Sunday, July 27, 2014

We need faster, cheaper, (hurricane proof) housing—and I have this thing about domes. Blame Buckminster Fuller. Now meet architect Nicoló Bini.

Unlike traditional low-cost, temporary disaster relief shelters, Binishells are intended to be permanent fixtures. The technique is speedy and, according to Bini, costs start at just $3,500.

I grew up in big old houses in Ireland. Such ‘Big Houses’ were a  feature of my (fast fading) class, the Anglo-Irish. They looked good, had well proportioned rooms, separate servants’ quarters, normally came with land (our house in Bray had five acres) and frequently featured large walled gardens, orchards, horse paddocks, and the like.

They were also near impossible to heat at an economic cost—and were impractical in more ways than I have space to list. However, the features I recall most were dry rot and damp—which, somehow, never seemed to be eradicated.

I thought all of this was normal for a long time because I was rarely exposed to any other kind of house—but when I hit puberty, and found the tie I had planned to wear for a date was covered in green mold—decided there had to be a better way.

Yes, males really did wear ties on teenage dates in those days—and horse-drawn carts were still a feature of Dublin traffic. I kid you not.

My epiphany came when I went to Germany and encountered a sash window that didn’t rattle, but closed with a satisfying clunk—and doors that fitted tightly, and didn’t let in drafts.

Good grief! There really was a better way. How had these people lost the war!

From then on I collected houses (so to speak) and, over time, came to the conclusion that there were endless better ways—and less expensive ways of building—but that too much money was at stake for radical alternatives to be tried. In fact, they were mostly sidelined through ignorance, inertia, zoning, insurance restrictions, mortgage technicalities, and other techniques. Housing was much more about money than shelter—and, sadly, it still is. If we really wanted to house everybody more than adequately in energy efficient, comfortable, dwellings, we have the technology and resources to do it with relative ease. But those who control the levers of power do not.

That hasn’t stopped me thinking about alternatives—and the following showed up in that marvelous magazine, Wired.

Here is an extract. Read on.

Each Binishell starts as a two-dimensional shape on the ground, ringed by a wooden form into which an air bladder, reinforcing steel rebar, and a load of concrete is placed. As the concrete sets, an air pump fills the bladder and a concrete dome begins to rise from the Earth. An hour later, the concrete has hardened, the bladder is deflated, removed for reuse, and the building’s soaring shell is ready for inspection and interior construction. The concept is bizarre, combining a building material from the time of Julius Caesar with a Jetsons aesthetic, but the approach has already worked before.

Binishells were pioneered by Dr. Dante Bini, Nicoló’s father, and the first Binishell, which popped up in 1964, is still standing. All told, over 1,600 Binishells have been built in 23 countries across the globe, including gymnasium-sized shells 120 feet in diameter and tiny bubble-shaped bungalows in the developing world. “Binishells have survived even extreme environments—such as the lava, ash and constant earthquakes on Mount Etna—for almost 50 years,” says Nicoló. The younger Bini is reviving the technique as a way to provide low-cost housing for refugees and displaced people, but believes Binishells could be used and to fabricate schools, military bases, sports stadiums and generally provide architects with a cost-effective way to explore convex construction.

Unlike traditional low-cost, temporary disaster relief shelters, Binishells are intended to be permanent fixtures. The technique is speedy and, according to Bini, costs start at just $3,500. A cluster of Binishells might look like a sci-fi film set, but the materials to build one could be found on any job site. “Aside from some special additives, our concrete mix can be sourced locally almost anywhere,” says Bini. “Similarly our reinforcement is the same rebar you find sitting on the shelf of supply stores around the world.”

Binishells could be a compelling alternative to current disaster relief housing which is usually intended to be temporary, often end up as shanty ghettos. Concrete fabrication makes passive solar heating an easy option, reducing drain on strained infrastructure. The domed shape is naturally aerodynamic providing some protection from hurricanes. A gentle curvature and low roof height allow green roofs to be planted and easily tended. “With 25% of the world’s population living in sub-standard shelters, this is where we feel we can have the most impact,” says Nicoló.

I don’t know whether Blinishells—or domes in general—are the answer, but I do believe we should experiment vastly more. Could be fun—and interesting. The primary reasons we don’t right now is because of all the restrictions I have mentioned. Mostly, we have made it legally impossible to stray from the status quo.

 But that’s crazy!

So one might think.

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