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Folds and Fold Plate Structures in Architecture and Engineering

Martin TRAUTZ Professor, Ph.D. Head of Chair, RWTH Aachen, GERMANY

Susanne CIERNIAK scientific assistant RWTH Aachen, GERMANY

M. Trautz, born 1962, received his civil engineering degree (1989) and his PhD (1998) from the University of Stuttgart. Since 2004 he is Head of the Chair of Structures and Structural Design.

S. Cierniak, born 1979, received her engineering degree (architecture) from the RWTH Aachen in 2004. 2004 to 2010 she worked as an architect, since 11/2010 she is scientific assistant.

Folds and folded structures are proven construction principles in nature. Folds and folded structures are also representing a principle of structural morphology to increase the (specific) load-bearing capacity in the field of design and engineering. Nevertheless - it hardly applies until now in architecture and structural engineering, probably due to demanding geometries and complex requirements of the design layout. The authors present the issue of folding by different approaches to examples in nature, foldable plate structures in building and mechanical techniques and to origami. In addition they present application possibilities for rigid folded structures in engineering and architecture. Keywords: folds, folding, folded structures, origami, longitudinal and facetted folding


Potential chances of foldings

To experience the advantages of folded load-bearing structures intuitively first of all an attentive view into the environment is recommended. 1.1 Examples in the environment [1] Flora and fauna use the principle of folding imaginatively. Due to their folded cross-sectional shape palm sheets are more robust, seashells have folded and therefore material-optimized coverings and beetles protect their sensitive wings by in-folding these after each flight. Also in engineering the principle of folding is used. Convertible roofs of cabriolets are in-fold and out-fold. Concerning medical applications stents unfold themselves at their place of final destination. [1] Likewise some examples of foldings are found in architecture and civil engineering, e.g. at construction materials like corrugated sheets and sheet pile walls. [2] Due to the current and in future urgent problem of running out resources of raw materials and rising costs of materials and embodied energy ingenious concepts for minimization of energy and material consumption will significantly gain in importance.

Figure 1. a) palm sheet, b) seashell, c) ladybird with wings spread

Figure 2. sheet pile wall


Examples in architecture

In the 19th and 20th century some folded structures were realized, as concrete folded plate structures and later as geodesic domes in metal or plastic construction. Two examples are shown in Figure 3 and 4: the concrete church in Neuss-Weckhofen from S. Polnyi and F. Schaller, realized in 1969 and the plastic IBM Pavilion from Renzo Piano.

Figure 3. concrete folded plate structure in Neuss-Weckhofen, Polny/Schaller, 1969 (Photo: Beton Atlas)

Figure 4: IBM-Pavilion, Renzo Piano (Photo: Atlas Kunststoffe + Membranen)

These projects are based on two different construction philosophies. [3] The construction on site of the concrete folded plate structure was complicated and needed timeconsuming guidance of the designing engineer. The sheet thickness was just 7cm. Yet, this approach enabled a material saving construction. Besides the architecture deals with the place and gives a special identity. [4] In contrast to this laborious concept the IBM Pavilion was assembled and disassembled various times for a touring exhibition in twenty European cities. In this example folding represents a practicable light-weight construction principle. Despite obvious advantages the application of this load-bearing structure form principle plays a still subordinated roll in contemporary civil engineering and architecture.


Topology und geometric characteristics of folding and folded structures

[5] Surface foldings are structured according to two manners: - As a longitudinal folding with lengthwise and constant edges. Grates and gorges alternate, their processes are not compellingly strictly parallel. They can be curved and scewed, however they do not cut themselves under no circumstances. - As a facetted folding whose folding edges cut themselves in points. In that case arise tetrahedron or pyramid-shaped foldings with a polygonal basis. The patches are facetted. [5] Beyond that foldings can be differentiated regarding their topological and geometric attributes in various ways and allow a more detailed categorization. [5] Are the folds edged or undulated? How much is the folding height? Is there a regular or irregular folding frequency? Does the folding structure consist of one layer or is it multi-layered? Are the folding edges rigid or kinematical connected? Some of the described topologies are now depicted along examples.

Figure 5. a) longitudinal rigid, b) rigid facetted, c) longitudinal kinematic folding


Application possibilities in structural engineering

The application of rigid and kinematic foldings in structural engineering and architecture are the central research topics at the Chair of Structures and Structural Design/RWTH Aachen. In the following approaches to load bearing structure form principle of folding are presented. 3.1 Origami a construction principle in architecture and civil engineering? An initial source of inspiration represents Origami, the art of folding paper. [6] Even if the beginning of Origami is in China (the land where paper was invented) the name Origami is Japanese and simply means paper-folding. The classical/traditional Origami has strict rules and regulations. Folding figures are created from only one paper square and exclusively by folds without cutting, sticking and joining. However this uncompromising approach is for applications in the building industry too absolute and a bit too limiting. On this account the authors present some selected Origami tendencies which could have potential for the building industry and engineering. 3.1.1 Tessellation Origami [7] Origami Tessellations are geometric patterns that can repeat forever. Normally they exist as a variation of the traditional Origami- of one sheet of paper. Due to the fact that building materials have limited dimensions this has to be disregarded. Most of these folding patterns have a plain appearance. These are possibly interesting for faades or floor design, but not for load-bearing structures. But there are some Tessellation Origami patterns which form a three-dimensional shape; [8] one of the most favorite ones is the magic ball, shown in Figure 6. It contains of longitudinal and facetted folds and is an extremely flexible structure (in one direction). Capabilities could be reinforcement in construction materials, piping, seals, etc.

