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Clemson architecture team develops a new way to build

A team of Clemson architecture students assemble Indigo Pine East, the first structure built using the sim[PLY] construction method. Off-the-shelf plywood is cut by CNC routers into interlocking tab-and-slot pieces that fit together to form a solid, tight frame. With the sim[PLY] method, digital cut files can be emailed to a CNC fabricator, then shipped flat-packed to the construction site, ready to be assembled by hand by unskilled laborers.

Clemson University’s School of Architecture is developing an innovative new construction method that is gaining worldwide attention for its potential market impact in rapid, low-tech sustainable housing.

Using the sim[PLY] Framing System, “With a click of the button, someone could order a custom-cut, flat-packed home online and construct it by hand with the help of their friends and neighbors in a matter of days,” said Kate Schwennsen, professor and director of the School of Architecture.

One of the sim[PLY] Framing System’s innovative advantages is its revolutionary interlocking tab-and-slot connection system (patent pending). Assembly is intuitive and easy; so buildings come together much like a 3D puzzle, using no nails, just steel zip ties and some screws. This means buildings can be disassembled just as easily, without causing structural damage.

“sim[PLY] is faster, safer, easier and more energy-efficient than traditional construction with power tools,” Schwennsen said.

sim[PLY] offers a rapid, low-tech construction solution with a profound reduction in a building’s total carbon footprint. Here’s how:

  • sim[PLY] uses locally sourced plywood and computer numeric control (CNC) fabrication.
  • Construction plans are digital and can be emailed anywhere there is a CNC controller.
  • Components can be pre-cut using off-the-shelf materials, pre-measured and flat-packed, requiring less transport space and smaller vehicles versus other forms of prefabricated structures.
  • Cut pieces lock into place on site with no power-operated tools or heavy equipment required.

sim[PLY]’s evolving impact:

  • A national Department of Defense (DOD) building contractor has looked at sim[PLY] for Rapidly Deployable Housing applications, such as for use in temporary military housing. sim[PLY] is being considered as a potentially cost-saving opportunity to build better structures faster, safer and using less energy on the jobsite.
  • sim[PLY]­ ’s built-in ease of construction makes it an ideal framing model for various types of do-it-yourself housing. Think: tiny homes. To explore this popular housing trend, Clemson’s architectural students have designed an energy efficient sim[PLY] tiny home prototype that could be structurally framed in just one day’s time.
  • Timber is one of South Carolina’s most important cash crops, with an economic impact of $20 billion, according to the Forestry Association of South Carolina. sim[PLY]’s use of plywood would create both a positive economic and environmental impact here at home. Beyond causing a greater demand for timber, wide acceptance of the sim[PLY] process would mean a more diverse and robust use of forest resources; plywood manufacturing, unlike that of lumber, makes use of older, more mature trees.
  • Architectural communities in Italy, Austria and Germany – countries considered to be worldwide leaders in wood construction and sustainable building – have expressed interest in sim[PLY]. Overseas and in the U.S., sim[PLY]’s sustainable performance benefits are compelling.

The sim[PLY] rafter assembly for a CropStop community kitchen.
Image Credit: Clemson University School of Architecture

An example of a sim[PLY] structure in use is the CropStop community kitchen on Lois Avenue in Greenville. The building makes it possible for crop owners to better process their harvests to meet local demand for fresh farm-to-table foods. A new universal CropStop prototype was designed in the fall and could impact global agrarian economies where there is interest in this concept for sustaining local growers and evolving farm communities.

sim[PLY] was first developed by Clemson architectural faculty and students as part of their entry in the 2015 Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition. While their end result was a solar-powered, energy-efficient home, it was just the beginning for the innovative framing system that is proving it has a marketable life of its own.

Architecture student Paul Mosher examines sim[PLY] pieces cut by a Computer Numeric Control device. Sim[PLY]’s interlocking connection technology is patent-pending.

“sim[PLY] is an ongoing, evolving project,” Schwennsen said. “New teams of students are being challenged to optimize the design and create newer, smarter versions to meet the needs of a variety of commercial, government and end-user market applications.”

The School of Architecture and its faculty continue to be leaders in integrating critical and creative research into its nationally ranked accredited graduate program.

The sim[PLY] team includes faculty inventors Dan Harding, Dustin Albright, Dave Pastre, Ulrike Heine, Vincent Blouin and Ufuk Ursoy; and contributing student inventors Anthony Wohlers, Michael Stoner, Eric Balogh, Tyler Silvers, Clair Dias, Alison Martin, Jon Pennington, Jeff Hammer, Will Hinkley, Justin Hamrick, Alexandra Latham, Neely Leslie, Daniel Taylor, David Herrero, Rebecca Mercer, Russell Buchanan, Amelia Brackmann, Paul Mosher, Allyson Beck and Alex Libengood.

