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Form finding of support arches in tensile structures

P2 Report, TUDelft 16/01/2015,

Giorgio Piscitelli 4317572
Context of the research project
The main context of the research project is the Milan Expo 2015. A generic pavilion will be
drawn in order to apply and the gained knowledge of the research process. Into a structural formfinding design tool.
Basic problem analysis
There are two main issues in digital form-finding. The first point regards the boundary
conditions of the process, the fixed parameters determining the final shape. The second aspect
concerns the process itself, the algorithm generating the final result according to the set boundary
conditions. Those kind of process can be direct or iterative, linear or non linear, and the level of
accuracy of the final result is strictly linked to those aspects.
Problem statement
Main problem
The main problem is how to develop a form-finding algorithm for tensile membranes supported
by arches. The final equilibrium shape should have the rigid supports working in pure
compression according to the shape and the pre-stress forces of the membrane and any other
tensioned element like cables and ties. In order to do that an iterative combination of different
form-finding methods might be required.
Possible sub-problems
The first sub-problem is the selection of the existing form finding methods by evaluating their
limits and potentials.
The second sub-problem regards the way of combining the different form finding methods in an
iterative way.
The third sub-problem is dealing with the convergence of the combined methods into a final
unique results. This aspect is strictly linked with both the selected form-finding methods and
their combination. However the problem will appear just in the last step of the algorithm
development. Therefore in order to avoid any inconvenience this aspect should be taken into
consideration since the beginning of the tool development.

General objectives
The general objective is to create a tool able to form-find structures composed by pure
compressed arches and tensioned cable nets under the load of the pre-stress forces. The tool will
be developed in the Grasshopper environment in order to be available as a design tool for
Rhinoceros users.
The first sub-objective is to select or elaborate form-finding direct methods. Since they do not
require iterations they can be easily written and combined together.
The second sub-objective is to combine the selected direct methods in an iterative process able to
preserve the fixed boundary conditions.
The third sub-objective is to guarantee the convergence of the iterative process to a unique
A last sub-objective is to demonstrate the structural efficacy of the form-finding tool developed.
Final products
The main product will be the form-finding tool itself
The secondary product will be a report explaining the tool background, its developments, its final
structure, a generic design application and its verification.
The third product will be the slides to support the final oral presentation of the project.
Hypothesis about the direction of the solution
The main direction of the solution is combining direct form-finding methods. Iterations should
just be used to link different form-finding techniques into an hybrid form-finding algorithm.
Boundary conditions
A pavilion typology will be developed in order to set the design boundary conditions. A clever
structural concept is in fact needed before the application of the developed tool. Parameterization
of the pavilion boundary conditions will be used in order to compare different form-finding
resulting structures.
The only shaping forces are the pre-stress of the tensile elements and the self weight of the arch.
External loads like wind are not involved in the form-finding process and can cause moments in
the reality.

Research questions
Main research question
The main research question is how to design optimal support arches in membranes and cable net
structures. In order to do that an hybrid form-finding tool will be developed.
The first sub-question is which are the most suitable form-finding methods
The second sub-question is how should the form-finding methods be combined together
The third sub-question is how and if a unique solution exists according to the set boundaries
The forth sub-question is if the developed tool applications are performing as desired and if not
what are the lacks of the developed method.
Background questions
The main background question is how a form-finding tool should be used in the design process.
Background sub-questions are about the stage in which they should be involved in the process
and the effective efficacy of the tool by checking the structural performances of its design
Approach and methodology
Research questions into report parts or chapters

Chapter 1: Form-finding background introduction

Chapter 2: Research questions and objectives
Chapter 3: Description and selection of different form-finding methods
Chapter 4: Design tool development
Chapter 5: Design tool application
Chapter 6: Design tool verification
Chapter 7: Reflections and considerations

Methodology of research
The methodology of the research is planned step by step according to the following scheme


Research questions
and objectives definition


Hybrid form-finding
design tool development


Hybrid form-finding
design tool application


Designed pavilion
structural verification

Selection of study material theories

Research of study

Selection of study
material theories

More mathematics,
mechanics and scripting
studies needed to
achieve the set goals

Translation of the theory

into a design tool

Structural concept
elaboration for a generic

Translation of the
concept into a
parametric model with
BC (boundary conditions)

Combination of the
form-finding tool with
the structural concept of
the pavilion

FEM analysis of the

designed pavilion

Reflections and

Planning and organization

Research approach into planning with timelines

Research of study material

Selection of study material

Structural concept elaboration for a

generic pavilion

Translation of the concept into a

parametric model with BC

Further studies (mathematics,

mechanics, scripting)

