A study on symbiotic relationships and reciprocal structures inspired by ferns.
Obsolete word - an excessive enthusiasm for ferns. Also known as fern fever.
APPLIED TECHNICAL STUDIES II
BY JEAN-CHRISTIAN WHITEHOUSE
UNIVERSITY OF WESTMINSTER
WINNER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTMINSTER MARCH
'FOSTER + PARTNERS PRIZE FOR TECHNICAL INNOVATION' 2019/20
Tutors: Toby Burgess, Arthur Mamou-Man
A. Environmental materials studies through physical and digital model making.
B. Studying a plant and its ecosystem in detail at Kew Gardens.
C. Weekly Grasshopper workshop with Radiance/Daysim and evolutionary solving.
D. Find and analyse an existing site/business/operation that does not meet the U.N sustainable goals (ie polluting, unethical )
E. On that site, (i.e. a factory, a headquarters, a client’s home) propose an alternative building/process/program that contributes positively in demonstrable sustainable terms.
O. Output: many physical sketch models which show the progression and development of the understanding of both the material and the botanical studies. A large diagram explaining the lifecycle of their chosen product in relation to their designs.
Choice of material with genuinely sustainable credentials and explore it through physical modelling informed by digital fabrication techniques. Through rigorous physical and digital experiments, we explore the physical and assembly potentials of the material to find novel applications, structures and geometry and combining these experiments with the research into plants to understand the systems at place that organise and hold together plants and make them operate as living processes.
materials & structure
I chose to begin by looking into the Fern plant and its' form. All ferns are Pinnate - central axis and smaller side branches - considered a primitive condition. The veins never coalesce and are known to be ‘free’. The leaves that are broadly ovate or triangular tend to be born at right angles to the sunlight.
I then decided to model a leaf digitally, attempting to simulate the fractal nature found in a fern frond and the leaves to 3 degrees of fractals. I then simplified the fern frond to 2 levels to allow for easier laser cutting and structural stability. The large perimeter meant, therefore, there was a large amount of surface area for friction so I explored different configurations and tested their intersections.
I then selected the fern frond intersection I found to show the best stability out of the tested ones shown previously. By arraying them further, they began to curve. When pressure is applied to the top of the arch, the intersections are strengthened and the piece appears to gain structural integrity.
When a full revolution is completed, the components appear to gain their maximum structural integrity. Since I had decided to digitally model the fern frond, I was able to decrease the distance between the individual leaves in the centre of each frond through grasshopper. By doing this, the intersections connecting a frond with another were less tight in the centre than on the extremities of each frond, allowing for a slight double curvature.
finding Double curvature
With these models, I began experimenting with the distance between leaves attempting to create a larger double curvature as seen before. The thickness of the plywood in these tests was also varied. I began simplifying the individual leaves. An arch-like form will only have one point of contact with another arch-like form. By having a straight edge for each individual leaf, the friction between leaves could be stretched and constant.
simplifying the component
I continued to iterate the leave by decreasing any arching on the leaf and finding the minimum component, the smallest possible component in the system. By arraying a component formed of 3 'leaves' on one hand and 2 on the other, I would be able to grow the system in one direction as before due to the reciprocal organisation and in the other direction by staggering the adjacent component. I scaled up this component to view what difficulties emerge when the component is larger. The stress tests of this arrangement showed a phased failure of the 'column'. Instead of breaking at once, row by row of components failed with time, outwards-inwards.
Symbiosis in materials
I extracted the minimum possible component from the previous iterations and attempted to merge the system with firstly, 3d printed PLA bioplastic components and then with an algae bioplastic produced at home. I became interested in the idea of being able to coat the wood in an algae bioplastic substituting the need for any epoxy for waterproofing. The stress tests for this component showed a surprising total of 956 kg-force for it to fail.
Here, I began combining different quantities of vegetable glycerine, agar agar (extracted from red algae and used for cooking) and water. By changing the ratios of agar and glycerine I was able to create 2 different bioplastics: one being brittle and the other flexible. See above for the flexible sample and below for the brittle sample. Both samples appeared to fail under the same 7 Kg-force.
The proposed site is based in the port of Rotterdam in the Merwehaven port, known locally as M4H or the Rotterdam Innovation District, RID. This area is known for its innovation and smart port systems. It is currently facing a rapid growth of urban regeneration. The Floating Farm sits in the Merwehaven area or M4H in the Port of Rotterdam. Highlighted below are the natural site conditions that determined the placement of the masterplan parts according to their function. Bamboo growing pods are placed southwards of the port to block the winter wind while allowing the summer winds from the west to navigate through.
I found it was important for me to look at the natural environment in these waters. I focused on the solar gains, the wind direction and tidal changes that could be used in aspects of the design. The Port of Rotterdam is the world largest exporter for vegetables and food, so I also looked at surrounding city farms that could relate to the project. It also houses the Floating Farm which we visited during our studio trip. In 2007, Rotterdam announced its ambition to become 100% climate-proof by 2025 despite having 80% of its land underwater, therefore it was important to look at the flood risk and tidal change. The Merwehaven area in Rotterdam seems to have an average tidal change of 2 metres which I thought could be taken advantage of in a mechanical system mentioned previously.
What is Azolla?
