Tip of the Iceberg, New York

Pavilion, Project Team: René van Zuuk, Jan Heimer, Design: 2014, Floor area: 140 m²

In the summer of 2013, Mayor Bloomberg of New York submitted a bill to ban styrene foam as packaging material for the food industry. The bill passed in Manhattan and styrene was banned in 2015. Alarmed by the market share loss, the styrene producers suggested starting a campaign to collect the used styrene, so that it can be recycled and reused. In order to speed up the process of reuse, and to broaden the diversity of the ways styrene can be reused, we proposed to construct a pavilion from recycled Expanded Polystyrene (EPS300). Our design is a monument, taking the form of an iceberg, that symbolizes the top of the mountain of used polystyrene material waiting to be recycled.

At the moment, styrene is made from petroleum, a non-renewable natural resource. Styrene and all its by-products are 100% recyclable. Since styrene is not biodegradable and will remain in nature for hundreds of year, it is not suitable for packaging food, where it will only be used for a limited amount of time. All the qualities that make styrene less suitable for temporary use, make it very useful as a building material. It lasts for a long time and is resistant to humidity and natural degradation. Some companies have started producing similar materials with the same qualities, made from biological resources that are biodegradable. Those materials, however, are not suitable for the building industry.

The current construction industry is based on an orthogonal building practice. Bars, plates, and blocks are produced to build rectangular buildings. The further the design derives from the orthogonal system, the more difficult it becomes to build it and the more waste material remains. Due to this fact, producing free-form and parametric architecture is expensive and environmentally unfriendly. A future solution could be the 3D printing technique. A 3D printing process has the advantage that it hardly produces any waste material, regardless of the design complexity. Nowadays, the 3D printing technique is widespread to the point that all kinds of small daily objects have their 3D printed version. The disadvantage of the existing 3D techniques is that they are rather slow, and therefore only suitable for small objects and prototypes where speed is not a considerable issue. Within the architectural practice, the 3D printer is only used to produce models, since printing actual buildings would take years. Universities and construction companies are working on faster techniques, but the results of their research are so raw, that they will need a lot of post-processing, in order to lead to acceptable building methods. Current research is focused on printing stony materials like concrete or composites. The printed elements are suitable as wall panels or structural elements, but it will take a lot of time before the industry is at that level.

Perhaps an alternative solution is needed in the meantime. As an office, we have developed a computer-controlled technique with similar form of freedom as the 3D printer, ready to use, but fast enough in order to be competitive in the building industry. The technique deals with materials that combine structural strength and insulation properties. The most suitable one is EPS foam blocks. EPS is cheap, and with the use of a CNC hot wire foam cutter, it can be cut at high speed in any form you want. When sprayed with hot glue, the pieces can form a robust, sandwich structure, enabling one to make small buildings or entire wall panels.

To cut the foam, the temperature of the wire has to be above the melting point of the EPS foam. If the temperature and the speed of the wire are well-adjusted, the wire does not even touch the foam but burns it away just before they meet. The advantage of this is that no force is applied to the EPS material while cutting it, allowing high precision cuts. Both ends of the wire are connected to pace-engines controlled by a computer. In the machine we use, the wire ends can move independently, which makes it possible to cut twisted surfaces. By selecting the surfaces carefully, it is possible to virtually make any form.

The Iceberg was parametrically designed on the computer. We used a Grasshopper script to design a mountain that can theoretically be cut out of one sheet of EPS300 foam block, sized 12x12x0,5m without leaving any waste material. The Iceberg is cut in layers. All layers are cut with one slice. The rear surface of the lower ring wall is the front surface of the layer above. The thickness of the wall varies, to enable the use of twisted surfaces. The first layer is buried in the ground. A sheet of reinforced ground foil is glued on the foam and will protect the pavilion from lifting due to the wind. All the other layers will be glued on top of this foundation layer on-site. The pavilion will be made from recycled packaging EPS foam, and after the exposition has finished, it will be recycled again, to produce new EPS foam. Before transport, a Mobile Foam Shredder will reduce the EPS volume to 4 m³.