Close-up of a lightweight library scale model. Bertjan Pot made it with Frank Spee and Myrza de Muynck for Building Lightness
Lightness Studios stimulates development and application of lightweight structures. Lightness saves materials and energy (handling and transportation). Consequently, productivity and flexibility will increase. The aim is to cultivate value with minimum material and energy.
Lightness feels ambiguous. We like light things when we have to carry or wear them, yet we prefer the sturdy feeling of endurance through weight for most things we can enter: vehicles, buildings. It is a great challenge to include the preference for lightness in all things large and small. This is a matter of design in the field of tension between technology and human preferences.
Lightness requires smart dealing with forces. Imagine them as large numbers of bugs trying to find their way through a given loaded structure in the direction imposed by the load, which includes the structures own mass. They try to follow the shortest possible path and they prefer to avoid each other. Bugs crowding on narrow trajectories may damage the structure. Moreover, the lighter the structure itself, the smaller the amount of bugs.
The image of busy bug traffic leads to simple rules of thumb for the design of lightweight structures:
1 Avoid force concentration in structural parts. Adequately formed thin walled structures are better in distributing forces than slender frames and can often be lighter because of this. Use material where needed and avoid designing sharp corners.
2 Dealing with tension requires less material then compression, provided the material is good at that. In general ceramics are not optimally equipped to take up tension, whereas – depending on context - strong fibres (glass, carbon, metal, bamboo, flax, etc.) are.
3 The required properties can be created by combining minimum amounts of materials that have been chosen for their ‘expertise’: laminate, weave, compose. Structural lightness firstly depends on reduction of the total material mass. The weight of applied materials comes second.
4 Lightness benefits from a systematic approach, ordination and hierarchy. They serve to reduce the amount of material needed.
Aiming for lightness seems simple enough. Nevertheless, the consequences are complex and far reaching. Breaking with traditions is a hassle. Having said that, thinking in light structures leads to intriguing phenomena. Lightness is not the same to everyone. Designers and architects look at it in a totally different way than engineers. The former let themselves be inspired by the poetry of image, identity and the expression of lightness, whereas the latter group looks at underlying physical processes and tries to control them. Engineers call this function.
For lightweight structures expression that does not contribute to structure is ballast. On the other hand, structure without expression may be hard to understand. Engineers and designers therefore should cooperate closely.
Development of lightweight structures starts with composition of new materials, new technologies and bonding methods, but also new ways to give expression to structures. Through thinking in composites - indispensable for lightness – details change. Structures behave differently. Composites, which may include fibres with special properties in the field of electronics and light emission offer different forms of decoration and different functional opportunities.
Innovation starts with mimicking the familiar. Even in composite airplanes and cars the shape of metal structural elements is copied with fibres and resin in the beginning. Not smart, for they behave differently. Still, the familiar can be put to tactical use.
The importance of familiarity cannot be underestimated. Lightness requires thinking in reverse: among architects and designers it is common practice to aesthetically 'enlighten' heavy objects, but now they need to provide light things with the pleasurable feel of the heavy. The question is how to cultivate the value of lightness convincingly. In the end lightness is a very concrete theme. Results can be weighed.
Current building procedures require a lot of transportation, literally produces mountains of waste and the building and the industry suffers from severe inertia. Therefore Lightness Studios priority is on exploring the potential of lightweight building scenarios. Building and construction concerns structure, but also tools, vehicles and materials. There are some far reaching ideas about flexible urban development, but the first research project concerns a 'standard' Dutch home that can be built with currently available technologies.
Lightweight design is not an exotic desire. Nevertheless it deserves more attention and insight, because it precedes current sustainability stereotypes. Mass reduction decreases emissions form transportation, production and recycling. Some 20 years ago Adriaan Beukers, Ed van Hinte and Erik Wong created 'Lightness; inevitable renaissance of minimum energy structures'. Now it is time for a successor. A new book, with the working title 'Designing Lightness; principles of weight reduction' is currently being developed.
In the meantime there are educational activities, with lectures and workshops. They concern lightweight design and related themes, such as reuse and value cultivation, in all fields, from textiles and fashion, via product and transportation design, to packaging, engineering and building and construction.