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In architecture and structural engineering, a space frame or space structure is a truss-like, lightweight rigid structure constructed from interlocking struts in a geometric pattern. Space frames can be used to span large areas with few interior supports. Like the truss, a space frame is strong because of the inherent rigidity of the triangle; flexing loads (bending moments) are transmitted as tension and compression loads along the length of each strut.
The simplest form of space frame is a horizontal slab of interlocking square pyramids and tetrahedra built from aluminium or tubular steel struts. In many ways this looks like the horizontal jib of a tower crane repeated many times to make it wider. A stronger form is composed of interlocking tetrahedra in which all the struts have unit length. More technically this is referred to as an isotropic vector matrix or in a single unit width an octet truss. More complex variations change the lengths of the struts to curve the overall structure or may incorporate other geometrical shapes.
Space frames were independently developed by Alexander Graham Bell around 1900 and Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s. Bell's interest was primarily in using them to make rigid frames for nautical and aeronautical engineering, with the tetrahedral truss being one of his inventions. However few of his designs were realised. Buckminster Fuller's focus was architectural structures; his work had greater influence.
Within the meaning of space frame, we can find three systems clearly different between them:
- Space plane covers.
- Barrel vaults. Usually this type of space frames do not need to use tetrahedral modules or pyramids as a part of its backing.
- Spherical domes. The structure built in this way, in most cases, requires the use of tetrahedral modules or pyramids shaping backing modules, and even, these domes would need some support by his cover.
Space frames are a common feature in modern construction; they are often found in large roof spans in modernist commercial and industrial buildings.
Notable examples of buildings based on space frames include:
- Stansted airport, by Foster and Partners
- Bank of China Tower and the Louvre Pyramid, by I. M. Pei
- Rogers Centre by Rod Robbie and Michael Allan
- McCormick Place East in Chicago
- Eden Project in Cornwall, England
- Globen, Sweden - Dome with diameter of 110 m, (1989)
- Biosphere 2 by John P. Allen in Oracle, Arizona
- Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City, New York
Large portable stages and lighting gantries are also frequently built from space frames and octet trusses.
Spaceframes are sometimes used in the chassis designs of automobiles and motorcycles. In both a spaceframe and a tube-frame chassis, the suspension, engine, and body panels are attached to a skeletal frame of tubes, and the body panels have little or no structural function. By contrast, in a unibody or monocoque design, the body serves as part of the structure.
Tube-frame chassis pre-date spaceframe chassis and are a development of the earlier ladder chassis. The advantage of using tubes rather than the previous open channel sections is that they resist torsional forces better. Some tube chassis were little more than a ladder chassis made with two large diameter tubes, or even a single tube as a backbone chassis. Although many tubular chassis developed additional tubes and were even described as "spaceframes", their design was rarely correctly stressed as a spaceframe and they behaved mechanically as a tube ladder chassis, with additional brackets to support the attached components, suspension, engine etc. The distinction of the true spaceframe is that all the forces in each strut are either tensile or compression, never bending. Although these additional tubes did carry some extra load, they were rarely diagonalised into a rigid spaceframe.
The first true spaceframe chassis were produced in the 1930s by designers such as Buckminster Fuller and William Stout (the Dymaxion and the Stout Scarab) who understood the theory of the true spaceframe from either architecture or aircraft design.
The first racing car to attempt a spaceframe was the Cisitalia D46 of 1946. This used two small diameter tubes along each side, but they were spaced apart by vertical smaller tubes, and so were not diagonalised in any plane. A year later, Porsche designed their Type 360 for Cisitalia. As this included diagonal tubes, it can be considered the first true spaceframe.
The Maserati Tipo 61 of 1959 (Birdcage) is often thought of as the first but in 1949 Dr. Robert Eberan-Eberhorst designed the Jowett Jupiter exhibited at the London Motor Show in 1949 and taking a class win at the 1950 Le Mans 24hr. Later the small British car manufacturers developed the concept TVR produced an alloy-bodied two seater on a multi tubular chassis, which appeared in 1949.
Colin Chapman of Lotus introduced his first 'production' car, the Mark VI, in 1952. This was influenced by the Jaguar C-Type chassis, another with four tubes of two different diameters, separated by narrower tubes. Chapman reduced the main tube diameter for the lighter Lotus, but did not reduce the minor tubes any further, possibly because he considered that this would appear flimsy to buyers. Although widely described as a spaceframe, Lotus did not build a true spaceframe chassis until the Mark VIII, with the influence of other designers, with experience from the aircraft industry.
A drawback of the spaceframe chassis is that it encloses much of the working volume of the car and can make access for both the driver and to the engine difficult. Some spaceframes have been designed with removable sections, joined by bolted pin joints. Such a structure had already been used around the engine of the Lotus Mark III. Although somewhat inconvenient, an advantage of the spaceframe is that the same lack of bending forces in the tubes that allow it to be modelled as a pin-jointed structure also means that such a removable section need not reduce the strength of the assembled frame.
Italian motorbike manufacturer Ducati extensively uses tube frame chassis on its models.
Space frames have also been used in bicycles, such as those designed by Alex Moulton.
Space frames are typically designed using a rigidity matrix. The special characteristic of the stiffness matrix in an architectural space frame is the independence of the angular factors. If the joints are sufficiently rigid, the angular deflections can be neglected, simplifying the calculations.
- Backbone chassis
- Platonic solids
- Tessellated roof
- Stressed skin construction
- Tetrahedral-octahedral honeycomb
- Otero C. (1990). "Diseño geométrico de cúpulas no esféricas aproximadas por mallas triangulares, con un número mínimo de longitudes de barra". Tesis Doctoral. Universidad de Cantabria.
- Ludvigsen Colin Chapman, p. 153–154
- Ludvigsen, Karl (2010). Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator. Haynes Publishing. pp. 150–164. ISBN 1-84425-413-5.
- Ludvigsen Colin Chapman, p. 151
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