She traded mountains for prairies, and biology for buildings. Biologist-turned-architecture student Jessica Piper [BEnvD/18] moved from the West coast to Winnipeg for love a decade ago (they’re still together) and then fell for design. Now she’s working on an ancient problem—how to build a better dome—in one of the most advanced labs: the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology, or C.A.S.T. This new construction method replaces steel with elastic rebar, which becomes strong with strategically placed cables yet stays light and easy to reshape.
Tell me more about your research.
The idea is that, eventually, our structure could be used as a concrete formwork and be strong enough to bear the weight of the wet concrete until it cures. Domes are the most efficient way to span a distance since they can support their own weight. But making them, traditionally, requires extensive, complicated formworks and highly skilled people to construct them. It’s very expensive. So, we’re looking at a way of developing flexible systems that take a lot of the time and expertise out of it.
How would this be used?
It could be used as a roof system somewhere but I think the really exciting thing is that if we were able to generate a kit of parts, it could be assembled [as a pop-up shelter] for disaster relief situations relatively quickly.
Are you using your bio knowledge at all in architecture?
I am very interested in exploring the incorporation of a more systemic biological thinking into architecture. In biology, and in life, everything is part of a big, interwoven system. I think it would be interesting to think of architecture in that way. Rather than just take one feature, think about architecture and our cities as one component of an organism that all works together.
What were the structures you were into as a kid—sand castles?
I’ve never built sandcastles but I have always been a sand player, burying my legs in the sand. That’s not very architectural. Since I have started this degree, though, I have looked at buildings a lot. The built world is such a huge part of our lives yet we don’t look at it often. But now I do it all the time.
What animal builds the best structures?
Termites. And that may sound weird but they build their own homes and they are used as an example of how to achieve natural ventilation in architecture. They’re pretty cool.