The past 60 years have witnessed a significant leap in building technology and materials, as well as the rapid development of simulation technologies and modeling software. These successive accomplishments have opened the door to a whole new world of possibilities in the fields of architecture and construction. Now, more than any time before, architects can let their imagination run wild and innovate, with little worry about structural restrictions. After all, if there is no available structural solution, a new one can be devised. That is, actually, what has been going on for years now. Extraordinary architectural designs require unconventional structure systems, and so a new system is introduced, tested, and tried out. When it succeeds as a first of its kind, it joins the long list of implementable structure systems. Here, we will introduce you to some of these unconventional structure systems, which you can use for your design projects.

1.Tree / Branching Structure

This system features the use of tree-like columns for support. The column rises from the ground with its full diameter, like the trunk of a tree, and then starts branching near the top to extend over a bigger span. These columns are used for large spans or double height spaces.

Clemson University College of Architecture – South Carolina, USA

Architecture by Thomas Phifer and Partners – Structure by SOM

Photography: Scott Frances

WestendGate – Frankfurt, Germany

Architecture by Just Burgeff Architekten + a3lab

The Tote – Mumbai, India

Architecture by Serie Architects

2.Stacked-Box Structure

This system resembles the idea of stacked boxes. If you stack boxes on top of each other, with balance in mind, they will form a standing structure, like in the picture.

In actual buildings, however, the stacked boxes need extra support for guaranteed stability. After all, if you exert a horizontal load on the structure of cardboard boxes or if a strong wind blows, it will fall. The extra structural support can be provided by means of a concrete or steel structural core and skeletal steel frames or cantilevers.

Habitat 67 – Québec, Canada

Architecture by Moshe Safdie

Image via

The Interlace – Singapore

Architecture by OMA and Ole Scheeren

Photography: Iwan Baan

3.Shell Structure

A shell is a large curved surface with a very slight thickness in comparison to its length and width. The shell can be used as a roof for light structures or it can envelop the structure entirely. The shell touches the ground at one or more points, transferring the loads on its surface to the ground through these points.

Kresge Auditorium – Massachusetts, USA

Architecture by Eero Saarinen

L’Oceanogràfic – Valencia, Spain

Architecture by Félix Candela

4.Folding Structure

Folding structures can be considered a form of shell structures, but the “shell” is folded instead of curved, like origami.

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Folded plates can be used to cover plane surfaces, requiring less reinforcement than straight horizontal plates. The inclined foldings do the combined jobs of horizontal slabs and vertical beams in transferring loads to column supports or directly to the ground.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel – Colorado, USA

Architecture by Walter Netsch from SOM

Yokohama International Passenger Terminal – Yokohama, Japan

Architecture by Foreign Office Architects

5.Weaire–Phelan / Bubble Structure

Mathematically speaking, the Wearie-Phelan is a 3-dimensional structure that represents an idealized foam of equal-sized bubbles. In short, it is a structure of equal volumes with minimal surface area. The most famous application of this structure system is Beijing’s iconic Watercube which hosted the swimming and diving competitions during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The aquatic center comprises a light steel Weaire–Phelan space frame structure which gives shape to the air filled bubbles made of ETFE, a transparent plastic material.

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Beijing National Aquatics Center / Watercube – Beijing, China

Architecture by PTW Architects

6.Tensile structure

The tensile is structure is composed of elements in a tension state, instead of compression state. A simple example of tensile structures is camping tents.The tent becomes upright and stable when all of its component, fabric, poles, and ropes, are in perfect tension. Large scale tensile structures apply the same concept but with more advanced and treated components to take on the massive loads and varying environmental conditions.

O2 / Millenium Dome – London, United Kingdom

Architecture by Richard Rogers

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center – Astana, Kazakhstan

Architecture by Foster + Partners

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