In These Hills

International teachers learn and teach

Richard Balikoowa from Uganda was one of 16 teachers from seven different countries who studied on campus and taught in local schools from January through May. They are part of the International Leaders in Education Program, a professional exchange program funded by a subgrant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), which is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The teachers completed an on-campus academic program with some of Clemson’s School of Education faculty, and then interned with a partner teacher at Riverside Middle, Liberty Middle and Seneca High.

As part of this program, which is in its sixth year at Clemson, the teachers engage in formal and informal cultural activities in which they learn about American culture and share about their own. Teacher Fellows go through a yearlong selection process; they are nominated by their own country, approved through that country’s American embassy and local Fulbright commission, and screened through the U.S. State Department and IREX. Clemson is one of four universities selected to host the group.

Clemson team selected for Solar Decathlon

Clemson's Solar Decathlon team

Clemson’s Solar Decathlon team

The U.S. Department of Energy selected a Clemson team to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2015. Clemson is one of 20 colleges and universities across the country and around the world that will now begin the nearly two-year process of building solar-powered houses that are affordable, innovative and highly energy efficient.

“We are honored and excited to participate in the Solar Decathlon 2015,” said Akel Kahera, associate dean for Clemson’s College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. “This competition offers our students a one-of-a-kind learning and training experience that helps students excel once they enter the clean energy industry.”

Over the coming months, the Solar Decathlon teams will design, construct and test their houses before reassembling them at the Solar Decathlon 2015 competition site in Irvine, Calif. As part of the Solar Decathlon, teams compete in 10 different contests, ranging from architecture and engineering to home appliance performance, while gaining valuable hands-on experience.

In fall 2015, the student teams will showcase their solar-powered houses at the competition site, providing free public tours of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, products and appliances that today are helping homeowners nationwide save money by saving energy. The solar-powered houses will represent a diverse range of design approaches; building technologies; target markets; and geographic locations, climates and regions, including urban, suburban and rural settings.

The Solar Decathlon helps demonstrate how energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies and design save money and energy while protecting local communities and boosting economic growth.

Clemson partners in national hub for genetics research

President Clements presents Self Regional’s Jim Pfeiffer with a bowl crafted from a cedar tree at Fort Hill, the historic home of John C. Calhoun and Thomas G. Clemson.

President Clements presents Self Regional’s Jim Pfeiffer with a bowl crafted from a cedar tree at Fort Hill, the historic home of John C.  Calhoun and Thomas G. Clemson.

In February, Clemson, the Greenwood Genetic Center and Self Regional Healthcare announced a new partnership that will establish formal collaboration among genetic researchers and Clemson faculty. Self Regional Healthcare will support Clemson’s Center for Human Genetics with a gift of $5.6 million over three years. The gift consists of an initial contribution of $2 million for the center’s facilities and a subsequent contribution of $3.6 million to support research in genetics and human diagnostics at the facility located on the Greenwood Genetic Center campus.

“Today’s announcement will create a new pipeline for genetic research,” said John Pillman, chair of the Self Regional board of trustees. “The collaboration of these three partners will ultimately connect genetic therapeutics research to patients.”

Steve Skinner, director of the Greenwood Genetic Center, said such collaborations are crucial in turning research advances into clinically available therapies for patients, not only in Greenwood and across South Carolina, but globally. “This collaboration is a major step forward for patients as we combine the resources and strengths of each institution: Self’s commitment to patient care, Clemson’s expertise in basic scientific research and our experience with genetic disorders and treatment.”
Self Regional and the Genetic Center have had an affiliation agreement since 1975 with the Genetic Center’s clinical faculty serving as the Department of Medical Genetics for Self Regional.

President Clements said the announcement brings us a step closer to moving basic discoveries in human genetics from a research environment to a clinical setting, where they can be used to diagnose and treat real human disorders. “Clemson is proud to be part of this important collaborative effort, and we’re grateful to Self Regional Healthcare for its support of our research efforts at the Greenwood Genetic Center.”

The center will address research and clinical opportunities in human diagnostics and epigenetic therapeutics advancing personalized medicine for intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and disorders of the immune and nervous systems. Specific research will include molecular diagnostics and therapeutics, bioinformatics and computational/systems biology.

