Out of his shell: Giorgio Baroni, an early designer of hyperbolic paraboloid shells

Martina Russo is a PhD student at Sapienza University of Rome, and recent Visiting Research Student Collaborator at Princeton University (Form Finding Lab, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Chaos Lab at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment). Reinforced concrete thin shell structures are nowadays considered as part of the architectural and engineering heritage of the 20th Century. Today, a number of these structures … Continue reading Out of his shell: Giorgio Baroni, an early designer of hyperbolic paraboloid shells

Reporting from IASS 2017 – Severe Conditions & Disasters

Last week at the IASS the Form Finding Lab was very involved in the session on severe conditions & disasters. The session was chaired by our own Sigrid Adriaenssens and close collaborator Prof. Ruy Marcelo Pauletti from the University of Sao Paulo, and many more collaborators presented their research. The revue of familiar faces started with Eftychia Dichorou from the University of Cambridge. Dichorou presented … Continue reading Reporting from IASS 2017 – Severe Conditions & Disasters

Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

After the revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the National Art Schools to be built on the site of a country club, a move to enrage wealthy capitalists.  The post-embargo material shortage resulted in the curved thin shell brick shell of the School of Modern Dance, designed by Ricardo Porro.  This shell reflected the sensuality Castro thought to be unique to the Cuban spirit. While four other … Continue reading Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

HIGROW – Hygroscopic proprieties of wood used as programmable matter in lightweight construction

Luigi Olivieri, who is visiting the Form Finding Lab this week from the University of Tre (Rome, Italy) with Professor Stefano Gabriele, presents his master’s thesis work: The project explores the possibilities of using the hygroscopic proprieties of wood as a programmable material. The aim of the research is to explore the possibilities of a temporary structure through a new method of design by studying … Continue reading HIGROW – Hygroscopic proprieties of wood used as programmable matter in lightweight construction

The secret of egg tapping boiled down: outsmart your peers on Greek Easter

Once a year, engineers can put shell theory into practice in a less conventional way: by winning their family’s egg cracking competition (also known as egg knocking or egg tapping). On Easter Sunday, it is a tradition for Greek and Armenian families to gather and play a game of egg tapping. Similar traditions exist in many different places such as in Cajun communities in Louisiana … Continue reading The secret of egg tapping boiled down: outsmart your peers on Greek Easter

Constructing Ice Structures

Since it has been snowing in Princeton this week, there is really no better time to write about how to construct structures out of ice. The motivation of building with ice – as opposed to another construction materials such as concrete-  is that it makes experimenting much more economic and zero-carbon.  Structural ice experiments also allow for the ability to discover a new medium that could fill the demand for a building material that will not see a dramatic decrease in its strength after being subject to several extreme freeze-thaw cycles [1].  In many extreme cold environments, it would be desirable to have an inexpensive and safe way to reconstruct infrastructure or buildings out of ice to address annual need for shelters and roads rather than rebuilding or repairing these possibly concrete structures that will ultimately be damaged by the weather each year. In the following sections we provide a historic glimpse of key ice structures and how they were built.

Throughout history, ice has been used as an inexpensive and naturally available building material. The oldest known ice structures are igloos that were made from snow blocks [2]. The igloos date from prehistory and have developed a form in which the structure takes exclusively compressive stresses and experiences zero bending moment everywhere in the shell. This form, called a catenoid evolves from the revolution of a parabolic cross-section into a dome. The igloos are constructed into this form using compacted ice blocks.  The gaps between the blocks are filled with snow.  Heating in the igloo then melts the inner surface of the igloo which then refreezes as a layer of ice that contributes to the overall strength of the igloo [2].

Iglulik Snowhouse (photo by Albert Low, 1903, image credit Library and Archives Canada/C-24522).


