IIT Students Explore the Potential of Carbon Fiber

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Undergraduates at IIT designed, funded, and fabricated FIBERwave PAVILION during the spring semester. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

Undergraduates at IIT designed, funded, and fabricated FIBERwave PAVILION during the spring semester. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

Composite materials are on display in the undergraduate-built FIBERwave PAVILION.

Carbon fiber’s unique properties would seem to make it an ideal building product. Untreated, carbon fiber cloth is flexible and easy to cut. After an epoxy cure, it is as hard as steel. But while the automobile and aerospace industries have made widespread use of the material, it has gone virtually untouched by the architectural profession. Alphonso Peluso and his undergraduate students at the IIT College of Architecture set out to change that with their FIBERwave PAVILION, a parametric, sea life-inspired installation built entirely of carbon fiber. “We want to make the studio an expert resource for people trying to get into carbon fiber in terms of architecture,” said Peluso, whose students designed, funded, and built the pavilion this spring. “There’s a studio in Germany that’s in their second year of working with carbon fiber, but I don’t think anyone in the United States is working with it.”

FIBERwave PAVILION's 86 component "shells" were inspired by bivalve organisms. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

FIBERwave PAVILION’s 86 component “shells” were inspired by bivalve organisms. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

Peluso’s studio began with an internal competition. Because the spring semester course followed a class dedicated to the exploration of various composite materials, many of the students were already familiar with the pros and cons of carbon fiber. “Toward the end of the first semester we started working with carbon fiber, and it wasn’t the greatest result,” said Peluso. “But we knew we had to keep working with it. That played a big part in the selection of the design for the second semester.” The students judged the submissions on constructability as well as aesthetics, he explained. “It was interesting to see the students as the pavilions were being presented, see their minds turning on: ‘Okay, this one is feasible—this is one we can actually build.’ Sometimes the design was a little better, but the overall project seemed less possible within the time frame.”

The winning design is based on a bivalve shell structure. The student who came up with the idea used parametric design software to explore tessellations of the single shell form. “What I was pushing them to do in the first semester was large surfaces that weren’t repetitive,” said Peluso. “In the second semester, it was like they intuitively knew there had to be repetition of the unit.” As a group, the class further developed the design in Rhino and Grasshopper.

But while the students used parametric software to generate the shell pattern, in general FIBERwave PAVILION was “less about designing in the computer,” said Peluso. “Most of it was fabrication based.” The studio was hands-on from the beginning, when students were asked to submit a small-scale carbon fiber with their competition entries. They went back to Rhino to make the molds. “We had to make six molds,” explained Peluso. “Even though it was one identical shell unit we had to produce 86 of these shells. When you make a composite unit, if you have one mold you can only make one shell per day.” In the end, the students fabricated a total of 90 shells (including several extra to make up for any defects) over the course of about four weeks.

Students first cured the cut pieces of carbon fiber cloth with epoxy before painting them and CNC drilling holes for assembly. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

Students first cured the cut pieces of carbon fiber cloth with epoxy before painting them and CNC drilling holes for assembly. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

  • Fabricator IIT School of Architecture CARBON_Lab
  • Designers IIT School of Architecture CARBON_Lab
  • Location Chicago
  • Date of Completion Spring 2014
  • Material carbon fiber, epoxy from West System Epoxy
  • Process Rhino, Grasshopper, 3D printing, cutting, molding, curing, painting, bolting

“The actual assembly was pretty quick, the pavilion itself went together in less than a day,” said Peluso. Laterally, bolts through CNC-drilled holes connect the shells at two points on either side. The overlapping rows of shells are secured vertically through bolted pin connections. The installation remained on the IIT campus for one month, after which the students disassembled it in just 25 minutes. The Chicago Composite Initiative, which provided crucial technical guidance during the project, has since erected FIBERwave PAVILION in one of its classrooms.

The fundraising component of the project was as important as its design and fabrication elements. Peluso initially hoped that the carbon fiber industry would donate materials, but “we didn’t have as much luck as we anticipated because we hadn’t done anything before that would warrant their interest,” he said. “That’s one of the goals of the pavilion itself, to create an awareness in architecture that this could be a great material to use.” Peluso’s course did have help from West System Epoxy, which provided the curing resin at a discount. To fill the funding gap, the students ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $6,937 from a $6,500 goal. They made incentives for the donors, including 3D-printed necklaces and earrings. “I don’t think we realized how much work was going to go into that,” said Peluso. To raise additional funds, the class held bake sales on campus.

For Peluso, the process of designing and building FIBERwave PAVILION proved as valuable as the finished product. “The way the students collaborated made the project a success,” he said. “Sometimes in group projects you get a few drifters, and some really strong ones. But all twelve students really stepped up. This wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t all come together as a group.”

The pavilion was erected on the IIT campus before being transferred to the Chicago Composite Initiative. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

The pavilion was erected on the IIT campus before being transferred to the Chicago Composite Initiative. (Courtesy Alphonso Peluso)

2 Responses to “IIT Students Explore the Potential of Carbon Fiber”

  1. Ira Smith says:

    Been waiting for this subject to appear for many years. I understand carbon fiber is a challenging material, primarily in terms of costs associated with its labor-intensive fabrication and finishing. Note that, for over a decade, Giovanni Pagnotta has been working with carbon fiber out of his studio in NY: http://www.giovannipagnotta.com. While the website highlights his carbon fiber furniture, Giovanni has pioneered the use of carbon fiber as an architectural element. Regrettably, those projects remain out of the public eye as they have been commissioned by clients who require a high degree of privacy.

  2. Rick Pauer says:

    Congratulations to Professor Alphonso Peluso and his students! Nice job on the project and highlighting the use of composite materials in their work. I hope that the professor brought some of his students to the recent AIA Expo held at the McCormick Center here in Chicago? If so they would have seen some of the use of composites already being used in architectural applications, one of the larger displays in particular showed the new building fascia of the San Fran Museum of Modern Art that is in the process of being done out west by Kreysler and Associates. In addition, they would have seen several displays of restoration work being done in replacing heavy carved stone fascia’s with light weight composite materials for seismic retrofits and connector failures, with the Cleveland Terminal Tower terracotta stone replacement being one of the larger projects displayed by Architectural Fiberglass. Finally, not taking anything away from the work that Professor Peluso has done, but they would have also seen student’s composite designs from Cal Poly’s Architectural school on display in their booth, as well as the work of Dr. Greg Lynn of UCLA’s IDEAS Campus with his all carbon fiber basket that was in the Composites Pavilion at the AIA. If you have not read Greg Lynn and Mark Foster Gage’s book called “Composites, Surfaces, and Software- High Performance Architecture” (ISBN 978-0-393-73333-4), I highly suggest doing so. It’s a little dated from 2010, but a great resource to see where FRP composites have been used in architecture from around the world. As someone who has made a career out of composites over the last 41 years and as a local resident of the Chicago area, I am thrilled to hear that a local school of architecture has climbed on board in using carbon fiber based materials.

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