Living Lab: Thinking Outside the HexBox

Eduardo De Oliveira Barata from the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning talks with SEI Editor Liberty Lawson about computational design, sustainable fabrication and net zero construction.

The completed Hexbox structure. Image by Katherine Lu.

Liberty Lawson: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current work?

Eduardo: I grew up living both in the UK and Portugal and studied architecture in Brighton and London. Upon graduating I began working for a network of architects called Urban Future Organization (UFO). I was teaching at a number of different universities and also working on competitions and several small-scale residential projects with the collective. At the time (mid 2000’s) there was a real buzz around the use of new computation and fabrication tools within architecture and we were pursuing this agenda through both teaching and practice. In 2009 I moved to Sydney to help expand UFO in Australia. Over the following eight years we grew the practice and worked on a wide range of projects, still tring to pursue the same design agenda we have been working on in the UK. At the same time I was teaching in design studios at USYD UTS. In 2017 I started to make a more concerted effort to base myself in the world of academia and set up my own architecture practice BARATA in 2018. Currently I am teaching some of the undergrad studios, I coordinate one of the master’s Digital Architecture Research studios, and also two electives — one of which is called Code to Production, which was the conduit for the HexBox. Through my teaching and practice I aim to embed novel computer-aided fabrication techniques and material technologies to enrich design outcomes. Through these strategies, my objective is to generate pragmatic and performative architectural strategies with the ability to support the fragile environment we inhabit.

Tell us about the HexBox project! How did the project evolve, what are the main benefits of the design, materials and construction process, and what was the inspiration behind it — both in terms of the design and its purpose?

The HexBox is probably the most fun I have had on a project for a while. Typically, within the elective that frames this project, we would teach students to use some of the software we are experimenting with and in small teams they propose a project which they fabricate using our workshop’s seven axis robots. As we only have a week for this elective the outcomes are usually quite limited and don’t provide any tangible research output. This year we decide to flip it on its head and design a substantial structure beforehand that the students could then participate in building and along the way gain knowledge of the design software and fabrication tools at a 1:1 scale.

I had caught up with a friend of mine who I studied with back in London, Christopher Robeller, at a CPD event in Brisbane in October 2018. I had been following the progress of his research over the last few years in innovative timber structures and we talked about working on a project together. I approached our building manager about building a temporary structure on one of the Wilkinson Building terraces and he was very open to the idea. We had to get few things to sign off by the precinct architect and our appointed structural engineer but otherwise it was extremely straightforward. Christopher and I proposed a collaborative design project between USYD and TU Kaiserslautern whereby his students would visit Sydney in August, joining our students for the assembly and construction phase. From around February of this year we began designing the canopy with the assistance of two of Christopher’s research students, Valentino Tagliaboschi and Felix Schmidt-Kleespies.

The canopy is based on a funicular shell geometry which essentially achieves and equilibrium state of form through corresponding loads constrained by a given boundary. Typically, these types of structures might use a triangle to form the surface subdivision but, in this case we used a hexagon shape which changed its boundary depending on whether the structure was convex or concave. The timber shell is made exclusively of plywood components without the addition of any kind of metal fasteners for the main load-bearing structure. All the hollow polygonal segments that form the boxes are mitred and glued. Once all of the boxes are assembled it is extremely quick to construct without formwork or prior expert knowledge. For its size (45sqm) the structure is exceptionally lightweight and can easily be disassembled when required.

Image by Katherine Lu

Did you run into any challenges, or learn anything unexpected whilst building the structure?

Actually, the build process was very straightforward. With 1531 timber segments making up 201 boxes the main concern with assembling these was accuracy. As students were making the boxes all that was required was a demonstration as to the method of assembly and away they went. The tricky part of the project was the fabrication. We took some time making sure the robot was calibrated correctly and the pipeline between the plugin we were using ran smoothly. We have an excellent team in our fabrication workshop, Rod Watt and Lynn Masuda, who put in countless hours to make this project happen. The setup, fabrication, labelling and sorting of all the parts took 5 weeks working 9am to 8pm most days, with a total of 103 plywood sheets we were averaging cutting four per day. We were also dealing with millimetre precision, we had to constantly check that what we were cutting was accurate — otherwise the knock-on effect would have been disastrous. The structure went up in a week and finished exactly on the last day so we couldn’t have asked for a smoother build. We were also extremely lucky with the weather.

Are there any other benefits of this particular concept, beyond the utility of the actual structure itself? In terms of fostering collaboration, encouraging sustainable thinking, providing flexible short and long term community shelters and so on..?

This was a great example of collaboration between two universities. We had a clear idea and goal and we committed to delivering on it. The students gained a huge insight into the digital design and fabrication process as well as all the work it takes to build a structure of this scale. For the master students whose studio this terrace connects to, the canopy now provides a space which they can use for the entire day providing shading from the sun and rain and respite from their computers. Given we need to have sustainability at the forefront of any project we do we were also mindful as to the materials we were using. Although we have used plywood sheeting and attempted to minimise waste, there was still a considerable number of offcuts and sawdust produced by the robot cutting. Some of these offcuts were used for the connectors but as the plywood contains glue these cannot be recycled. With a bigger budget we be able to afford a more sustainable product with natural glues.

The Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning has long been a champion of sustainable design. Are there any other ways in which the faulty is responding to and innovating sustainable practices?

Sustainable design and practice are embedded in everything we teach. We have a core master’s studio which focuses on sustainability which all students take so they are acutely aware of the issues. With my digital research studio, students develop design strategies to combat some of the wicked problems that our communities and infrastructure will be tackling over the next few decades and attempt to mitigate these shocks and stresses through new forms of building and material systems. Faculty members have also recently signed the open letter declaring their moral duty to rebel against the federal government’s inaction on the climate crisis. Within our capacity as designers of the built environment we need to be designing buildings with give back more than they take. Net zero buildings should be our minimum standard.

Eduardo De Oliveira Barata is a registered architect in NSW, holds a lecturer position in the Faculty of Architecture Design and Planning at the University of Sydney and is the director of B A R A T A. Eduardo joined Urban Future Organization (UFO) in 2005, a collective of self-organised architecture studios sharing common design strategies in practice and academic discourse. Since then, Eduardo has worked on award winning projects internationally and has continued his experimental design work since his move to Sydney with particular emphasis on embedding novel computer-aided fabrication techniques and material technologies to enrich design outcomes. Eduardo’s research and practice background translates to the discussion of salient and current issues in architecture in his teaching, particularly relevant to the Digital Architecture Studio, where he believes invention comes about via the recombination and hybridisation of existing modes of practice with new materials, technology, tools and techniques. His expertise is further valued in his contribution to several research grants.

The Living Lab Series aims to highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus, and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years. Each month we will sit down with researchers, teachers, students and campus staff to celebrate these incredible achievements and learn how we can continue to do more.