Back to school at 40-something! The Structural Bay

Beaudin Structure

This week we were presented with a different kind of project than we’re used to. All classes were suspended so that we’d have sufficient time to research, conceive, model, test and build a structure of interest. One that would weigh little, but carry as much weight as possible. The assignment required that the structure be at a scale of 1:5, span three metres and adhere to the condition that no single member (beam, column…) could be longer than 40 centimetres. We were divided into ten groups of five or six students.

We were instructed to create individual concepts and as a group select the one we wanted to build. Two very different approaches emerged. The first, which was my favourite, involved tensegrity (tensional integrity). A system where cables in continuous tension hold in place, without any connections, members in discontinuous compression (see link below). However, we chose the second approach, which was a folded plate structure based on the principles of origami (see link below), because we collectively felt it was more intuitive or so we thought.

Days went into researching and modeling and testing. Attempt after attempt failed to deliver the results we wanted. Random breakthroughs generated exuberant highs that were all too often quickly dashed with the disappointment of yet another new hurdle to overcome. Hoping daily, but as it turned out fruitlessly, for an inspired epiphany, we occasionally wavered and considered abandoning our choice and selecting something new. But that ever ticking clock meant that for better or worse, we had to stay the course we’d chosen.

We finally came up with a structure we thought would work, selected our materials and, on schedule, began the actual build. We used corrugated polycarbonate (plastic) sheets for its firm yet lightweight quality and chose duct tape to connect the pieces. In the end duct tape would be our downfall. The tape, although good in tension was abysmal in compression. It simply would not lock the system in place as we had hoped. The structure would not as required, carry any reasonable amount of weight; reinforcement was necessary. We quickly hot glued 196 small triangles between 268 panels; key panels were doubled and footings reinforced which contributed greatly towards solidifying the build. We debated adding cables and additional supports, but decided against it in the end, or we would end up actually compromising the integrity of what was meant to be a folded plate structure. As presentation day rolled around, we were hopeful, but understood all too well the strengths and weaknesses of our construct and reluctantly accepted the possibility that it might not behave very well.

Final result – we placed ninth out of ten groups, borderline laughable when you consider some of the comparisons between the winning group and ours. Grading was based on four categories, cost, self-weight, load and idea/elegance. The winning structure cost $5.59, weighed 13 lbs and held 50 lbs. – our structure cost an outrageous $180, weighed 19 lbs, held 60 lbs.

The winning structure.

I cannot say I was not disappointed – mind you, we do manage to save face and take some consolation in that our structure was considered by many to be the most aesthetically pleasing. Putting wounded pride aside, I choose to focus on the true purpose of the assignment, which was to learn and learn I did. Lessons I know will be put to very good use in the future.

Meet the Structural Bay team:

Chris, 20
Calgary, Alberta
About: as steady as he is long, at 6’4” he is one of the tallest students in our class. Dedicated and motivated he is the kind of self-starter you want on your team.

Tao, 23
Chang Chun, China
About: sweet, charming and playful as all things Hello Kitty or so I thought. She is smart and driven. When she has an idea get out of her way!

Kevin, 27
Calgary, Alberta
About: never met anyone as into or knowledgeable about MacDonald’s restaurant. This may only be surpassed by his push for creative twists and his healthy, productive curious drive.

Geoff, 27
Ottawa, Ontario
About: expect the unexpected, he regularly manages to surprise and stupefy by pulling things together in the final moments.

Natalia, 27
Santiago, Chile
About: previously introduced in the blog of May 31. It is her appreciation for the art of origami that moved us to build the folded plate structure.

By Réjean Beaudin