UB teams with Alfred University to advance stackable ceramic façade prototype

Dean Robert G. Shibley meets with Team UB-Alfred recently to review progress of their ceramic facade prototype, which will be presented on August 19 at the sixth annual Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop.

Dean Robert G. Shibley meets with Team UB-Alfred in UB's SMART Fabrication Factory to review progress of their ceramic facade prototype. The research will be presented August 19 at the sixth annual Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop. Photo by Jin Young Song

by Rachel Teaman

Published June 9, 2023

A team of UB architecture faculty and students have developed a stackable ceramic facade system that opens new possibilities in user-generated architecture and sculptural geometries in terra cotta.

The research is being pursued with a team of faculty and students from Alfred University's College of Ceramics for the 2021 Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop (ACAW). UB is both a participant and co-organizer of the sixth annual ACAW event, along with Boston Valley Terra Cotta and the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture.

The facade prototype developed by UB employs a system of uniform terra cotta units that are  stacked and locked into place using fastening techniques derived from traditional wood joinery. The system pairs Alfred University's design and material expertise in ceramics with UB's capacity in digital fabrication and facade system design using terra cotta.

UB's team is led by Jin Young Song, UB associate professor of architecture, whose research interests focus on the tension between structure and ornament in architecture, and Dan Vrana, fabrication manager for the School of Architecture and Planning, along with a team of graduate architecture students. Jongmin Shim, UB associate professor of civil and structural engineering, has provided research guidance on the structural integrity of the facade system. 

Much of the research has unfolded over the past year in UB's Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies Fabrication Factory in Parker Hall on UB's South Campus. The terra cotta units were cut and shaped using the facility's industry-grade 5-axis water jet cutter. A system of 3D-printed dowels, also designed and fabricated by UB, allow the pieces to "lock" into place. The Alfred team has supported research on the design and glazing of the terra cotta tiles, which are formed using a mold and then cut with the waterjet before being fired and glazed.

Reconfiguable system explores impermanence in architecture

The recofigurability of the interlocking, modular wall system creates the potential for user interaction with the architecture. For example, a screen wall can be stacked high in the summer for shading and then lowered in the winter to allow for more light. The natural heat-retaining abilities of terra cotta also support passive heating and cooling.

According to UB's Jin Young Song, "The project celebrates the permanence of terra cotta as a material while exploring the impermanence of the built environment. Users can build and unbuild meaningful structural supports using the modular system."

View the progression of design and fabrication for the ceramic facade prototype being developed by UB's School of Architecture and Planning and Alfred University's College of Ceramics. Photos by Jin Young Song

Dan Vrana, who has guided fabrication research for the project, says the system also aims to achieve geometric freedom based on limited block types and 3D printed dowels that allow for continuously changing contact surfaces.

Using curvilinear "X" shaped tiles, the top and bottom parts provide an identical surface-to-surface load transfer for structural integrity while leaving the geometry of the side opening free from the stacking mechanism. This allows for a customized porosity of the wall construction and minimizes the waterjet cutting process for the interlocking mechanism.

On top of the porosity control, this stacking behavior works with a wide range of thicknesses which can provide a more refined structural solution.

UB to present research alongside top firms from around the world at ACAW 2021

UB's research will be presented on August 19, at a virtual ACAW 2021 (9 am - 4:30 pm EST). 

The Architecture Ceramic Assemblies Workshop (ACAW) brings together professionals from the architectural industry and academia, offering participants the opportunity to explore terra cotta in high-performance,  large-scale assemblies. Through pre-design and prototype research and development, teams explore new digital tools in the production of terra cotta assemblies, the development of unitized façade systems, and how the variable materiality of terra cotta can inform and enhance a façade’s performance. 

Now in its sixth year, research and experimentation at past workshops have culminated into real-world projects currently in development. UB, which was instrumental to the launch of ACAW in 2016 based on its more than decade-long research collaboration with Boston Valley Terra Cotta, has developed several exploratory terra cotta facade systems through the workshop, including Terra cotta grotto in 2019.

In addition to Team UB-Alfred, this year's participating teams include Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Walter P. Moore and Associates, Inc.; COOKFOX Architects and Buro Happold; HOK, TriPyramid and Permasteelisa North America & Josef Gartner; Goody Clancy and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH); Architecture Research Office (ARO) and Heintges TriPyramid; Studio Gang and Walter P. Moore and Associates, Inc; and Carnegie Mellon University. Teams will present their studies and constructed system models to an audience of facade designers, engineers and ceramacists.

ACAW 2021
Thursday, August 19, 2021
9 AM - 4:30 PM EST

A free virtual event via Zoom Webinar
AIA Continuing Education Credits Available

Team UB-Alfred: Full list of credits

University at Buffalo: Dan Vrana, Fabrication Manager, Architecture, Digital Design and Fabrication; Jin Young Song, Associate Professor, Architecture, Digital Design and Fabrication; Jongmin Shim, Associate Professor, Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, FE Analysis

Students: Phuong Vu, Graduate Student, Architecture; Sakeena Nazir, Graduate Student, Architecture; Nicole Sarmiento, Graduate Student, Architecture; Lydia Ho, Graduate Student, Architecture; Adrian Cruz, Graduate Student, Architecture; Jiatao Wu, Undergraduate Student, Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering

Alfred University: Johnathan Hopp, Assistant Professor of Design; Shawn Murrey, Sr. Kiln Specialist, Adjunct Faculty

Students: Margeaux Claude, Ceramic Art and Design Graduate Student; Corwyn Lund, Ceramic Art and Design Graduate Student; Jaclyn Head, Ceramic Art and Design Graduate Student; Mackenzie McDonald, Ceramic Art and Design Undergraduate Studens