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Architecture gleans know-how from aerospace, auto industries

If you think that architecture isn’t rocket science, or has absolutely nothing in common with the automobile, think again. Thanks to the concept of technology transfer — loosely defined as the sharing of materials and processes among industries, universities and federal laboratories — seemingly unrelated sciences are linked in ways most of us never imagined.

Developed for use in space travel and cars, materials such as aero gels, foam metals, polymers, composites and thin films also can be used in the construction of buildings. The aerospace and automotive industries have embraced the technology transfer idea for the past 30 years.

Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, architects with KieranTimberlake Associates in Philadelphia and co-professors at the University of Pennsylvania, are researching ways in which technology transfer can best be applied to architecture. They’re setting out to prove that superior buildings can be built more quickly and cheaply using the process.

The duo turned their research idea into a formal proposal and submitted it for the Latrobe Fellowship. Their idea resulted in a $50,000 research grant.

"It’s looking at how we might construct new buildings in the future," Timberlake says, referring to the research project. "Making a distinct change in how we build and perceive buildings, we can improve the quality and lower costs."

Modeling the masters
The architects currently are studying the efficiencies of modular architecture, which refers to the design of any system composed of separate components that can be connected together. In the true spirit of technology transfer, Timberlake and Kieran are learning how the automobile industry applies the modular concept.

Over the years, car makers have dramatically changed their vehicle production processes. It used to be that workers were required to insert each part into the body of the vehicle winding its way down on the assembly line. Now, however, a car dashboard arrives at the plant, complete with all the necessary components attached, and is ready for installation

"Buildings can be made the same way [as automobiles], by transferring the industry off-site, building the parts in a factory and then transferring the finished product to a job site," explains Timberlake.

From theory to practice
The architects are employing the factory process described above to construct the Melvin and Claire Levine Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. What makes this building stand out is that the architects designed the building’s curtain wall as a modular building assembly. Each section of the curtain wall is being built in a factory before it arrives on the construction site already fully glazed, finished and ready for installation. Normally, the glazing and finishing processes of a wall are completed at the construction site.

When completed, Levine Hall will house Penn’s Department of Computer and Information Science. With new departmental offices, conference rooms, an auditorium, 12 research laboratories and a "cyber-lounge" for students and faculty, the project will double the space available for computer and information science at Penn.

Timberlake doesn’t pretend that the modular system can be applied to every project. "We’re not talking about one builder coming up with one pattern and repeating that pattern several times in different locations," he says.

The modular method is just one example of a transfer of knowledge to the architectural world from the automobile industry. Timberlake expects to discover other technology transfer ideas during the course of his research. Ultimately, the architect believes that by using aerospace and auto technologies to construct buildings, a revolution could be born.

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