It has students and faculty from over 35 countries. Its personnel specialize in everything from architecture, to ecology, to digital manufacturing. It claims to have the most advanced laboratory for digital production of any university in the region. And it has done work investigating building sites from Brazil, to Croatia, to Taiwan. The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is a Barcelona institute of higher education specializing in training students in next generation construction and landscaping techniques so that they can solve persistent problems faced by countries looking to build inhabitable structures, and it has made presentations at events such as the Vienna Biennale in 2008 and the Solar Decathalon Europe in 2010. But one current project by some of its students may be the most impressive thing it’s done yet.
As part of a project that has been named In:Sand, IAAC students Anusha Arunkumar, Kunaljit Singh Chadha, and Yessica Gabriela Mendez Sierra are studying ways to develop “nano scale understanding of material behavior to shape, control, and design landforms.” In other words, the team of students is working on methods that combine binding agents to sand, one of the most abundant materials in the world, in order to control how landforms are shaped, hopefully leading to being able to control the development of terrain in order to make it more suitable for habitable structures while protecting it from future desertification.
The team tested several binding agents, including corn starch, wax, and oil. But they ultimately settled on sodium thiosulfate, which easily loses water and forms a supersaturated solution in a test tube when heated. The result: small, structurally stable constructions made from sand, whose organic fractal shapes resemble ant mounds.
As a further step in their efforts, the students also build an architectural-scale 3D printer, which makes constructs from a mixture of sand, dust, and a selection of binding agents. Following directions from a user input station or a CNC machine, a robot arm sprays the mixture into the desired design.
A Future Built from Sand?
The ICAA students aren’t the only ones who think that molded sand has a significant place in the future of architecture. Designer Magnus Larrson proposed a similar project while still a student, theorizing that by solidifying sand with a special type of bacteria, barriers could be built in the Sahara region which would prevent desertification. With the threat of areas being swallowed by a desert sea prevented, those areas behind the barriers could then be used as the site of housing projects that could hold thousands of people.
While these sand-construction projects haven’t reached the point where they are yet building full-size structures, the results so far have been promising. If the ICAA project takes off, it will be yet another example of how the combination of computer aided design and groundbreaking additive manufacturing technologies are transforming architecture and construction.
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