Back to the Future: The Binishell Returns

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binishell-palmspringsIf the drawing to the right looks like something out of the Jetsons, you’re not far from the truth.

It’s a schematic of a home to be built in Palm Springs this winter made out of Binishells, self-supporting concrete shells erected in hours using only air pressure. The technology was invented by architect Dante Bini in the 1960s, and received widespread attention in the era of Buckminster Fuller and Saarinen’s swooping TWA terminal.

Now, Dante and his son Nicolo hope to re-introduce the Binishell as an efficient, low-cost and low-carbon building technology to a world strapped for resources and concerned about pollution.

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

The basic concept is simple: place an inflatable membrane (basically a balloon) on a concrete foundation, cover it with concrete, and then inflate it. When the concrete is lifted to the required height, it is allowed to set. The membrane is then removed and is ready for use in the next structure.

When, as a young man, Dante Bini first explained this process to fellow architects, they said it was impossible, so he built a shell, and invited them to see for themselves. A  year later, in 1967, he was building a demonstration model on the campus of Columbia University to world-wide press attention. binishell-nsw

Where’s My Binishell?

But something happened on the way to the future. Over 1600 structures using the Binishell system were built all over the world, but the technology never really caught on, especially in the US, as building materials remained cheap and plentiful.

“Traditional construction was not seen as broken at the time and therefore did not need fixing,” says Nicolo Bini, who is also an architect.

Instead, we ended up moving into McMansions. Well, as Bini (and many others) will tell you, the McMansion is no longer sustainable.

Green…

Revisiting his fathers work several years ago, Nicolo realized that, with some tinkering, the technology could be incredibly green. He supplies some impressive stats to back up that claim: because of the simplicity of their design and construction, the shells reduce energy use by up to 80%. They also reduce costs by half, and can be erected in a third the amount of time of traditional construction.

The dirtiest thing about them is the concrete, but Bini points out that the concrete industry is (slowly) transitioning away from concrete based on emissions-heavy Portland Cement, to that using fly ash.

…and Natural

From a design perspective, the Binishells create a comforting, organic feel, both inside and out, because their proportions come from natural laws, like the caves and burrows we all once lived in. Bini believes there is a trend in architecture towards such curvilinear design, and points to the last several winners of the Pritzker Prize, all of whom incorporate those concepts in their work.

The Return of the Past’s Version of the Future?

The Binishell has long faded from the spotlight, but the younger Bini believes the time is ripe for its return.

The simplicity of construction makes the shell ideal for fast-developing nations. “In the next three years, 50 million houses are needed in India, Brazil and China alone,” says Bini. As he points out, relying on traditional construction methods to build those homes will contribute to every environmentalist’s worst-case scenario. Binishells could be used for homes, resorts, commercial buildings and even airports.

Bini hopes the prototype house in Palm Springs will garner the same attention his father’s did nearly 50 years ago, which they will use to launch – or re-launch – the technology internationally.

Whether the system ultimately becomes as widespread as the Binis hope, Nicolo says at least as important is that these types of alternative ideas are taken seriously again.

“Binishell’s are not the solution, but they are a solution, at a time when this sort of thinking is exactly what we need.”

Links

Visit their site: Binishells Construction Systems

Retro-images of Binishells: Binisystems

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.