How One Small Studio Took on a Design Challenge that Electrified Volvo

by Daniel O'Donnell
- Jul 9 2014 - 7 min read
Mosca Partners

To be truly innovative, you must embrace risk. In the world of architecture, Alvin Huang, founder and lead engineer at the Los Angeles-based studio Synthesis Design + Architecture, explained there’s very little room in the practical space for risk.

And you would think that making Time magazine’s Techland list of Top 25 Inventions of 2013—for the studio’s innovative Pure Tension – Volvo V60 Pavilion electric car-charging station—would provide a little bit of leeway.

But being a small-business owner with clients who have specific desires means you have to actively search for or make the opportunities that allow you to explore the limits of your creativity in designing full-scale structures, facades, interiors, installations, furniture, and products. Huang made it a central tenet of his studio’s overall philosophy that he and his team will push the boundaries of what’s expected and possible in building design and engineering.

Cosmopolitan Beginnings

Huang is a product of an international, multicultural education and career. A graduate of the University of Southern California School of Architecture and a Master of Architecture and Urbanism degree recipient at the Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory in London, Huang assumed positions as lead designer at Zaha Hadid Architects and Future Systems, and subsequently served as director at Amanda Levete Architects.

Not bad company to keep. So why did he venture out on his own?

“It’s the dream scenario for every designer,” Huang says. “It’s always been on my mind in terms of practicing architecture.”

A key aspect was confidence. As director at ALA, he was in charge of several projects and was able to develop lasting relationships with clients. Another source of motivation was winning the AADRL 10 Pavilion competition in 2008 with “[C]Space,” which he says launched his career. This shell-shaped concrete pavilion had been on display in Bedford Square, London to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the AADRL Graduate Design Program until it was auctioned off and sold to a buyer in Singapore later in the year.

He was recruited by several architectural schools and ultimately assumed a position at his alma mater, the USC School of Architecture, where he’s currently a tenure-track assistant professor specializing in digital craft and technology in design.

“Being tied to academia helps not only in terms of aligning ourselves with the most forward-thinking discussions and advanced research that’s happening in design, but also the financial stability it offers in having a steady paycheck,” Huang says.

The international influence of Huang’s education and professional career can be seen in the five-person SDA roster. Staff members have been raised and trained in the UK, Canada, Denmark, Portugal, China, Jordan, Iran, and Taiwan.

“L.A. is a place that imports talent and exports ideas,” Huang explains. Interpretation and intuition are both culturally ingrained and help inform a more diverse approach to design.

A Bridge Between Theory and Practice

The Pure Tension Pavilion is a perfect example of the way technology—and digital design software in particular—has become inseparable from the collaborative process. SDA got the project off the ground by submitting its proposal to the 2013 Switch to Pure Volvo Architecture Contest sponsored by Volvo Italia and The Plan magazine. As a free-form structure, the Pure Tension Pavilion would function as a solar-powered charging station and act as a visual complement that showcased the design of the Volvo V60 plug-in diesel hybrid at trade shows and open-air venues in public squares in Italy.

The contest asked entrants to design an iconic structure that was light, portable, and easily collapsible. However, the design soon ran into complications.

design challenges
Them Too Productions

“At the time of the competition, the initial design had a free-form perimeter that required a few hundred radii, which would have cost SDA significantly more time and money in paying the manufacturer to recalibrate for the different radii,” Huang explains.

By reducing the design to five radii and decomposing them into 24 pieces, the perimeter is able to fit into the trunk of the car.

It’s a series of three-inch aluminum tubes that have been CNC—or computer numeric control—bent into fixed radiuses and have narrowed tips so that each piece slides into the next with a sex bolt connection, kind of like the way you set up a tent.

“Each piece of the frame is roughly four-and-half-feet long, so they fit into a 60-inch case,” Huang details. “And they’re all numbered in a sort of bicycle-chain sequence so you know how to assemble it. Basically, you twist each piece together until the two notches align and place the bolt in.”

Additionally, there are two separate pieces of the tensile mesh membrane that house flexible photovoltaic panels that fit together.

“We have a neoprene sleeve with a zippered connection that slides over the perimeter frame, and the two polymesh pieces of fabric zip together down the middle,” Huang explains.

design challenges
Them Too Productions

The idea of tension is drawn from the fact that the tensile membrane is working to minimize the space it takes up by pulling inward while the precambered aluminum frame is trying to push outward. In other words, the supporting structure is just outside of the final shape it’s going to take. Then the mesh skin that zips onto it pulls it in tight, and once the membrane is attached, these achieve equilibrium and create a 150-pound freestanding structure.

3D as a Lingua Franca

The Time magazine-honored project is the amalgamation of a digital approach that’s forward-thinking but ultimately constrained by material reality. Using Autodesk AutoCAD 2012 for 2D documentation, Maya for low poly-mesh modeling, and Ecotect Analysis for solar incident studies, Huang collaborated with multiple partners to bring Pure Tension to life.

“We’re all speaking a common language, though, which is 3D,” Huang says. “The software we use comes about as a result of the task at hand, and has less to do with the scale of the project than what we’re trying to achieve.”

Working with L.A.-based Buro Happold has been instrumental: “What they’re doing is all of the structural engineering and true form-finding,” Huang explains. “What we’re doing is more of an intuitive design form-finding. They’re validating that by signing off on the engineering and finding out what the true material processes are.”

The back-and-forth between SDA and Buro Happold consisted of 3D files—for instance, mesh topologies for the membrane—and geometric analyses to refine the design before bringing the fabricators at Fabric Images in Chicago on board.

Through a series of face-to-face meetings and Skype conference calls, SDA acted as the central communication hub to make sure everyone was on the same page. More than sharing PDFs and sketches, each party exchanged 3D files and 2D drawings to rationalize and optimize the design for fabrication.

Coordinating the effort was no small task as the project gathered steam. Among all of them—solar engineering firm FTL Solar, photovoltaic panel provider Ascent Solar, Seam Design for lighting design, Fabric Images, Buro Happold, and Volvo—there was a common goal of bringing the pavilion to life.

Ichiro Sugioka, chief technology scientist at the Volvo Concept Center, was the primary resource providing SDA and company with charging requirements for the Volvo V60. With FTL Solar and Fabric Images, SDA worked closely with Volvo to ensure the pavilion’s photovoltaic arrangement met the car company’s specifications.

At the same time, they overcame the very real problem of charging electric vehicles—the cars get hot very quickly, especially when they’re sitting under the sun. Because of the pavilion’s design, it shades the car as it absorbs the solar energy delivered through the photovoltaic panels embedded in the mesh membrane.

design challenge
Them Too Productions

Autodesk Ecotect Analysis played a distinct role in making sure the pavilion functioned as efficiently as possible. Because the structure is portable, SDA had to calibrate the solar panels to absorb sunlight from any location on earth during an eight-hour period for each day of the year. In performing this solar incidence analysis, the team was able to recognize and map which parts of the skin would have the greatest opportunity to absorb sunlight.

Because of its efforts, SDA was awarded the AIA Los Angeles Design Awards, NEXT LA Award, and the Autodesk Small Business Success Award for innovation and excellence in design.

Aptly named, Synthesis Design + Architecture is a space unlike most design practices. It combines the dynamic discourse of academia with progressive designs that are ushering in a post-digital era, where AutoCAD and other technology is assumed rather than explicitly discussed.

If you want to see or hear more from Alvin Huang, he will be co-chairing the 2014 ACADIA Conference in Los Angeles, which deals with computation in design and architecture. And for greater insight into the power of BIM, read on.



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