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Architecture design could breathe new life into disaster zones

July 21, 2020

Bond University student Chisomo Banzi with Breatheblocks architectural model

A new high-tech construction solution aims to provide much-needed emergency shelter in disaster-hit areas, while paving the way for a new approach to Australia’s cities and urban areas.

Breatheblocks is the brainchild of second-year architecture student Chisomo Banzi, with the assistance of fellow student Nelson Michaels. 

The pair teamed up to work on the Breatheblocks concept, which grew from one of Mr Banzi’s projects in his final assessment.

They describe Breatheblocks as a system of self-assembling structural drones.
 
“They work collaboratively to form a wide range of architectural spaces . . . a little like flying lego bricks”, Mr Banzi said. 

The blocks can be used to construct anything from relief shelter in disaster-prone or ultra-remote areas to portable life-saving ICUs and high-tech labs, and even structures for daily use.

The hard plastic frame of each Breatheblock is made from 100 per cent recycled polyethylene, with internal electronics comprised of standardised drone parts to minimise cost.

Each Breatheblock uses an “iris” mechanism to enclose the structure and provide a skin for the structure formed when the blocks are combined.

The blocks are solar-powered and also generate a small amount of electricity, enough to lessen the structure’s carbon footprint.

“A hallmark of good design is that form should follow function. Yet currently, we adapt our activities to conform to fixed spaces. Breatheblocks is about reinterpreting that old adage to give back a greater degree of design power to the user.

'Imagine if our buildings could not only adapt to our rapidly changing needs in real-time, but also the ever-changing external environment at large,” Mr Banzi said.

He added that one of the overarching objectives of Breatheblocks was to help society re-evaluate its relationship with the built environment.

“We almost don’t have the choice to keep on going the same way we have been. In a world where millions are displaced due to climate or weather-related events, and at the same time, urbanisation and rapid population growth are making cities harder places to live in many ways for average and low economic groups . . . it’s no longer enough to think of cities as no more than rigid collections of buildings.

Breatheblocks is about prodding that mindset shift . . . of seeing our cities, instead, as dynamic systems of complex socio-cultural, economic and environmental processes. Self-assembly is a good tool to explore this.”

Mr Banzi and Mr Michaels are confident Breatheblocks can be part of the solution for Pacific Island settlements at risk from rising sea levels, caused by climate change.

“Easily flexible and adaptable systems like Breatheblocks allow for a new way to reconsider how villages and cities and communities can live without compromising their quality of life,” Mr Banzi said.

They hope to establish relationships with multinational NGOs to provide them with the networks to eventually distribute Breatheblocks into the South Pacific and other areas that need them.

Mr Michaels said another benefit of Breatheblocks was the energy saved through their ease of assembly.

“A key benefit which is often overlooked is the assembly, so when you’re building a house or a structure, you tend to not think about the energy that’s used to build that, and the machinery that’s also used, like the pouring of the concrete, the physical labour and all that kind of thing, pretty much all of that is mitigated through the self-assembly as well, especially for larger structures.”

The pair has worked with Bond’s Transformer entrepreneurship program. Earlier this year Breatheblocks placed second in the Bond finals of the World’s Challenge Challenge, organised by Transformer.

They hope to have a small working prototype of Breatheblocks built sometime within the next few months, and long-term hope to have Breatheblocks’ base of operations in the Gold Coast.