The material palette available to architecture is growing, with composites leading the way toward an eroding set of formal constraints and expanded set of structural possibilities. The promise of these high-performance materials is manifest in the myriad demanding industries for which they are frequently employed, yet their adoption by architecture and building construction industries remains slow. Architecture - unlike the automotive industry, for instance - demands endless variation and shifts in scale, which in turn severely limits the viability of conventional mold production. Molds, necessary for every unique piece produced, are expensive, slow and wasteful.
Inflatable structures - currently experiencing an architectural resurgence - are highly scalable, easily tailored to unique conditions, inexpensive to produce, and simple to erect. They suffer from none of the barriers facing composites. Of course, these characteristics come at the expense of longevity, rigidity and structural capacity, which are the hallmark advantages of fiber matrix composites. This research recognizes the potential afforded by hybridizing the two disparate fields of inflatables and composites. Using inflatable vinyl bladders as molds for composite production, the expense and inflexibility of the process is radically reduced, with the promise of viably introducing composites to architectural design and building construction.
We call this new technique ‘cured-surface inflatables,’ because the process addresses a broad material palette but always entails cutting and seaming flat sheets, inflating, then curing the resultant 3-dimensional object. In combination with inflation and curing, sartorial techniques (including pleating, darting, folding and layering) will obviate the need for the expensive molds or frames needed in conventional composite surface production. The research leverages innovations in material technologies, tooling, computational simulation, and sheet geometries, to tease out structural and formal opportunities in cured-surface inflatables at an architectural scale. The results exhibit a radical consolidation of thin cladding and structure, suggesting an expanded set of constructive and formal possibilities available to architecture.