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
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
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.