In 1739, Russian empress Anna Ivanovna order the first ice palace to be built [2].  These impressive structures were made of blocks from rivers and lakes that were trimmed and stacked to form a masonry wall [2].  This marked the beginning of functional ice structures that did not take the traditional catenoid shape.The form was imitated in the 1980’s using cast snow in which wooden molds were used to create compact snow walls to be sculpted.

Ice palace (left) for Russian empress Anna Ivanovna (right Louis Caravaque, 1730)  (image credit wikimedia)

More practically, recent construction of ice hotels has seen the use of special wet snow being sprayed onto steel molds with heights up to 5m and spans up to 6m.  In this process the snow is allowed a two day freezing period before the molds are removed.  These structures get stronger as the snow melts and refreezes over time.  This occurs on a diurnal cycle as the top layer of snow melts slightly each day and then freezes to solid ice during the night [2].

Ice Hotel Sweden constructed of wet snow sprayed onto steel molds (image credit holidayguru.ie)

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Shells for the senses: the multidisciplinary success of “Stage by the Sea”

When we speak of “aesthetics”, the first sense that comes to mind is sight – when appreciating the “aesthetics” of a structure, we often refer a structure’s beauty. But a secondary definition in Merriam-Webster reminds us that aesthetics can also be defined as “appreciative of what is pleasurable of the senses.”

In Professor Adriaenssens’s words, “a formal analysis, deprived of tactile, auditory and olfactory experiences, seems only to capture to a certain extent the esthetic intent of curved surfaces.” How might structures embody acoustics and the auditory senses? Today we examine Stage by the Sea, a small concert stage in Littlehampton, England that does just that.

Image courtesy of Flanagan Lawrence Architects.

Context-driven design

The design brief first set out by Littlehampton was for a stage and a shelter to occupy its beach and “reinvigorate the town’s gentility of the early 20th century.” The project, being publicly funded, had an extremely tight budget of £100,000.

Beach view from the shelter shell of Stage by the Sea. Image courtesy of Flanagan Lawrence Architects.

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Design-and-build bamboo shells

Bamboo is a building material that lends itself excellently to the construction of sustainable gridshells. Two of the Form Finding Lab’s graduating senior students, Lu Lu and Russell Archer (’16), worked under the guidance of PhD candidate Tim Michiels and Professor Adriaenssens on the analysis of a set of hyperbolic paraboloid (hypar) gridshell roofs in Cali, Colombia. The Form Finding Lab’s team collaborated closely with … Continue reading Design-and-build bamboo shells

The structural designer’s new toolbox

It is said that “an engineer is a (wo)man who can do for a dime what any fool can do for a dollar.” While it is customary for an engineer to be responsible for achieving a specific technological need for the lowest economic cost, this saying is crippling to both the engineer’s creativity and the design’s potential. With the available new digital and numerical tools, … Continue reading The structural designer’s new toolbox

Destructive form-finding using robotics

Can you improve the resistance of a shell structure by smashing, and subsequently repairing it? To do so you would require a very controlled environment, and thus Form-Finding Lab researchers resorted to Princeton’s School of Architecture robot.

Interactive digital fabrication environment to explore gypsum shell reinforcement from T Michiels on Vimeo.

In the context of the course ARC 596 “Embodied Computation”, a project was developed to explore novel forms for gypsum shell by repeatedly breaking and repairing these types of shells using digitally controlled tools.

The School of Architecture’s ABB 7600 robot is used to repetitively break, scan and repair gypsum shells. The broken shells are repaired by selectively gluing weak areas in order to create a bond that is stronger than the initial unreinforced gypsum. The investigated hypothesis is that after every iteration the newly repaired shell has the potential of a greater load bearing capacity than its predecessor. The reinforcement pattern is directly determined by the shell’s crack pattern and does not arise from an analytical approach typical to common reinforcement strategies. Indeed, the process is not dependent on a preconceived design, but much rather evolves from the intrinsic material properties and the initial form and imperfections of the shell. The process can still be steered by the designer in real-time through a set of interactive overlays in a custom control software.

Continue reading “Destructive form-finding using robotics”