Shipbuilding Technology Brings Hydro Wall Out of the Computer

When Virginia San Fratello won the 2006 Next Generation® Design Competition for her Hydro Wall, she told us that the biggest challenge to realizing the project would be getting it out of the computer. The complex rolling forms of the wall needed to be high functioning—harvesting rainwater to insulate the building and provide useful gray water—and they needed to look gorgeous.

Last week the first Hydro Wall panel emerged from the electronic box into the material world. At 42-inches tall this prototype is one third the scale of the final building. The mold, created in foam through the precision of rhino CAD and CNC milling, makes a finished piece that is a pristine, fiberglass object that requires no hardware or assembly.

The fluid shape of the panel is a high-tech echo of the liquid it is designed to hold. It seems only natural that it would be manufactured in Italy by a historic Genovese shipbuilding company. Why? “Because the process of shipbuilding demands technology that allows for the exploration of curvilinear surfaces, we choose to work with a fabricator who specializes in boat prototyping, “San Fratello explains. “We are not the only architects working with this particular fabricator, he also builds prototypes for Renzo Piano, Massimiliano Fuksas and Zaha Hadid because they are also creating forms that require this kind of technology.”

These forms were not so easy to come by. “The process of making the prototype really forced us to resolve some of the details and take on serious material considerations and limitations,” says San Fratello. One important innovation between the concept that won the Next Generation Prize and the prototype now freshly minted in Italy is that it has become modular. Not only does this make the water in each panel easier to control, but builders will be able to purchase it as a series of components, eliminating the need to custom engineer a whole wall for each new building. “The end result is that the design surprisingly got simpler. The concept is the same, the Hydro Wall looks and performs the way we originally conceived of it, but figuring out the details actually helped simplify aspects of the design which hopefully will lead to an inexpensive final product and something that is very easy to assemble and install.”

Next up is the testing phase. Hydro Wall will need to find its capacity to retain water and support its weight. The correct type and amount of vegetation must be ascertained, and the wall’s thermodynamics will be tested in various site specific situations. With any luck the prototype will pass the testing phase with flying colors and sail into production soon.

Hydro Wall was recently selected as a finalist for the INDEX Awards and is currently on display in Korea until November 3rd, 2007 at the Gwangju Design Biennale 2007.

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