In Conversation with Jan Brütting

“We might not be able to change the fact that buildings need to be taken down in certain frequency. But we should at least design them for a way to recover components without wasting energy, material, and resources.”

Our second guest is Jan Brütting, PhD. Candidate in the Structural Xploration Lab at EPFL – École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). Jan’s research focuses on reuse of structural components for multiple service lifes with minimal environmental impact, beyond that of the more labor and energy-intensive traditional recycling processes and explores new design methods for resource efficient structural design. Our discussion below talks about the challenges in designing for different service lives and functionality as well as design for disassembly.  

Brütting_portrait_squareYou can check out more about the Structural Xploration Lab and Jan’s research via the links below:

Structural Xploration Lab: http://sxl.epfl.ch

Design of Truss Structures through Reuse: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.istruc.2018.11.006

The reuse of load-bearing components: https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/225/1/012025

Jan Brütting, PhD Linkedin for reference: https://www.linkedin.com/in/janbruetting/ 

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Jan, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about the future of design conference symposium theme this year of design for the people.

Jan Brütting, PhD: Hi Kat, thanks for having me here for this interview and for your very interesting conference. I think it features a very nice topic. I’m glad to be part of it.

Kat: Great. Thanks. In a couple of sentences, could you talk about what you do?

Jan: I’m a trained civil engineer with focus on structural engineering. I studied my bachelor in Germany in Nuremberg and did an internship in a structural engineering firm in Stuttgart. Right afterwards I started my master’s at the University of Stuttgart in Integrative Technologies and Architectural Design Research. In short, that’s called the ITECH program, which is for engineers and architects in particular. And which is focused on research, between the fields of architecture and engineering. Then, I graduated with my masters in 2016 and since the end of 2016, I’m doing my PhD in Switzerland at EPFL  (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) in the Structural Xploration Lab that is headed by Corentin Fivet. It is quite a young lab, also founded in 2016, and part of the faculty of architecture, but also works interdisciplinary between architecture and structural engineering because most of our staff are also trained engineers. So I keep on being in between the two disciplines. The focus of my PhD research is the reuse of structural elements for multiple service lives and explores new design methods for resource efficient structural design.

Kat: Thank you for the summary of your background because it’s great to hear that you’ve got both professional and academic experience and that you find interest in the interface of structures and architecture. Regarding your research, from what I understand from your papers and what we had discussed, your focus is in the reuse of materials and the way to design in which basically extend longevity in the lifecycle of materials and structures. Could you talk to me a little bit about what the theme designed for the people means to you in that context?

Jan: First, I’d like to briefly clarify my research. Sometimes reuse of materials could imply, for example, the process of recycling. So when you want to reuse the material, you could melt it or crush it like it’s done for steel and concrete. But I’m actually focusing on the reuse of components and in particular structural components. This is where you try to avoid doing this [extra] step to reprocess the material again, but instead reuse a component or an element or a structural member in the state as it is. So you can avoid, the energy for melting the steel member or crushing the concrete, and instead just use it in its current shape, of course, given that it’s still in a good condition.

But coming back to your question about the theme design for the people, because it’s related to my research, it makes me think about designing for multiple service lives and for multiple lifespans. So designing not only for one structure in particular or for a building to last for one lifespan or for one owner, but instead to think of more than one lifes of a building or a structure… designing even for the next life cycle. How can we design something today that we could also reuse it in the future because the needs are changing, owners are changing, people are changing, so nothing lasts forever. We need to think of smart ways on how to design today for future life cycles.

Kat: You also hit a good point in that when we say design for the people, we also need an understanding about what they want to use the structure for. When a building is built, it has an intended purpose. An institution such as a hospital will be built by the client who will also imagine to be the owner and operator for the building for its useful life. However, for say a commercially developed building for an office, you wouldn’t be able to convert the commercial building to say like a hospital or a school because the loading requirements would be different. The safety requirements would be different. However, I think it’s interesting that if we were to be able to plan that or take that into account, it could also ask important questions about sustainability and also being able to just reuse the structure itself. What challenges do you think are the most important or the most pressing to consider in the idea of designing a structure that can be adapted for different uses?

Jan: As you said, there’s maybe an issue of reliability. You’d need to be able to design the structure in a way that you can adapt, reconfigure it, and then find a new owner for the system.

Kat: So, have the owner package their building: hey, this is what my building is designed for. If there’s another building owner and operator who could be interested in taking the same structure, basically the responsibility becomes a collaboration between the existing owner and the new owner.

Jan: Yes. And how can we make sure that the system still functions under the new load cases. We also look for other alternatives, how we can design structures today such that we can ensure that with very little adaptations, we can make the structure sound also for higher loads. Or take away those elements if lower loads are more appropriate. This way, we do not oversize the structure, but have modular and flexible designs where elements could be replaced, depending on the needs.

Kat: That’s a great idea. Because that in a way, if there are opportunities to develop a new nomenclature of buildings that basically centers on a base building with removable parts, and then these buildings can share these elements, including those for reinforcement.  The result: we’d have several different iterations of building configurations can be used.

Speaking about different components that come together, could you speak a bit about your project in using discarded ski’s to create a pavilion?

Jan: Sure, this pavilion structure, which is a grid shell made from about 200 skis was a rather academic and educational project, done together with other researchers from the lab as well as students. We wanted to build a small pavilion structure that was showcased at EPFL and at the Biennale in Lyon (France). The idea was to design a nice structure and shape from discarded material. And because being in Switzerland, there are just too many pairs of skis thrown away every year because they are kind of a fashion product. Every two or three years, people buy new skis because, there’s new models or new colors and then the old ones get thrown away. So there was this high availability of skis, which actually are a very nice building material for our case. They are highly engineered products perfectly suited for bending because they are very flexible, but strong.

This came together with the idea to build an actively bent grid shell structure, which means you build a flat grid, in this case of skis, and then you move the support points inwards to get a doubly curved shape. The skis permitted a lot of bending and very small curvature radii. From an educational and academic perspective, this pavilion provided an opportunity to make something from components that would be thrown away. Maybe this is not directly applicable to building structures, but from the conceptual side, it was interesting to show that with engineering creativity, you can come up with solutions that you might not directly expect.

Kat: I think that’s really quite elegant: there are surprising ways you can use engineering in creative way that you can repurpose a material with minimal energy to create a new space. It creates a place.

At a higher level, I think one of the greatest challenges in the topic we talked about earlier for designing one building for multiple lifetimes is the time-consuming code writing and legislative barrier for making that building nomenclature common place. So, last question to bring it back to that first topic, what do you think can help make this sort of design for multiple life cycles with minimal components a reality?

Jan: This research maybe is most applicable for shorter lifespans. Instead of designing for a single, very long, lifespan of a building, we could design for a string of shorter life spans, but make sure that our buildings and structures can be taken apart again very easily without destruction. So we can easily disassemble our structures and systems and recover the components again. They could be used somewhere else. We might not be able to change the fact that buildings need to be taken down in certain frequency. But we should at least design them for a way to recover components without wasting energy, material, and resources. The term for this is “design for disassembly” and already a big topic within circular building design.

Kat: That’s great to hear your thoughts on how by integrating the disassembly methodology into the design, we can extend the usefulness of buildings or components with minimal energy wastage. Thanks for your time today!

Jan: Thank you. Thank you for the call and for organizing all this. It’s great to be a part of the symposium.

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