A lesson in history shaping the future

A structure designed and built by a team of architects and engineers at the University of Leeds goes on display today in Barcelona at the Association for Shell and Spatial Structures 2019 conference.

The ECHO shell is a temporary pavilion measuring 3m x 3m x 2m. It gets inspiration from biology and classical Rome, incorporating the latest research in structural engineering. It can be easily manufactured, assembled on-site within a day, just as easily dismantled, and stored in three packing cases. 

Weighing in at 30 kg, less than half the weight of an average man, it demonstrates the potential to create green, low-carbon, and structurally efficient buildings. The materials used to build the ECHO shell, named after the soundwave shape it takes, cost about £400.

Dr Ornella Iuorio, Associate Professor of Architecture and Structures at Leeds, and her research team designed and built the structure. She says modern computing modelling techniques had allowed them to develop ideas for a ‘design for deconstruction’ – so the structure could be easily dismantled and reused. 

Shell structures are able to span large spaces with minimum supports and were used by classical architects and are seen in buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome.

Dr Iuorio says the team used an approach called parametric modelling where algorithms are used to aid the design process, allowing engineers to significantly change aspects of the structure without having to go back and re-draw it. The computer automatically re-calibrates the design.

It speeds up the design process and according to Dr Iuorio, enables more effective manufacturing. The components needed to build the shell are created directly from the digital design, reducing waste.

With the ECHO shell, the components were cut into hexagonal shapes by a CNC lathe from plywood 6 mm thick. Innovative 3-D printed PLA plastic joints were specifically developed to allow quick assembly and disassembly. 

Hexagon structures are found in nature - in honeycombs and in cell walls, for example. 

Dr Iuorio said: “Hexagons fit together neatly and this is a property that has been exploited by nature – you see them in honeycombs and in the structure of some cell walls. When hexagons slot together, they don’t leave any wasted space. 

Computer power is allowing designers to explore the use of geometry in buildings.

She continued:

“Although our model is just 3m x 3m x 2m, in theory, the ECHO shell could be created on a much bigger scale. What we have shown is that a lightweight structure for easily assembly and dismantling can be designed and manufactured quickly.”

It demonstrates how building design coupled with optimization processes and advanced manufacturing techniques can play a part in the circular economy...

“At the same time, it maintains a tradition of building structures that are innovative and aesthetic.”

Dr Iuorio is giving a presentation on the design and manufacture of the ECHO shell at the conference, and delegates will have an opportunity to experience the pavilion.