It's hard to get your head around what, exactly, to call Dror Benshetrit's latest brainstorm, the QuaDror. "Structural element" sounds too stodgy, something from the back shelves of the Architect's Warehouse Supply store. 'Ingenious Building Gizmo' is closer, but lacks the gravitas to capture the many possible functions ? some philanthropic, some serious load-bearing, some fancy pants artistic —- for which this invention is suitable.
Engineers would call the QuaDror a "space truss geometry," a wonky term for a sort of geometrical jujitsu: a structural joint that looks a little like a sawhorse, but can fold flat, making it both stunningly sturdy, remarkably flexible, and aesthetically pleasing. Today, the world is getting its first look at this marvel in person, when the Israeli designer introduces his brainchild at Africa's pre-eminent design conference, Design Indaba, in Cape Town.
Last month, Benshetrit gave Co Design a sneak peek at the the QuaDror's many applications at his studio in Chelsea. They include support trestles for bridges, sound buffer walls for highways, a speedy skeleton for disaster or low-income housing, and quirky public art.
Indeed, it was in party mode that QuaDror first came to life. In 2007, Benshetrit was invited to create a chandelier for one of the Milan Furniture Fair's glammest events: the annual Swarovski Crystal Palace exhibit, where major designers are asked to envision the various loopy things you can do with Swarovski crystals as a basic building block.
Like others in the show, Benshetrit created a lighting fixture that glittered with a thousand sparkly crystals. But its elemental form was an angular frame that sat on the floor instead of hanging from the rafters.
"The geometry first intrigued me for aesthetic reasons," Benshetrit says, "but then I realized its real structural strength was its simplicity and adaptation of scale."
The form is constructed of four identical L-shaped pieces, in which the angles are all the same, that operates with a kind of yin/yang action through a unique corner hinge. That allows it to open up for its full expression, or fold flat. It's always parallel to the ground and identical from all four sides.
Engineers from the structural-engineering super firm Arup have studied the form and pronounced its structural strength "outstanding." They were so enthusiastic about its potential that they agreed to endorse it for the annual Buckminster Fuller competition, in which QuaDror is currently competing (winners will be announced in May.)
The more Benshetrit and his staffers played with the form — in cardboard, wood, and with modeling software on the computer — the more uses they discovered. Eventually, they settled on five major applications: dividing, trestles, dwelling, fenestration, and art.
The QuaDror's angles, for example, make it uniquely suited for acoustic buffering, whether as a structural element for noise mitigation in urban environments or beside highways, or as an architectural or room-dividing design device in homes or offices.
As a trestle, it can be used to support bridges " or tables or desktops. ?If it has structural strength, any horizontal surface that needs structural integrity could use this," Benshetrit says.
It's stackable to 86 tiers, so could even be used to create multi-level buildings. But its brilliance is most pronounced when it's used as a prefab structural element for instant housing for disaster relief or for accommodating the rising ranks of the homeless. "I started looking at places where you just need to provide a structure as a frame for a roof over people's heads," Benshetrit says. "I wanted to make something that could withstand the forces of nature, that you could deploy with very little effort, and that could use local cladding on the roof or sides."
Compared to a rectangle or A-frame, the QuaDror is much stronger for vertical and horizontal loads. And because it can fold flat, it's economical to ship.
Benshetrit is so excited about the system's potential as housing that he's launched plans for QuaDror Home, a kit that would include four pieces equipped with the signature joint. The envelope and beams could be made of local materials, which would make each unit fit the ecological context of its surroundings. And because it can be shipped flat, you can fit 1750 kits in one 40 foot shipping container.
The first QuaDror homes will be deployed in Brazil and Sierra Leone by 2012.
Benshetrit is mounting a pop-up display in Capetown this week, hoping to get the world's assembled designers to start mulling the infinite possiblities of his ingenious geometrical shape shifter.
"My goal," he says, "is to bring this to the right people so we can envision this geometry in as many applications as it can support."