Natural light is one of the most important tools of architecture. It can make spaces feel bigger and more welcoming. It can transform an old, drab looking space into something entirely new. So it’s no surprise that architects are always looking for ways to introduce more natural light into their creations. They are finding new and creative ways of doing so by using composite materials.
It wasn’t too long ago that Apple unveiled a brand-new training and conference center capped off with a translucent roof made of composite materials. The smartphone giant has also started incorporating copious volumes of composites in new store construction. But that is just the start. All over the world, architects are using carbon fiber, glass fiber, and other composite materials to change the way the rest of us use and perceive building spaces.
Glass Walls in Spain
Architecture in Western Europe is undergoing its own composites renaissance right now. Two rather interesting projects are especially impressive, beginning with the recently completed new headquarters of Banco Popular in Madrid. The architectural team hired to design the building planned to use a lot of glass from the get-go.
Engineers and architects worked together on the design for a new auditorium as part of the headquarters. Their vision was to create a space enclosed entirely by glass walls to allow plenty of natural light to move between spaces. But architects were not satisfied with the traditional means of supporting heavy glass panels. They wanted the walls’ support structures to be as invisible as possible.
The task of creating a hard-to-see support structure was not easy. So, what was the solution? Composite support cases installed above and below the glass panels to hold them securely in place. The composites they chose allowed them to fabricate rather large pieces requiring no joints. Moreover, the pieces could be fabricated with an attractive finish.
Now that the auditorium is complete, it is a visually stunning architectural victory. The composite cases weigh just 265 pounds apiece, and they meet all European standards for fire, smoke, and toxicity. They are only slightly visible at the floor and ceiling, leaving the vast majority of glass area free of visual obstructions.
A Translucent Canopy in London
Another great project that opened in 2016 is a bus station in London sporting a translucent canopy similar to what Apple built – but smaller in scale. The building itself has won numerous architectural awards for its aesthetic beauty and structural superiority. According to the architect who designed the bus station, composite materials played a key part in its construction.
The canopy is constructed as a series of sandwich panels made of a translucent composite material. The supports holding the panels in place are also made with a fiberglass composite combined with a proprietary resin. Both supports and panels were assembled into a locking grid that holds everything in place.
The design was chosen in order to make the best use of natural light. However, it wasn’t just about letting light through the roof. Designers specifically called for the sandwich panels to be made of a material that would protect against sun glare and simultaneously mitigate hot spots and solar gain. They got what they asked for.
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that deals in carbon fiber, fiberglass, and other composites, says that architectural applications for composite materials are growing. Architects are coming to realize that composites offer a lot of untapped potential in structural integrity and weight. They are also discovering that composites allow them to pursue natural light in entirely new ways.