Harvard & IYRS

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Recently, IYRS School of Composites Technology and The Harvard Graduate School of Design had the opportunity to collaborate on research and various projects and in the classroom. The story below is how it came about, and what we hoped to accomplish through the collaboration.

When it comes to building structures, architects are more apt to choose wood, steel, glass and concrete as materials. Even though composites have a high strength-to-weight ratio, superior durability, and the aesthetic possibility of being  molded into fluid and creative forms, composites are not the go-to materials  for the  majority  of today’s architects. But there are individuals and organizations trying to change that— and some not so recently.

As far back as the 1950s, millions of Americans got their first glimpse at the House of the Future. A joint  project between  Monsanto and  the  Massachusetts Institute  of Technology, the  house  was a fiberglass  cruciform structure with four equal wings floating about landscaped grounds—looking  more   like  the home of  the cartoon Jetsons  as opposed to that  of a typical  American family.

The  project team  took  a  long  look  at how plastics were being used in construction and explored other  ways their unique properties could  be  applied in the years ahead.  The house was projected to be the typical home of 1986, but 1986 came and went and few of us are living in plastic homes.

Only last year, the American Composites Manufacturers Association Architectural   Division organized    its first booth at the American Institute of Architects Conference held  in  May  in Washington, D.C.  Over 17,000 architects  and  fabricators   from  around the country attended, and  the  goal of the ACMA  was to bridge the gap between composites manufacturers and architectural end users to better inform the industry.

John Nastasi of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD)—an architect and design educator who has been at the forefront of research and implementation of emerging methods for  the  past decade—has taken a different approach. Together with  the  help  of  IYRS Composites  Instructor Henry Elliot, Nastasi  has developed a Fabrication of Composites  course for GSD students that   focuses  on  the  integration of  the composites field  with  the  construction industry  and contemporary architectural practice. Part of the Harvard students’ education will be spent with Elliot at the IYRS facility in Bristol.

Real-World Immersion into Composites

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The  trip from Cambridge to Bristol may only be 70  miles, but  it  is also  a fast track for Harvard  students  into real-world immersion in the composites field.

A dynamic hub of the composites business,  Bristol  is a  window   into  the industry: multinational firms have  chosen this Rhode  Island town  as the  location  of their U.S. operations, and builders and  innovators based  in Bristol  are fabricating  a  wide   range   of  composite structures—from boats to musical instruments. IYRS is in the midst of all this activity.

“Right in this neighborhood we have MouldCAM across the parking  lot, and Eric Goetz is a few steps away from our front door. To give students access to the composites field here in Bristol is easy,” says Henry  Elliot.

The  IYRS composites lab and Elliot’s expertise have  already  been  tapped by leading  schools  of design  and  engineering—including RISD  and  Dartmouth’s Thayer  School  of Engineering—and IYRS is filling a need  in  education for the  type  of hands-on experience that  is not readily available at many schools.

“It’s one  thing   to  read  a  book.  It’s another thing entirely to physically engage with the process,” says Elliot. “It’s particularly important with composites because the quality of success with  the laminates is completely process-dependent:  if you don’t  get the  process  right, it doesn’t work … This type of experiential learning really matters.”

This winter, Elliot went to Cambridge to give the Harvard students an  introductory lecture about composites and their applications. A few weeks later, the Harvard students travelled to the IYRS lab to get hands-on experience, to make some infused panels and do some canoe building. The students also had an opportunity to visit some of the area businesses  near IYRS and learn about their company projects  and operations.

For Elliot, the fun part was teaching   the Harvard students how to get their hands dirty. He found the group engaged, smart,  and  eager  to learn. Their first projects together, making some infused panels, went per- fectly—which  was   a   problem for  Elliot.  For their   next   visit, Elliot decided  he would  have to “engineer some failures, because that  is always pretty instructive. You always learn  more  by making mistakes  than  you  do when things go well.”

An Ongoing Conversation

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In mid-march, Elliot, the IYRS  composites students,  and  colleagues   of  Elliot’s  from MouldCAM and RISD went to Cambridge to help critique the Harvard students’  design projects—just as they  have  done  in the past with RISD students and their projects. Visits between IYRS and other  schools are creating  an ongoing  conversation between schools  and  between students, and  this  type  of collaboration with other  academic institutions is also designed to benefit  IYRS students. It gives them  exposure to  other  pro- grams where  they may someday  further their  learning, it gives them  a broader understanding of composite applications, and it  gives them  an  opportunity to  share  their  knowledge and learn  from  other   students who  are  solving  similar  physical problems with composites.

“A lot of these academic programs are held in high regard, and they  may seem  intimidating,” says Elliot. “But when you actually get down to  it, they  are smart  students working  on interesting projects  and interesting problems.”

Elliot hopes the Harvard/IYRS collaboration can eventually develop into  a building  envelope  project. Because  the  IYRS students are on a six-month schedule, instead  of an academic year schedule, his ideal would be to develop a project between the  two  schools  that  could  be  broken  down  into  digestible chunks.

The collaboration between Harvard’s GSD and IYRS may be in its nascent stage and details  will emerge  as the  association continues. Elliot is fine with that, for he looks at this collaboration the same way he would look at any problem-solving exercise. You know your starting point, you know the solution you need  to arrive at, and you know there  is a process  to get there— even though the exact steps may not be clear until you dive in and begin.

Some  of the  best  minds  in architecture traveled  the halls of Harvard’s GSD, including IM Pei and Philip Johnson. The opportunity  to   work   with   students who   may   someday   follow   in the  footsteps of their  illustrious alumni  will help more architects of the  future better understand composite materials  and their applications. And in the process, IYRS students are getting  a rich education  by  broadening their horizons  and  seeing wide  possibilities for these building materials and their  own career paths.