Self Regional Healthcare, as a research and lead health care partner, will support hospital-based clinical trials and collaborate in designated research activities. This marks Clemson’s third significant development at the Greenwood Genetic Center. In June 2013, Clemson announced it would expand its genetics programs, create an internationally competitive research and development team, and expand research capabilities at the Greenwood Genetic Center’s J.C. Self Institute through the Center for Human Genetics, a 17,000-square-foot research and education center in human genetics. And in November, Clemson established the Self Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Human Genetics, jointly funded by the Self Family Foundation and the state of South Carolina.

Ballato selected for class of ’39 award

John Ballato 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award.

John Ballato 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award.

With the increasing popularity of Sci-Fi movies, it’s no surprise that lasers conjure up images of futuristic adventures in outer space. But materials science and engineering professor John Ballato’s work in fiber optics isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away — it’s all happening right here in Clemson.

The 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award, Ballato is director of the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET). His research in glass and specialty fiber has made seemingly fictitious concepts a reality. “It sounds very Star Trek-ish, but the military has lasers deployed around the world to shoot down a variety of threats,” Ballato said, “everything from missiles to RPGs.”

Although Ballato and his team don’t make the lasers that are sent to the battlefield, they do help develop the fiber optics that go inside them. The program’s success in the field of specialty fiber has enabled Ballato to work closely with the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Technology Office, which has invested more than $10 million in COMSET over the past eight years.

Ballato moved to Clemson in 1997 and worked with other researchers to start an optics program, no easy task for junior faculty members. “Doing optical fiber research is extremely expensive,” he said. “The equipment that you need is big, complex and dangerous.”

But a confluence of events fell into the team’s favor. The dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust in the late 1990s, leaving a glut of fiber optic cable that no one wanted. But Ballato and his team knew there was more research to be done. They quickly found an underserved sector, a “sandbox” where no one else was playing, he said. “The Department of Defense was clamoring for specialty fiber,” he said. “They couldn’t get any because it was all going to communications.”

It was a perfect fit. The research had to be done onshore for security reasons, Ballato said, and the Department of Defense was a client with deep pockets. “There was nobody else talking to them,” he said. “Everybody else had moved on http://creative.clemson.edu/clemsonworld/2014/05/hills/to other things, and we rode that wave in fiber for 10 years, through two wars and a staggering amount of investment.”

Ballato said COMSET partners with companies to pitch programs to the Department of Defense. “Clemson is actually pretty unique nationally in the sense that we go from ‘dirt to shirt,’” he said. “We model it, we design it. We study new materials. We make the glasses. We draw the fiber. We build the lasers for them at a prototypic level. That’s extremely valuable for our partners. It’s a one-stop shop for them.”

Ballato served as the interim vice president for research and associate vice president for research and economic development, where he championed Clemson’s advanced materials related research and economic development. His achievements speak volumes, but this award may be the most meaningful. Ballato was chosen by his peers to represent the highest achievement of service to the University, the student body and the larger community.

As the 2013 winner of the Class of ‘39 Award, Ballato’s name will be engraved in stone next to 24 past winners. The Class of 1939 established the Award for Excellence in 1989 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the class and to recognize and inspire faculty service above and beyond expectations.

In March, President Clements announced that Ballato would take on additional duties as the University’s vice president for economic development.

Honoring Sacrifice

Clemson’s Air Force ROTC detachment gathered in March to send Lieutenant Colonel Tom von Kaenel on a 120-day bicycle journey to Juneau, Alaska, to raise awareness of the sacrifices of service members, veterans and their families since 9-11. Kaenel is the founder of Sea2Sea, a military nonprofit that organizes bicycling events across the country, partnering with other nonprofits and local organizations. During the memorial service held that day, Clemson cadets read the names of South Carolinians who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nanoparticles, Big Ideas

Apparao (Raja) Rao

Apparao (Raja) Rao

Although these images can easily be mistaken for abstract art, they are indeed high resolution transmission electron microscope images of unique nanostructures explored by R.A. Bowen Professor of Physics Apparao (RAJA) Rao and his team at the Clemson Nanomaterials Center.

The honeycomb-like structure (in purple) with rows of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal fashion forms the basis of a graphene layer — the quantum building block for buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and graphite. Supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Rao and his team have begun to chip away at reinventing energy storage by developing a cost-effective and scalable way to produce carbon nanomaterials. While energy is one of the focus areas, Rao’s team is also working on understanding the fundamental implications of nanomaterials on the physiological response.

Shown in the image (orange) is a silver nanoparticle coated with serum albumin, whose modified structure could be used to generate nanoparticles that can deliver useful drugs without being engulfed by the immune system.