Flat to functional - origami engineering and the folded built environment

Author: Ashley Kacha

Date published

22 May 2020

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Flat to functional - origami engineering and the folded built environment

Date published

22 May 2020


Ashley Kacha


Ashley Kacha

Ashley Kacha discusses the potential of folded elements to significantly reduce cost and carbon in construction.

Folding is an action that each one of us undertakes multiple times a day, if not hour. The process is so embedded in our daily lives that we seldom notice the inherent properties we are imbuing into the item we fold.

When we fold clothes or fabrics, we turn large, flat sheets of material into smaller and thus more manageable items which can be easily stored, stacked or transported.

The art of folding clothes for portability and space management is never more important than when we are travelling. None of us would ordinarily ever imagine transporting a week’s worth of clothes as flat unfolded garments.

Still, this is what we do in structural engineering: Precast beams and steel sections are transported in large quantities to construction sites in their three-dimensional and often irregular (not easily packed) forms. The result? Wasted space, limitations on numbers of items that can be carried and difficulty in manoeuvring the elements into place.
Metamaterial properties

If you’ve ever held a folded piece of paper, you’ll have realised that the properties (namely stiffness) of the material are drastically different to the flat ‘stock’ sheet. This can be thought of as a ‘meta’ property of the paper.

Metamaterial properties are not born of the crystal structure of the metal, or the grain of the timber, but instead are properties of the geometry and distribution of material. Stiffness or controlled flexibility, control of failure, shear or bending strength and so on. This terminology is applied usually at a very small scale but we can co-opt the idea to demonstrate how foldability or crease patterns can be thought of as a meta-property.

We already manipulate properties in the design of structural sections, but an I-section, or H-section isn’t always the best for say, torsion. So we also have hollow sections – circular and others.

This is basic geometric manipulation of a section. On a larger scale, we manipulate schemes to better suit structural layouts for efficiency, but moving in the other direction – down to a smaller level we can use carefully planned folding to create geometric mechanical advantage for structural members.

Naturally, if you’ve ever worked with composite construction, you’re likely well aware of the folded sheet metal deck that forms the tension flange of a slab. These span a certain distance depending on the depth and thickness of the sheet.

From big to small

If we were to carefully design elements to be folded on-site in a controlled manner, we could transport bulk sheet materials in the form of timber panels with designed hinges, or sheet steel with thinned section in areas where we wish to bend them.

When loaded, a sheet of steel would then fold into a pre-determined ‘service geometry’ in the same way a precambered beam controls deflections.

The advantage to this is that the axial loading of a sheet would cause out of plane bending, and designed carefully can serve to strengthen such a structural element against the design loads.
From small to big

The opposite is true as well. Where complex geometries prevent easy stacking or packing of elements, with careful design such elements could in fact be ‘factory folded’ for unfolding on-site. Perhaps though a similar loading operation, this time through tension.

In this way, long steel columns could be packed into a fraction of their final length, erected more easily and tensioned to force plastic deformation until the design geometry is reached.
Design methods

The possibilities are far too numerous for a short article, and in fact there is a wealth of research available on such topics in the realm of deployable and adaptive structures. However the aim of this piece is to provide further insight into to the power of computational design methods.

Physics simulations have never been more accessible than they are today. With a desktop computer we can model the actions of complex non-linear systems and the post-buckling behaviour of structural members.

Computational design tools now allow the generation and simulation of folding patterns. While the manufacturing of such items is still somewhat difficult, we as structural engineers have a responsibility to both the ideals of design, and the climate to push the boundaries of the products and services available on the market.

Folded elements have the potential to significantly reduce cost and carbon and we should leverage the power of digital engineering and simulation tools to manifest design ideals within the build environment.

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