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By: Scott Cline on December 20th, 2017

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Architecture Schools are Designing Material Innovation

For Undergraduates | Architecture Majors

Architectural design is a collective experiment. Designing Material Innovation, an outdoor exhibition at California College of the Arts (CCA), hypothesizes a future with radically different notions of material, fabrication, and design. Artifacts are interactive. Sculptures are upcycled. Prototypes are shelters and data machines at once.  

The exhibition lives within an even larger (award-winning) public landscape: confetti urbanism. Colorful flecks, ribbons, and other shapes appear as though scattered across the CCA Back Lot, a space students use for building and displaying art. Clark Thenhaus, the exhibition designer and artist behind confetti, is also a CCA professor and director of Endemic, an architecture firm in San Francisco that rethinks existing forms through the lenses of materiality, history, culture, and digital fabrication.  

Bird's eye view of exhibition on CCA's backlot.jpgExhibition on CCA Back Lot. Photo: Maggie Beasley

“Each emerged from collaboration,” writes Jonathan Massey, exhibition curator, in his introduction to the five prototypes.¹ Former CCA architecture dean and the current dean of architecture and urban planning at Taubman College, Massey is a proponent of design that regulates consumption and shapes social relationships. Interdisciplinary dialogue among engineers, ecologists, architects, fabricators, chemists, and architecture colleges is critical, he says, to strategic form-making.

Further reading: New approaches to material, fabrication, and design on display at CCA’s “Designing Material Innovation” Archinect 

Polymorph Pavilion

Polymorph, one of two pavilions in the exhibition, is an ongoing project led by the CCA Digital Craft Lab (DCL). Dedicated to “advanced research in architectural design, digital fabrication, material science, data visualization and robotics,” the DCL routinely works with industry partners on issues of sustainability.² In this case, students collaborated with a leading composites fabricator, Kreysler & Associates, to divert waste from landfills.

Casting shell for Polymorph Pavilion.jpgPolymorph Pavilion visualization. Photo:

Upcycling & Robotic Fabrication

EPS foam is lightweight, strong, and rigid, making it ideal for a range of building applications. Its greatest strength, however, is also its greatest weakness: environmental persistence. It does not biodegrade (anytime soon).

By attaching a hot-wire cutter to a robotic arm, CCA students re-milled foam waste from Kreysler into 502 building blocks for their pavilion.³ Their approach to “second life-materiality,” which will create a sheltered space for casting concrete and plaster, invites viewers to “consider the future of building waste in a visceral way.”⁴ Polymorph is in media res—exposed, celebratory, and rife with possibility.   

Real-World Process & Iteration

Polymorph presents students with challenges beyond the purview of most architecture degrees. They oversee every aspect of the design/build, from prototyping to supply chain management, and they collaborate with multiple generations of experts across industries.  

Early tabletop prototype of Polymorph Pavilion.jpgEarly tabletop prototype. Photo: Maggie Beasley

The six-legged shell began as a series of small tabletop prototypes. Students, led by CCA professors Aaron Willette, David Shook, and Andrew Kudless (also the founder and director of MATSYS), modeled and assembled numerous forms based on their advanced studio research. Using EPS foam from Kreysler’s mold-making process, they tested various contraptions to build a full-scale prototype, improvising and iterating along the way.  

Foam building blocks and high-gloss red polyurea-1.jpgFoam building blocks and high-gloss red polyurea. Photo: Maggie Beasley

To create a strong, weatherproof seal, the team coated the foam building blocks with polyurea. The resulting structural skin—in high-gloss redforms a lightweight and sustainable composite material.⁵   

Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab

The second CCA project drew inspiration from a post-Hurricane Sandy competition: Rebuild by Design. Initiated by former president Barack Obama, the competition called for innovative solutions to rising sea levels, including floating homes, liveable breakwalls, and other resilient structures. Design experts, scientists, and architecture colleges rose to the challenge with multifaceted solutions.   

Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab, built by the CCA Digital Craft Lab-1.jpgBuoyant Ecologies Float Lab on the Back Lot. Photo: Adam Marcus

Buoyant Ecologies is a result of three years of applied research in the CCA Digital Craft Lab. Championing collaboration and sustainable design, the team, led by architecture professors Adam Marcus, Margaret Ikeda, and Evan Jones, worked closely with Kreysler and the Benthic Lab at Moss Landing to build a structure that helps prevent coastal erosion while stabilizing the ecosystem.  

Resilient, Interdisciplinary Design

CCA joins the ranks of other architecture schools in the Bay Area to address climate issues with ethical and resilient design prototypes. The float’s two polymer hulls, which are conjoined like a clamshell, are made from a polymer composite reinforced with fiber. Developed in collaboration with Kreysler, the composite is eco-friendly and has various surface topographies.⁶

Top hull photography.jpgTop hull topography. Photo: Maggie Beasley

Top hull collecting dew and rainwater in watershed pools.jpgPools of dew/rainwter on top hull. Photo: Adam Marcus

The top hull’s bumps and ridges create intertidal or terrestrial habitats by channeling rainwater into watershed pools. This floating island is simultaneously a home and research station. Varying peaks and valleys beneath the surface also provide habitats for invertebrates.

Students collaborated with the Benthic Lab to test substrate prototypes for a liveable hull. Prototypes were installed under water, giving marine ecologists a chance to monitor and measure their ecological performance over time. In partnership with the All Bay Collective, CCA will deploy Buoyant Ecologies in the San Francisco Bay in 2018. Students hope to make the case for a larger system of floating breakwaters that will help restore damaged ecologies and highlight the importance of continued conversation about sustainability. 

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1. “Exhibition and Symposium at California College of the Arts,” Designing Material Innovation, accessed December 8, 2017,

2. CCA Digital Craft Lab homepage, accessed December 8, 2017,

3. Designing Material Innovation

4. Blaine Brownell, “How Material Experimentation Can Go Well and Go Wrong,” Architect Magazine, November 16, 2017,

5. Designing Material Innovation

6. Designing Material Innovation

About Scott Cline

Dr. Scott Cline is vice president of enrollment at California College of the Arts, where he leads the financial aid and undergraduate admissions offices. He has worked at CCA for over six years, previously as director and associate director of financial aid.


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