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Werner Sobek at Cooper Union

December 3, 2009

I attended a lecture by Werner Sobek at Cooper Union last night titled “Eco-radicalism – Architecture Tomorrow”  (part of the Architectural League’s Franzen lecture series).  Despite the poor sound quality (even by the standards of the Great Hall), I found two interesting takeaways:

  1. Recyclable Buildings: Building material re-use has been something that we’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  We recently visited Build It Green in Queens, a building recycling and re-use operation run by Justin Green.  Though their warehouse is overflowing, I got a sense of frustration from  Justin that they were just skimming the cream off of the construction waste stream – a river of sheet rock and mangled steel studs that will never be recovered.  Sobek talked about banishing glue from the construction toolkit – materials should remain separate and identifiable within the construction matrix.  When I pressed him on this – material science seems to be moving towards more composite materials rather than fewer – he mentioned the concept of single-material composites: combining different forms of the same material (say, a woven material and a solid binder).  The composite could then at least easily be separated into piles of like materials.
  2. Substituting Energy for Structure: I admit this idea is still somewhat improbable to me – I think many conservationists have a deep suspicion of buildings that require power for vital functions.  Sobek rationalized “active” structures by pointing out that, given the realistic lifespan of most buildings today, energy saved in the construction process or kept out of the embodied “grey” energy in the building had a greater effect than energy saved on day-to-day operations.  His examples were a twirling umbrella-shade that avoided spokes by using the force created by the rotation to keep the shade open, and a railroad-bridge concept that used mechanical ‘muscles’ to pre-stress the structure when it sensed that a train was passing over it.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2009 12:55 am

    I don’t understand the connection between his rationalization of active structures with the examples used (there aren’t really any energy savings to be had in the day to day goings on of a tressle). Anyway, would there really be notably less material used in a bridge that is pre-stressed in pulses rather than permanently? I appreciate the concept but like you don’t expect to see it anytime soon. Municipal agencies don’t seem to like experimental infrastructure all that much.

    • severnclay permalink*
      December 21, 2009 7:52 pm

      I think the bridge design was more of a concept model than a real design – I agree that bridge engineers must be the most conservative of the lot, though – just looking at the traffic changes over the Brooklyn Bridge during its lifetime shows how much we’ve benefited by this conservatism! His point was that railway bridge designers worry most about deflection – so they design for deflection rather than failure. This means a great deal more steel that just sits there most of the time – if you could neutralize the deflection by applying energy only when necessary, you actually save a great deal. (He had a little video explaining this – I haven’t been able to find it on the web).

      The other unanswered question (as your video clip suggests) is whether this would be enough to take care of unintended consequences – freak windloading, new types of vehicles, etc.

      This was part of his larger point that “active” structure made more sense given the actual designed lifespan of buildings – the knee-jerk green “bunker” was actually spending a lot more on materials in the front-end to achieve savings in day-to-day operation.

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