“In Denmark, we call it French nougat,” jokes Kasper Guldager, a partner at the Copenhagen-based firm 3XN, handling a brick of material that looks like Styrofoam covered in white icing. Considering that it is made of seed husks and mushroom roots, it’s not surprising the block looks edible. Greensulate was ongoingcreated by the New York–based Ecovative group and “grown” as a low-energy, zero-waste alternative to consumer packaging for clients like Puma and Dell. Developing this product for use in buildings is just one of the material collaborations at GXN, an independent, self-funded innovation team within 3XN.
3XN is a 70-person practice known mainly for cultural and educational projects. In 2007, the firm created the GXN team to stay competitive in the areas of material design, digital design, and new production processes. This research mandate expands as the team grows—it currently has eight architects, an engineer, and a psychologist.
GXN’s latest project is BioBuild, a European Union–funded network of 15 companies with a $6 million research budget for developing biocomposite materials in the building industry. Guldager explains that GXN became involved in the initiative because of the success of a pavilion at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 2009; the outdoor sculpture had samples of 20 green materials that people could walk on, touch, and explore. “We are starting to specify the actual material requirements in terms of both architectural and engineering criteria. Not only the look and feel, but also structural requirements,” says Morten Norman Lund, GXN’s project manager for BioBuild. “The aim is to design our desired performance.”
The team’s interest in materials extends to waste and recycling. Another ongoing collaboration is with William McDonough + Partners for the Green Solution House, a convention center and hotel to be built on the Danish island of Bornholm. Following the development of a building manual on Cradle-to-Cradle principles (funded externally by Realdania, and to be published in late 2012), GXN has been working on the Green Solution House as a test project for zero-waste and restorative concepts. “Some of our regenerative goals are that the buildings will produce cleaner water than they receive. They will produce more energy than they use,” Guldager says. “I think this is where we can be really innovative in architecture.” The project has not yet broken ground, but it has received a lot of keen interest. “We are meeting next week with the climate minister, key players in the building industry here are supportive, and we are trying to enlarge this network,” he says.
Early this year, NOMA, named the world’s best restaurant for the third year in a row in Restaurant magazine’s definitive list, allowed GXN to develop digital design tools and experiment with fabrication techniques in the creation of its new FoodLab test kitchen. GXN bypassed standard working drawings and tested a file-to-fabrication strategy, sending design files directly to the CNC machines for milling. “We custom-scripted the software tools and encoded all of the information we had about the tolerances of the machines and the requirement that the design be demountable.” The result is a system of 500 variously sized plywood shelving modules that weave through the 200-square-meter space, creating areas for cooking and preparing food, an herb garden, staff areas, and desk spaces—but never touching the columns of the historic building that houses the FoodLab. Guldager points out that this design could not have been built using conventional fabrication and assembly methods because of the sheer number of parts. Light rods were mounted around the columns. Then, the team built a timber skeleton to support a substructure that allowed light to shine between the boxes. A final layer of wooden members supports the shelves, which seem to glow in the space. It looks deceptively simple, but “the build-up is highly complex,” Guldager says. “The most impressive part of the project was covered up in the end.”
Creating collaborations within and beyond the building industry, the GXN team is developing new ways of investi-gating green strategies, and the business models to fund and implement its findings, while contributing to larger projects at 3XN. As the team’s growing list of patents translates these aspirations into real-world applications, GXN has its eyes firmly set on a simply stated goal—discovering the future of ecological design.