Uncrushable: How a 2,700-paper-tube Structure Stands Up to Stress

Jun 28 2017

In preparation for the opening of the National Building Museum’s Summer Block Party in Washington, DC, Columbia Engineering ran a crush test on a prototype of “Hive,” a new, interactive installation that will open to the public on July 4 as the fourth in an annual series of temporary structures inside the museum’s historic Great Hall.

Designed by Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice based in Chicago and New York, Hive is built entirely of nearly 2,700 wound paper tubes, a construction material that is recyclable, lightweight, and renewable. The tubes vary in size from several inches to 10 feet high and interlock to create three dynamic interconnected domed chambers. Rising nearly 60 feet high, the installation’s tallest dome features an oculus that is 13 feet in diameter.

Adrian Brügger, who manages Civil Engineering’s Carleton Lab at Columbia Engineering, worked with Studio Gang to test an assembly of three 4’10” notched wound paper tubes interlocked with three 10-foot tubes to quantify the overall carrying capacity (compressive strength) of the structure, i.e., both the connection and the tubes themselves. The team assembled the almost 15-foot structure, comparable to the first two rows of the largest dome structure, in the Columbia Engineering lab and used the lab’s Southwark Emery Universal Testing Machine to compress the paper tubes to test their limits.

The tube structure was able to sustain 17,300 lb. before tearing at the notched connections. The whole assembly took a compressive load of 55,030 lb. before breaking completely. “In my professional career, I have tested many different types of structural materials, but this is definitely the first time that I have encountered paper composite,” Brügger says. “I am blown away by the fracture toughness of this material. The fact that it carried over 25 tons of load after initial cracking is amazing.”

Hive is on view at the National Building Museum’s Summer Block Party in DC from July 4 to September 4, 2017. 

Time-lapse video of structural testing