Figure 6. a) folding pattern, b) d) flexible magic ball

3.1.2 Origami Hypars [9] Hyperbolic paraboloids are defined geometrical shapes which can be folded very simply. The appearance is dominated by a bigger number of longitudinal folds and smaller number of facetted folds. It is possible to join several folding structures to a complex three-dimensional structure. The most reduced folded structure with this principle is based on a circle and has a curved folding. Some examples are shown in Figure 7. The restraints become visible even in the paper model, with bigger material thickness they are as expected even worse. Hence this folding pattern is well-applicable for flexible materials, e.g. textiles. Ideas for applications are for example temporary pavilions.

Figure 7. a) hypar, b) joined hypars, c) restraints in folding edge d) circular folded structure

3.1.3 Modular Origami [10] With the modular or unit Origami however are manufactured folded modules which are built up to spatial spaces. The form variety reaches over simple Platonic bases such as cubes or tetrahedrons up to complex polyhedrons. This approach has the grand advantage that the total form is always based on basic geometrical forms and thus is mathematically recordable. The number of different modules and the number of different detail connections are limited and therefore organizable for planners, tenderers and users. Beyond that the modular building technique contains outstanding possibilities to adapt to changing requirements since expandability and a simple disassembly are given at any time. Apart from rigid folding structures kinematic folding structures are also possible in modular Origami. Due to expected failure of the folding edge during the movement procedures the focus of our research activities is concentrated only on rigid folded structures.

Figure 8. a)-b)rigid modular Origami structures, c)-d) kinematic modular Origami structures

3.2 Origami and Architecture [11] A very simplifying assumption of mathematical Origami is: Paper has zero thickness. (It also exists the so-called thick Origami which is yet not researched very well.) Many folding principles are created by Origami-mathematics and transferred to other disciplines. For architecture and structural engineering Origami stands for the most important folding inspiration and on that account Origami is the basic principle for the majority of all realized folded structures (even if the architects did not know). Due to the fact Origami always begins with a plane paper it is not the only inspiration for folding and folded structures. Alternative methods to create folded structures for the building industry are exemplified as follows. 3.3 Irregular folding patterns for rigid foldings [2] Besides applications of folded structures based on mathematically recordable geometry there could be a challenge to transfer this principle into the mathematics of irregular folding patterns and free-form-surfaces. 3.3.1 Folding patterns based on principle moment lines With conventional methods it was not possible to use the folding principle for irregular folding patterns. Nowadays numeric presentation methods (CADG) and parametric programs open a big field of possibilities. It is no more a problem to assemble and folding patterns of a high level geometric complexity. The focus of the presented project rests upon the optimization of the folding pattern along the principal moment lines. Coining in longitudinal folds following these lines the static stressability and load-carrying capacity of the thin-walled plates increases enormously contrary to planar sheets. The forming along moment lines is an intelligent solution as it reduces forces, avoids stress peaks and gives a homogeneous appearance of the stresses.

Figure 9. forming of folding pattern on basis of main moment lines (research project by B. Teutriene)

3.3.2 Rigid folded plate constructions for 3d-free-form-surfaces The obvious statical advantages lead to transfer these principles (for irregular plain folded structures) to three-dimensional freeform-geometries. [2] Contemporary architecture arouses attention with spectacular forms. Unfortunately they are designed with antiquated constructions, e.g. frame- or trestlework. In contrast to shell or folded structures spatial load-bearing effects remain unused. [2] The design process works as follows: Numerical surface elements like e.g. NURBS-surfaces (Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline-surfaces) are tessellated by a meshing algorithm. The mesh forms an approach to the actual surface and consists of polygons and/or facetted surfaces. The mesh geometry determines the possible folding topologies; facetted foldings require triangular spaces and longitudinal foldings need rectangular spaces. By adjusting the ruled lines elaborately the loadbearing capacity can be optimized, by an iterative optimization process following. Beside statical criteria like main stresses and main moments the crucial criteria are number of construction units, number of construction details, inner and outer appearance.



In case of proceeded research and publication of this promising principle of structural morphology the limiting borders for planning and realization will be extended. The emphasis of future research beside further investigation in basic research will be the identification and invention of applicable construction materials and standardized construction details. The ideas in model scale need to be realized as prototypes and in building scale. It will take some time, but one day the structural morphology principle will be as self-evident as e.g. a frame- or trestlework construction. Realized folding structures in engineering applications as well as in building industry will determine our everyday-life.

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