Courtesy Geoffrey von Oeyen Design

Textiles for boat sail covers are designed to be durable, stain resistant, flexible, and relatively light—attributes that also make them perfect for outdoor recreation and exposure to the elements. But for designer and avid sailor Geoffrey von Oeyen, sailing technology can be applied to more than just boats. For the entrance of a classroom and outdoor learning project for St. Matthew’s Parish School in Pacific Palisades, Calif., von Oeyen and his eponymous firm, Geoffrey von Oeyen Design, created a student-operated, retractable canopy using nautical technology at every step.

“Sailboats respond to the environment in real time and are made of materials that are lightweight and engineered for a high degree of environmental performance,” von Oeyen says. “But they also [respond] to physical performance and people.” Inspired by these characteristics, he set out to develop a collapsible and removable awning system that would attach to the building exterior and provide an outdoor learning environment that could be easily manipulated by the students with color-coded and weight-bearing pulley systems. A silver, vinyl-coated woven polyester canopy, weighing in at approximately 25 pounds, that is reflective, UV-resistant, and lightweight creates a microclimate for the classroom by providing shade and reducing glare from the sun.

Courtesy Geoffrey von Oeyen Design

Working with Pasadena, Calif.–based custom rigging and metal design fabricator Dave McCalley, von Oeyen designed and prefabricated a 22-foot-tall aluminum frame for the awning that is supported by two 90-pound spinnaker poles—typically used to control and support headsails of boats—salvaged from a former racing yacht. Fixed, stainless steel tension rods that tie the frame from above and below the ends of the 19-foot-long poles negate potential movement from wind or inclement weather. The poles are capable of withstanding up to 10,000 pounds of compression in their conventional use, but will likely bear just 240 pounds in compression from their own dead load and no more than 1,000 pounds of wind load in their repurposed use, von Oeyen says.

Von Oeyen's design takes into consideration the multiple uses of the adjacent sloping exterior driveway. The fixed-tension rods from below provide enough clearance to allow vehicles to pass underneath for student drop-offs. In their closed position, the spinnaker poles fold in and rest against the wall, parallel to the ground. Using a series of clutch and pulley systems connected to after- and fore-guy lines, the operator manipulates the spinnaker poles to swing out, ready for the canopy to be opened. A Harken Model 1 furler—which rolls the canopy material around a stay—installed with the frame enables compact storage.

Students use the color-coded pulley system—which would be considered running rigging on a boat—to unroll the awning from the furler down the length of the spinnaker poles. The line colors correspond to the colors of the specific clutch system handle to clearly demonstrate their function—for example, a green rope for the green handle controls the after-guy that opens the spinnaker poles. Von Oeyen used around 600 feet of rope for the running rigging lines, which are all led through keyholes to prevent sagging or tangling. The ropes are standard 9-millimeter-diameter double braids with a polyester coating that is easy on the hands. “We worked it out so the forces on the line would be such that middle school kids would be able to control these themselves,” von Oeyen says. A coat of IdeaPaint on the exterior wall lets teachers and students use it as a dry-erase board.

This is not von Oeyen's first foray into connecting sailing and architecture. In 2014, the designer organized an exhibition at the University of Southern California School of Architecture entitled “Performative Composites: Sailing Architecture” that, as ARCHITECT contributor Danielle Rago wrote in August 2015, "opened up the conversation about sailing to the architectural discipline."

Courtesy Geoffrey von Oeyen Design
Courtesy Geoffrey von Oeyen Design