As part of the Botanical Studies part of our brief, I came across a wonder fern plant called Azolla.Azolla is a minuscule floating plant that forms part of a genus of species of aquatic ferns, also known as Mosquito Fern. It holds the world record in biomass producer – doubling in 2-3 days. The secret behind this plant is its symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing cyanobacterium Anabaena making it a superorganism. The Azolla Provides a microclimate for the cyanobacteria in exchange for nitrate fertiliser. Azolla is the only known case where a symbiotic relationship endures during the fern’s reproductive cycle and is passed on to the next generation. They also have a complimentary photosynthesis, using light from most of the visible spectrum and their growth is accelerated with elevated CO2 and Nitrogen.
I decided to look into the carbon sequestration of Azolla. I looked at how much azolla I would need to grow to become carbon neutral. Azolla is capable of producing natural biofertiliser, bioplastics because of its sugar contents and biofuel because of the large number of lipids. Its growth requirements can accommodate many climates too, allowing it to be classified as a weed in many countries. I was able to study the necessary m2 of growing Azolla to sequester the same amount as my yearly CO2 emissions, resulting in 57% of a football field equivalent of growing Azolla to make me carbon neutral
I contacted the Azolla Research Group at the University of Utrecht and they kindly accepted to give us a tour of their research facilities, providing us with an in-depth insight into the aquatic fern. I also decided to approach the Floating Farm with a proposal for using Azolla in their dairy process. They agreed to explore this and I put them in contact with the research team in the University of Utrecht, who are now cooperating with the dairy farm’s team in decreasing the carbon emissions of the cows on the farm.
Why is this useful? Climate change will inevitably bring more adverse climate conditions that will put many worldwide crops at risk and, as a consequence, will affect our lives. A crop that produces biomass at the speed of Azolla provides at advantage in flexibility: a soya bean can take months to grow until ready to be harvested, Azolla can be harvested twice a week. This plant has the potential to be used in the larger agricultural sector and diminish the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of one of the most pollutant sectors.
The Floating Azolla District consists of a proposed community that emphasises a circular economy with a focus on sustainable agriculture in Rotterdam. It builds on to the existing Floating Farm found in the M4H area. It is formed of :
Following the brief, I focused on the circular economy of the Masterplan, looking to close loose ends and try to accomplish a self-sustaining community that maximised what it had, similar to the Biosphere 2.
The production facility concentrates on research and development into Azolla as well as retrieving the water fern’s byproducts such as bioplastics extracted from the sugars; biofuel, from the lipids; and bamboo plywood lumber for the construction of the expanding Floating District. Once construction has ceased for the masterplan, they will be used for maintenance for the proposal and as a FabLab for the local residents.
The Floating Farm
The Floating Farm which continues to produce dairy products and a Bamboo growing area to maintain the upkeep of floating platforms and construction of new dwellings.
Bamboo growing pods
The bamboo growing pods are the structural backbone for this proposal. By growing the bamboo on floating pods, this would allow continuous storage of bamboo to be used in the construction of the floating rafts, and proposed developments as well as sequestering more CO2 in the process.
floating rice paddies
proposed Dwellings / azolla farming
This section concentrates on the detail construction of the Azolla-Dwellings. These floating units are designed to be used as a combination of co-housing for entrepreneurs working in the Rotterdam Innovation District, where the Floating Farm is located, and indoor Azolla growing facilities which is then used further along in the masterplan. The growing areas are built on a series of building components that provide support for trays of Azolla to be grown in a vertical farming manner and provide support for the floor plates as well as anchoring for the entire dwelling.
The materials are a combination of local bamboo grown on a series of floating platforms that prevent the cold winter winds from affecting the overall masterplan and pallets sourced from neighbouring industrial facilities. Using the reciprocal building system developed in Brief 1, a series of stacked components are linked to form the vertical farming support for the Azolla. This system is then extended to support the floors for the dwellings.
Structural support + Azolla Vertical Farming
Similar to an aperture ring on a camera, this mechanism uses the varying tide to automatically collect the Azolla from the vertical farming trays to then be used throughout the Masterplan. By displacing 2.5% of the area for each tray every tidal change, this mechanism collects 50% of the harvest every 10 days allowing for a continuous growth of Azolla.
A series of floating columns support the overall platform based on the previously developed reciprocal structural system developed earlier. This provides support for the flooring and the integrity of the dwellings. They wrap around a series of 3 anchored columns that are inserted into the seaport's bed. The same system is then used to develop the underwater floating columns to allow all proposed structures to float and become buoyant. These are used as underwater columns which allow the dwellings and platforms to float. Each ‘column’ can support a load of 2011Kg.
environmentally responsive facade
The dwellings’ facade is a result of a careful analysis of harmful and beneficial solar radiation. By setting an initial average temperature to monitor, the facade will block the sun that naturally would drive the temperature above the chosen one and the benefits would bring the temperature up. This shading serves a buffer zone that surrounds the internal living spaces and is used to grow vegetables for the residents.
A careful study of wind direction and windloads through Autodesk CFD gave place to a grasshopper script shown next. This provides an organic shape that allows the flow of wind through the masterplan while reducing the pressure on the proposed dwellings.
The internal layout is based on the developed system for Brief 1 as well. This tangential system forms the structure of the dwellings as mentioned previously. Azolla growing is clearly seen to be placed on the vertices of the triangular form due to weight loads. Semi-public spaces are located on the ground floor (open plan kitchen and living) and bedrooms are located on the first floor, surround a central spiral staircase for circulation.