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In an ideal world, which materials should we stop using and which materials should we rely on more in future?
Architectural requirements are becoming increasingly complex, not only in relation to the construction of trade fair booths, but numerous different materials are now used to provide all the functions that are needed. Each material provides just one function. In order to reduce environmental impacts, we’ve got to have a radical rethink in this area. We’ve got to free ourselves from engrained, standardised design and construction principles and create new, long-lasting structures which can be recycled, and which use as few resources as possible. This means that materials should no longer be considered without taking account of aspects such as their shape, structure, space requirements and the environment, and we should instead create material systems which through the seamless integration of materials, structure and technology make it possible to build multifunctional, adaptable and also ecologically efficient structures.

We’re all concerned with the issue of sustainability nowadays: what are the most sustainable materials in your opinion?
Everybody talks about sustainability, but the issue is so complicated, and at the moment it’s at best only possible to make judgements about specific comparable products. But architects and engineers have recognised the urgency of this issue, and they are looking for new solutions for reducing the amount of resources used and the amount of waste that is created. In my opinion some of the interesting developments are to do with the production of components that have differing material properties for different functions. Their properties, e.g. hardness, constant change, at least in one dimension. This means that the internal structure of a component is ideally suited to the local requirements, and only the amount of material that is actually needed is used. For example, 3D print technologies can already be used for the production of small-scale, homogeneous, graded structures.

Everyone’s talking about a digitised world, but does digitisation have an effect on the materials that will be used in future?
Today materials like steel are still predominantly used which have a uniform material structure and easily de- „WE‘VE GOT TO HAVE A RADICAL RETHINK.“ Engineering graduate Gundula Schieber of the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design. scribed mechanical properties. This could change in the future due to digitisation. The introduction of computer- assisted planning, simulation and production procedures means that materials with more complex mechanical properties can now also be designed, simulated and manufactured. As already mentioned, this might, for example, enable structures with subtly differentiated grading to be created.

At the institute where you work exciting developments are taking place in relation to bio-based materials. Can you outline for us what the benefits of these materials are?
At the institute we’ve been working for a number of years on the development of bio-based plastics. These bio-plastics combine the advantages of conventional oil-based plastics with those of naturally occurring raw materials. Ideally this will enable self-regenerating raw materials to be used as the basis for developing materials which are easily moulded, and which can be burned or composted once their useful life is over without producing any impact on the climate. Compared to glass, bio-plastics make it possible to produce lightweight transparent components of low thermal conductivity. As in the case of fibre-reinforced plastics, the incorporation of natural fibres will enable the mechanical and thermal properties to be optimised.

So are bio-based materials already suitable for everyday use, and where can they best be used?
For some years now the packaging industry has been exploiting the bio-degradability potential of bio-materials. Foil, disposable cutlery and yogurt containers are already being made from compostable bio-plastics. Due to the ease with which they can be shaped as well as their lightness, bio-based materials are also increasingly being used in the car industry. However, we’ve still got a long way to go before bio-plastics are in everyday use in architecture. And developments in this area always have to be critically examined. Using a self-regenerating raw material doesn’t always lead to a sustainable product.

Your institute’s website talks about intelligent materials, but what exactly are they?
Architecture is subject to continually changing requirements. Both the external climate and users’ wishes are constantly changing over the course of a day or year, or throughout the building’s service life. Nevertheless, most of the structures that we currently build are rigid and immovable. There are only isolated and very simple examples of adaptation, e.g. in the case of movable solar shading louvre systems. However, these systems consist of numerous individual components together with external electrical and mechanical actuators and/or positioning motors. This results in a highly technical system with corresponding maintenance requirements as well as high costs and high levels of energy use for the functionality that is provided. Therefore a key aim of our research is to develop resource-efficient, multifunctional material systems which can be efficiently adapted in line with the changing external conditions and the internal usage requirements.

The theme of our magazine is flexibility: which materials will enable us to become even more flexible in future?
Current materials research shows that with the aid of digital manufacturing methods innovative and adaptable structures can be built from a variety of basic materials. At the institute we’ve already been investigating the potential of fibre-reinforced composite materials in architecture for some years now. Research projects in this area have shown that fibre-reinforced composite materials can be used to develop efficient, sleek and pliable shading systems with built-in pneumatic actuators which can be optimally adapted to suit the sunlight conditions. Whereas conventional systems soon reach their limits when used with complicated facade configurations, these systems are highly adaptable thanks to their parameterised differentiation.

Robots have been used in your projects such as the Elytra Filament Pavilion: what role in the development and use of materials will people still have in future?
Robotic production processes open up completely new opportunities for us. But innovations are only produced in this area if different disciplines work successfully in close collaboration right from the outset. In order to create new structures that are suited to the materials used and adapted to local circumstances, jointly integrated data models and continuous process chains have to be developed. So in future the architect won’t design the final shape anymore, but he will develop processes. In my view the most important point is to see these new technologies as an opportunity and not as something that constrains my creativity.

Assuming that you and your students were able to design a trade fair booth exactly as you wanted to, what might it look like and which materials would you like to use for it?
Our aim is always to use demonstrators to investigate and highlight the innovation potential of new technologies in architecture. In order to break free from engrained structures, we often use nature as a source of inspiration. So, in the past a trade fair booth has already been built for the University of Stuttgart in cooperation with Prof. Achim Menges’ Institute (ICD). Industrial robots were used to spin an efficient bio-inspired lightweight structure made of fibre-based composite material with no core. The modular trade fair booth can be packed up into a very small space for transportation, and it can be set up in numerous different designs. The highly differentiated fibre-based composite structure produces a novel and very expressive design which has created a real stir, for instance at the Hanover Trade Fair in 2015.

Ms Schieber, thank you for this interview!

You can find out more about the research work undertaken by Ms Schieber and her colleagues at: www.itke.uni-stuttgart.de.

Excellent references: Engineering graduate Gundula Schieber first „won her spurs“ working in an architects‘ office, and she picked up several architectural awards.