Design tool algorithm development

Combination of the new tool with

structural concept of the pavilion

FEM analysis of the designed


Reflections and considerations

Report elaboration

Presentation elaboration








Societal relevance
Building according to structural mechanics form-finding methods requires the collaboration of
both structural engineering and architects since the first steps of the design process. However
digital tools can be developed for architects in order to be more independent while investigating
design possibilities. The contemporary designers do not need to be able to make hard calculation
but just to understand the boundary conditions and the process governing the selected digital
tool. By doing so the proposed developed form-finding technique can be used consciously in
order to obtain performing light structures by optimizing the overall shape. The designer will be
able to shape the building starting from a structural concept by playing with the governing forces
and the given boundary conditions. The societal relevance is therefore the possibility to have an
integrated design process in which the designer is free to explore both the aesthetics as well as
the structural performances without getting lost into hard calculations.
Scientific relevance
The project is about a new tool for form-finding the supporting arches of tensile structures. In the
past century a lot of research has been done on the form finding methods of both tensile and
compressive structures. The digital form finding was inspired by physical experiments, used by
designers like Antoni Gaudi and Heinz Isler. However a clear limit of physical methods was not
just the accuracy of the models but also their restriction to structures that are only compressed or
tensioned. The digital environment opens the possibility to combine this two different kind of
structures into an hybrid form finding technique. For instance the membrane shape depend on the
internal pre-stresses as well as on the geometry of its supports, while the ideal shape of a
supporting arch is linked to the membrane reaction forces. The two form-finding processes can
be combined into an iterative process able to give back a structure where the pre-stressed
membrane generates only pure compression into the designed supporting arches. The working
environment will be Grasshopper for Rhino in order to have a tool available since the earlier
stages of the design process. The developed tool will not be just a translation of mathematical
theories giving back results similar to the physical experiments like hanging and soap-film
models. Its relevance is to combine those theories into a digital design tool able to form-find
hybrid structures that are not possible to be described by simple physical experiment.

Selected literature

Rik Rozendaal, Shells and Arches, TU Delft, 2014

Arturo Tedeschi, AAD Algorithms Aided Design, Le Penseur Publisher, Brienza, 2014
P.G. Malerba, M. Patelli and M. Quagliaroli, An Extended Force Density Method for the
form finding of cable systems with new forms, Politecnico di Milano, 2012
An iterative form-finding method for antifunicular shapes in spatial arch bridges, Juan
Jos Jorquera Lucerga, Javier Manterola Armisn, Civil-Comp Ltd. and Elsevier Ltd.,
Petra Gidak and Kreimir Fresl, Programming the force density method, University of
Zagreb, 2012
Daoxuan Liang, A Parametric Structural Design Tool (Grasshopper Interface) for
Plate Structures, TUDelft, 2012
Masaaki Miki, Extended force density method and its expression, University of Tokio,
P. Block, Thrust network analysis: Exploring three-dimensional equilibrium. (Doctoral
dissertation), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009
Horst Berger, Light structures-Structures of light, AuthorHouse, Indiana, 2005
Dr. Dieter Strbel, Dr. Peter Singer, Relation between force density and stress in a
regular discret net, Technet Stuttgart, 2003
Dr. Dieter Strbel, Dr. Peter Singer, Relation between force density and stress in a radial
discret net, Technet Stuttgart, 2003
Klaus Linkwitz, About form-finding of double curved structures, University of Stuttgart,
Klaus Linkwitz, Experience from a Course on Form-finding and Analysis of Tension
Structures, held at the University of Stuttgart for 10 years, University of Stuttgart, 1999
Robert Connelly, Rigidity, Cornell University, 1993
Robert Connelly, Rigidity and Energy, Cornell University, 1982
H J Schek, The force density method for form finding and computation of general
networks, Heidelberg, 1973

Desktop research results

Design tool algorithm outline

Maximum height

Radius of the pavilion

Number of arches

Arches divisions

Algorithm representing the structural concept of the pavilion





Main cable

Main cable
elements FD

FDM Force Density Method (direct)

new point


element prestress forces



Minimal bending energy arch form-finding method (Galapagos)

Discrete arch
new point

d xy < k




Structural design concept for the pavilion

Four basic structural elements can be distinguished in the proposed structural design concept:
the arches, the membrane, the pre-stress cables and the vertical anchored ties