Façade as origami

Most buildings are designed using non-structural envelopes to allow designers more flexibility when shaping their outer face. But what possibilities exist for making load-bearing façades more formally interesting?

University of Buffalo architects Nick Bruscia and Chris Romano have spent several years developing one answer to this question. Drawing on research suggesting that embossing very thin metals could allow them to support as much weight as their thicker counterparts, the duo set out to design load-bearing architectural walls using only thin-gauge sheet metal.

Bruscia and Romano teamed with the local Rigidized Metals Corporation, a world leader in textured metals, to develop a process that greatly increased the panels’ strength by altering their molecular structure.

Rigidized metal mill and samples

In addition to strengthening the metal, the process adds significant aesthetic interest, increasing light diffusion and altering viewers’ perception of color, brightness, shadow, and depth as they move around the panels and view them in different weather conditions.

Credit: Douglas Levere

Final panels

In summer 2013, the architects developed a 25-by-20-foot prototype of their wall design for installation in Silo City, a historic industrial site on the Buffalo waterfront. They then entered the piece in a façade competition sponsored by digital fabrication alliance TEX-FAB, where they won first prize: $10,000 to further develop the design for display at the organization’s annual conference.

Structural analysis

The design models had been heavily informed by material parameters and tested in Rhino plugin Karamba for preliminary structural design. In need of more detailed analysis when developing the TEX-FAB installation, however, the pair reached out to Maria Mingallon, a structural engineer in Arup’s Montreal office who had served as a juror for the competition.

Mingallon studied the form’s complex geometry in Arup’s structural analysis software Oasys GSA (taking advantage of interoperability plugin Salamander, developed by Arup’s Paul Jeffries, which allows designers to run Oasys GSA directly from Grasshopper and Rhinoceros 3D).

Credit: Arup

Arup analysis

Analysis results demonstrated that Bruscia and Romano’s origami-like strategy would make the wall strong enough to deal with the typical design loads applied to medium-height buildings.

Would this system still work on high-rise buildings? Stay tuned for more!

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