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Sensible Design Turning Tradition on its Head

“In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”  
R. Buckminster-Fuller

SURI Design - Designing a Way to Better Solutions

Every manufactured or constructed object is the product of Design, not magic, not automatic, but the product of human thought. The construction of the built environment, the way it is experienced in place, and what happens to it when it gets old is entirely influenced and determined by Design. 

Housing throughout many countries of the world is dominated by lightweight timber frame construction. While convenient and ‘traditional’, it has proven in most cases to be the building method most vulnerable to damage and rapid degradation by the forces of nature.

Incremental improvements in timber construction methods have attempted to mitigate durability problems as they arise, however the methodology is still based on aged and arguably outdated philosophies, with contemporary justification primarily built upon the renewable characteristics trees. This building tradition continues even though brittle lightweight timber-based housing is frequently observed decaying from moisture, burning in bushfire and being torn apart in powerful winds and seismic activity.

Human comfort and health can be difficult to reliably achieve in many examples of timber based housing. Warming and cooling of spaces is in most cases reliant on excessive consumption of energy, and dampness and mould are a constant threat to human health. In addition, many toxic substances are impregnated into timber products to slow natural organic degradation. Even though certain new technologies have been developed to increase building 'efficiency', they ignore the basic characteristics of the materials and products.

The added complexities applied to most timber-based housing to mitigate its inherent fragility has contradicted much of its intended simplicity. It has increased costs and ultimately limited affordability. These combined factors suggest that timber framed construction as a system can be argued as being at or near the very end of its reasonable development cycle.

A better solution is required and a different approach to the problem of domestic building is essential. 

Stopping, thinking about and deeply questioning construction processes and the materials used is an opportunity to explore alternatives in the way we approach the design and construction of above-ground development. But to effectively find new alternatives requires looking at the entire building beyond just ‘design and construction’. It requires a ‘Whole Systems Thinking’ approach which frames the entire design and construction process from upstream material and resource selection, to on-site construction practices, to downstream functionality and efficiency, and end-of-life waste integration. This involves analysing each individual stage and evaluating how it affects the preceding step, the next step and the intended completed product. 

The SURI Project has undertaken a process of evaluation and testing of building methods, materials and products against criteria ranging from structural durability and performance to ecological impacts and effects, and to aesthetics, energy efficiency and human comfort. Materials Metabolism, Resource Chains and Cradle-to-Grave/Cradle-to-Cradle ideals have been investigated together with the ecological processes and implications of built environment development over time to inform the development of an authentically achievable model.

The outcome of this ‘Whole Systems Thinking’ approach and detailed evaluation of many modern building methods, the process identified that EPS moulded concrete construction systems (eg. ICF) can immediately deliver significantly better and much higher performing built outcomes and are early in their system development cycle. 

The SURI Project is developing optimised EPS-formed concrete construction methodologies that can provide an entirely timber- free and technologically advanced solution for house structure, while also combining the best aspects of modular componentry with on-site assembly. This approach is proving to able to provide a new and open-ended construction method, and with being very early in its development cycle, is capable of adaptively responding to new and emerging technologies as well as satisfying critical energy and durability performance demands over an extended time frame. 

The methodology relies primarily on increasing the use of concrete in housing to not only provide foundations and lower floors but the entire structural shell of the building including walls, suspended floors and roof elements. The novel factor is the transition from conventional domestic framed building methods to a commercial/industrial approach to construction, drawing on the many proven aspects of this type of building appraoch but scaling it in such a way as to be perfect for domestic buildings.

Early Proof of Concept in our previous client-based work has indicated that this method of construction can deliver on the objectives of advanced thermal performance, structural ability, energy efficiency, human health, comfort, and ecological sensitivity, all within an overall Sustainability and Resilience context.

The SURI Project approach to this way of thinking and building is our MAXMASS concept, which directly and elegantly describes both the thinking and the primary material within a system. MAXMASS is what its name suggests– Maximum Mass, ie. Concrete Mass. Continue reading to learn why concrete can provide the ultimate solution.