The creation of a pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice based on a typical bay of the “Droneport” was made possible by The Norman Foster Foundation. The project brought together professors and students from five universities across Europe, the UK and America along with the Swiss Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction and its related Research Center in Lyon.
Although initially a response to the “Droneport”, the construction system is applicable to a wider range of needs: markets, schools and medical facilities for example. Its location at the end of the Arsenale in Venice is symbolic as the gateway to a newly opened public park. The possibility of the structure remaining as a permanent legacy is now under consideration. The coloration of the earth-based “Durabric” products, which were specifically made for the project, is a careful match with the historic buildings which surround it.
The project has been realized by The Norman Foster Foundation on a very tight timescale, six months overall, four weeks on site – made possible by the close links between the engineer partners of ODB and their universities: John Ochsendorf, MIT; Matthew DeJong, Cambridge; and Phillippe Block with his research group at ETH Zurich. An interim feasibility study involved the construction of a half-size vault at the Polytechnic University of Madrid headed up by Santiago Huerta. The Spanish construction team moved on to Venice to create the present pavilion.
Customized compressed earth-tiles
The Madrid exercise enabled the Research Center of Holcim in Lyon to optimize the mix of a specially developed “Durabric” earth-based product for the project. 18,000 customized bricks have been produced for the Droneport shell in Venice in cooperation with the Block Research Group at ETH in Zurich and MecoConcept in Toulouse. The challenge was to ensure a compressive strength of at least 10 MPa whilst minimizing the weight and size of each brick.
The prototype vault comprises two outer layers of this custom “Durabric” with an inner layer of traditional tiles from Valencia. The special product is of stabilized earth – a reliable, affordable and environmentally friendly building material. Compared to burnt clay bricks, they do not require intensive use of fuel to achieve their performance. Holcim has launched commercial production of the naturally cured building block made of locally sourced compressed earth and cement termed ”Durabric” in various emerging countries. The collaboration to showcase the transferability of the approach, and the environmental, economic and social advantages of “Durabric” was initiated by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction – also known for its international Awards competitions. Holcim and CDC Group, the UK’s development finance institution, created 14Trees, a joint-venture that aims to accelerate the production and commercialization of Durabric.
Convergence of building and drone technologies
The artist Olafur Elliason has been exploring the potential of solar powered mini lamps (Little Sun) for communities without access to an electricity network. In Venice this concept has been integrated into the pavilion display to show the possibilities, longer term, to incorporate energy harvesting into the building fabric. This development led to the idea of an element called “Solarbrick”, which could be incorporated into the structure of the vaults. Solar cells on the exterior surface would charge a long-life battery in the body of the brick to power LEDs on the internal face with switching by a remote appliance. Structure, energy and lighting are thus integrated into a single component.
The “Droneport” project is a convergence of building and drone technologies to address shortfalls in the infrastructure of emerging economies. For example, the drone is capable of delivering cargo and urgent medical supplies quickly and cheaply on continents lacking adequate road and railway systems. A proposed drone network would bypass these deficiencies. It would be punctuated by mini airports or “Droneports” which would also serve wider needs such as health centers and markets.
The “Droneports” would be the equivalent of an earlier generation of filling stations, but with a civic presence to promote local economic development and community participation. The concept branded as “Redline”, was incubated within EPFL Lausanne under the leadership of Jonathan Ledgard. “Redline’s” intention is to build three “Droneports” as proof of concept on land offered by the Rwandan Government on long-term leases. This would be the world’s first cargo drone line and could mark the start of an eventual Congo-Nile line pushing west along the River Congo and north along the River Nil
Catalyst to promote a wider range of activities
As Jonathan Ledgard put it: “It is inevitable, on a crowded planet with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of the lower sky to deliver precious goods more cheaply, swiftly and accurately than ever before. Then futuristic craft will benefit poorer countries held back by lack of roads.” The “Redline” approach will differentiate it significantly from existing drone development which is focused on military missions or last-mile consumer delivery applications for affluent communities. From the outset the “Droneport” was seen as a catalyst to promote a wider range of activities. It could create commercial locations as well as integrating the local supply chain in the drone economy. Government could also be assisted to leverage frontier technology and transition farming communities into service and education initiatives.
The development of the cargo drone element of the project seeks to combine the capability of vertical take-off and landing with the economy of soaring like a sailplane. The design started with Lorenz Meier at ETH Zurich and has since been extended out to an Airbus team at Bristol in the UK.
Personal commitment of Lord Norman Foster
Jonathan Ledgard approached Norman Foster with the “Redline” concept because of his combination of airport design experience and knowledge of flight as a pilot of sailplanes, helicopters and aircraft. Foster then shared the challenge with his colleagues Narinder Sagoo and Roger Ridsdill Smith at Foster + Partners. Working with their teams the basis of a modular vaulted system evolved. It has fallen to The Norman Foster Foundation to advance it beyond early feasibility stage and has led to the present team to design, engineer and implement the project through to a built reality.
A beautiful structure which incorporates a lot of research
In the context of the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, the architecture museum Archizoom of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) organized a discussion event dedicated to "Sky over Horizontal Metropolis - Conversation on the Redline project, droneports in Africa". The initiators of the Droneport, Lord Norman Foster and Jonathan Ledgard, informed the audience on the development and the complex collaboration with the partners who provided the research, including five technical universities, the engineering firm ODB, and the Holcim Research Center.