What are some of the challenges to using composites in architecture and how can the composites industry help address those challenges?

This is the big question and the answer is probably more complicated than this brief interview will allow. On one hand, ‘composites’ have been used in architecture for a very long time; reinforced concrete, for example, is ubiquitous within the discipline. On the other hand, the use of modern composites as a primary vehicle for executing a design as a specified material doesn’t exist. The reasons for this lack of usage are complex but at the highest levels of the discipline, the primary reason may be simply that modern composites are not well understood. Additionally, the evolution of industry regulation through prescriptive building codes makes it difficult to introduce new materials and assemblies; attempting to do so can increase design time and costs substantially. Most clients and/or firms are not willing to bear the additional costs associated with this type of experimentation.

The composites industry can help substantially to overcome this by providing more information for education and to help offset costs associated with experimentation. Whereas ‘traditional’ building materials have many resources for how to design with them and specify them to meet desired performance (structural, fire resistance, insulation, etc.), there is not a good resource for architects to use when it comes to modern composites and how to specify their use in the design of a project. A concentrated effort to fund testing of building scale assemblies and specifications to meet life safety standards and provide this material in the form of a resource to architects could help this effort tremendously.

Have you noticed your students seeking out composites as their first choice material? Can you give an example of a particular project that impressed you?

Again, the short answer is no. There really is no educational paradigm that exists that would suggest to students that they can use them. If a student wants to develop a 30 foot cantilever in a building, he or she can reference the Steel Design Manual to specify a steel assembly that would work. There is no equivalent in the composites industry. So unless I direct students to use composites, the choice doesn’t present itself to them. Of course, that being said, there have been a few instances where architecture students have collaborated with civil engineers in my classes and in a few of those cases some experimental composite conditions were explored – but without the engagement of outside expertise the students are a bit lost.