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Could Carbon Fiber Be the Superhero of Building Materials?

Could Carbon Fiber Be the Superhero of Building Materials?

DEC 13 2017


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Steel and steel frame remain kings in construction. But innovations in composite materials and robotic-fabrication techniques could mean a new despot will soon unseat them. And if research occurring at Autodesk BUILD (Building, Innovation, Learning, and Design) Space in Boston is any indication, it could be just as transformative.

- One of the most promising composites for the future of building is carbon fiber. A polymer comprising long, thin strands of carbon atoms bound together in a crystalline formation—each strand thinner than a human hair—it’s lighter than steel, five times stronger, and twice as stiff. As such, it’s particularly popular among manufacturers, who twist its strands together like yarn that can be woven into fabric or molded into permanent shapes. This process is used for everything from bike frames, fishing poles, and aircraft wings to race-car bodies, golf-club shafts, and sailboat masts.

- “Carbon fiber and other composite materials are highly performative, meaning they have a very small weight but can take enormous loads,” says architect and recent BUILD Space resident Simon Kim, principal at Ibañez Kim, an architecture and design firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because carbon fiber has such unique properties, Kim and others believe it makes an ideal building material. “Composites represent a very interesting opportunity for rapid fabrication and customization,” says Kim, adding that it would take just weeks to build the enclosure for a small house out of carbon fiber, versus months with conventional materials.

- “Composite structures can be erected rather quickly and do not require much in terms of specialized labor and work flows—from general contractors and subcontractors, to material supplies, for example. We can therefore go faster, the delivery chain is shorter, the amount of material is reduced, and it’s less expensive.” Thanks to its flexibility and light weight, carbon fiber can be easily moved. “Modules can be picked up, taken elsewhere, and chained together to produce larger assemblies as needed,” he says. “That makes composite structures far more flexible than traditional buildings, where there’s an assumption of permanence that is not always a good thing.”


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