architects, engineers, and interior designers are in the business of solving design problems for their clients, the owners of buildings and other elements of our nation’s infrastructure. The process of educating new architects is a complex one. It involves having them learn not only how to see the world in terms of traditional design problems, but also to learn how they will ultimately fit into a more complex world, full of new design issues. Soon they will be expected to have expert knowledge not only of materials, technologies and processes, but also the ability to lead diverse teams of other experts as they deliver not just buildings, but entire communities.

The Columbia Materials Conferences

In April 2011, The Vinyl Institute was the primary sponsor of “Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). The fourth in a series of materials conferences on architecture and engineering, it explored the boundaries of plastics in the built environment. Over three days, keynote lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions investigated engineering and architectural practices and explored how plastic materials and material concepts define design and construction. A book was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Since the launch of the Architecture, Engineering and Materials conferences at Columbia in 2007, followed by the introduction of Materials-Based Design Studios (MDS), issues of infrastructure and housing, and the technical questions of energy, materials and urban design have been researched and analyzed. It has become clear that the United States faces a critical need for new housing models and new forms of innovation in housing design, materials and industrial practices that are central to methods used to build. Calls for higher density and greater efficiency have been linked to new forms of transportation, and even to the way communities are defined.

Material Economies, Plastic Resiliency

A new MDS sponsored by The Vinyl Institute called “Material Economies, Plastic Resiliency: Plastic in Building” is now underway at Columbia’s GSAPP. Led by Architect and Professor Michael Bell (the main organizer of the Permanent Change conference) this new work will tie in with Bell’s research and design for the 2012 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” and the related study of Tampa, Fla. and its neighboring city of Temple Terrace. The studio will also incorporate the outcomes of Bell’s 2012 MDS on the Houston, Texas area and, specifically, the Houston shipping channel.

The studio is designed to look at market-based housing and its material make-up, to study the commodity aspect of building materials, and to better understand the potential for innovation. To do this, Bell and his students will build on the four GSAPP publications on materials (glass, concrete, metals, and plastics) and in particular on Permanent Change. It will include the perspectives of more than 20 authors, scholars, scientists, architects, engineers and chemists who were involved in the conference. These perspectives form a basis for architectural study, and GSAPP sees the material economies studio as a way to test the conference output. It is also seen as a unique opportunity to present this original material to its graduate students.

The work of the MDS will focus on the United States at a time when environmental issues and changes in energy costs and have caused renewed interest in housing density and proximity to mass transportation. Design changes considered now could change the basic assumptions about housing in urban and suburban life that have been in place for more than sixty years.  The studio will focus in particular on new potential for high-density housing in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Mobility and housing account for a high percentage of household income today, and the California site selected for this MDS is a zone where new design is urgently needed.

Partnership with The Vinyl Institute

The unique chemical engineering properties of plastics continue to present them as a family of ‘new’ materials that architects and engineers need to know more about.  The depth of product applications and innovation in building such as in wiring, plumbing, siding, roofing, cladding, waterproofing and many others, makes them indispensable in modern construction.

These materials help to define hygiene and life span and are at the center of practical definitions for sustainability. Plastics are engineered to perform; and to really know plastics, future practitioners need to understand some basic chemistry and to get past existing assumptions. The studio will attempt to break this divide and to place plastics at the center of design. It will acknowledge the resiliency of these materials, bringing them to the surface of design.

The MDS will welcome a chance to engage with chemist Dr. William F. Carroll, Vice President, Industry Issues with Oxy Vinyls LP, and to visit production facilities to see the industry up-close. The studio will travel to the site in California and focus on a case study exploring how a new model of housing for an American suburb could be more closely linked to the materials it is made of and to the industries nearby.

The Vinyl Institute hopes to help frame research around materials (piping, electrical supply, roofing, windows, etc.) but also around the uses of polymers as a wider substrate for building design and construction. The studio will be taught with the participation of engineers who will bring specific capabilities, and with two advanced modeling experts who will assist with structural and material modeling.