Some of today's most cutting-edge architectural research comes from an ancient practice: knitting.
At Taubman College, architects are using their own software to map intricate stitches, simulate the structural behavior of knitted textiles, and build full-scale prototypes of tensile structures using a single piece of material generated by state-of-the-art industrial machinery.
In other words, this isn't your grandmother's knitting circle.
Instead of the stereotypical sweaters and scarves, Sean Ahlquist, an assistant professor of architecture, has developed ways to knit architectural surfaces, structural envelopes, and tactile environments that fuse soft materials with reactive features to become self-adjusting interfaces in response to factors such as light, airflow, temperature, humidity, and structural loading — thanks to specialized fibers and sensors knitted into the materials themselves. Ahlquist, a designer with advanced technical knowledge in industrial knit manufacturing, operates a lab at Taubman College that houses some of the most advanced knitting technology currently available, enabling hands-on exploration to drive the reimagining of this fashion-based technology toward the scale of architecture.
“It’s technology that most people don’t even know exists, and certainly is not a part of how architecture or an architect’s work is traditionally perceived,” said Ahlquist. “But it has the power to dramatically change how we design, being able to think from the smallest material scale of a fiber to the dynamic properties of an architectural system. In this way we can leverage, just with the thinness of a textile, the ability to create tensile structures, articulate tactile properties, and dictate the response to its environment.”
Ahlquist’s work creates “smart” textile systems, ones with embedded intelligence when paired with processes like 3-D printing and integrated with structurally and environmentally responsive fibers. He has developed applications for the healthcare, software, and auto industries, including one partnership with a major U.S. automaker.
Since January 2017, Ahlquist — along with U-M College of Engineering Professors Diann Brei (mechanical engineering) and John Shaw (aerospace engineering) — have been working to develop the basic science, as well as the far-reaching applications, of digital knitting technology for General Motors Corp.’s Multifunctional Vehicle Systems research project. Of particular interest is how these responsive textile systems might transform the experience of transportation.
The auto industry, like many others, is looking for ways to consolidate parts and streamline mechanical systems, and digital knitting is a revolutionary option. "If you take a system that needs a dozen parts and streamline it to one component, it starts to shed weight and improve the efficiency of manufacturing,” Ahlquist said. “Instead of adding more devices to a car, existing textiles in the vehicle’s interior could achieve adaptability by engineering the systems architecture with embedded electronics and other forms of passive and active responsiveness.”
Addressing the challenge for “lightweighting” of material systems through the medium of CNC-knitted textiles is central to the research collaboration with General Motors. This multiyear relationship marks General Motors’ first involvement with the field of architecture, extending the engineering-focused body of research developed with U-M over the past 10 years. The collaboration relies upon Ahlquist’s unique combination of a design approach that is intimately connected to technical material knowledge and manufacturing expertise. Within the first year of the project, Ahlquist and his team have engaged and influenced the future design of seating architectures, achieving new, multi-material, multilayer structural strategies that house varying degrees of finish, support, comfort, and adaptability within a singular textile system. These capabilities are equally transformative to the industries of knit manufacturing and automotive design, Ahlquist notes.
As one part of his collaborative research, Ahlquist examines how the strain on a knit structure and its makeup of twisted fibers can create materials that can change shape. For instance, he is exploring soft robotic systems where bending motions occur through the relationship of a knitted sleeve and integrated pneumatic bladders. “The intelligence of the design, in its ‘embedded responsiveness,’ happens within the material through orchestrating the makeup and composition of fibers. Activating this intelligence across material scales — from fiber to architectural space — that’s where we come in.”
In fall 2018, design software developer Autodesk installed a large-scale project featuring Ahlquist’s work at its BUILD Space in Boston. The collaboratively designed Generative Design Pavilion pairs a lightweight knit canopy with a cut limestone base, displaying at once a continuity in sinuous form and an extreme contrast in physical presence between the ephemeral lightness of the textile and the impressive mass of the stone. And there are less flashy applications, like reinforcement for carbon-fiber composites or formwork for concrete. For all these applications, knitting is ideal, Ahlquist says, in its capacity to create lightweight, seamlessly three-dimensional forms.
The work is made possible by a pair of large-scale, 84-inch-wide STOLL commercial knitting machines. Their 2,400 needles, arranged into two beds, enable the production of incredibly detailed patterns and multilayer structures. The first machine was acquired in 2014 through a collaboration between Taubman College, the College of Engineering and its aerospace engineering program, and the University of Michigan. The latest machine, currently one of the most advanced wide-body machines being produced, helps Ahlquist and his colleagues advance the automotive research.
Ahlquist works with a team of M.Arch and MSc students, which includes four research assistants. He also has worked with students from other disciplines, including kinesiology, material science, aerospace engineering, and information science. The interdisciplinary focus was part of the attraction for Tracey Weisman, an M.Arch student from Weston, Florida, who is a full-time researcher mostly focusing on the GM project. “Sean brings together experts from a wide range of fields in order to create innovative solutions that lie at the intersection of material research and human interaction, as well as new design and research processes that have the potential to impact many other industries,” Weisman says. “His work is not simply studying material behavior, but using that information to design architecture that gives the occupant an understanding of their body in space through multisensory engagement.”
The work builds on research that Ahlquist began as a doctoral student in Germany, where he was asked to help lead a workshop for the Center for Information Technology and Architecture in Denmark that introduced him to modern knitting technology. "I saw it as a really exciting avenue that wasn't being explored in architecture, but despite an immense learning curve, could open up new opportunities for material exploration," he says.
It’s also a departure from the traditional model. “We shift the effort of design away from the manipulation or machining of pre-manufactured materials. Instead, we create the material ourselves from its smallest scales: twisting fibers into yarn construction, dictating individual stitches to form a textile structure, and shaping its relationship with the framework on which it ultimately gets stretched. It’s a complete paradigm shift in the designer’s charge over the process of making, which is simultaneously daunting and exciting.” —Eric Gallippo