Don't listen to what you've been told. Designs that look suspiciously too awesome in renderings can be both realized and useful. On July 8, Tex-Fab, a network of Texas-based institutions and individuals interested in parametric design and digital fabrication, completed the first round of judging for its 2014 competition, Plasticity.

The brief for the competition, Tex-Fab’s fourth, called for building components that explored the plasticity through materiality, form, experience, and performance. Some entries, for example, featured arrested fluid materials to building components shaped by internal and external forces. The brief also asked for projects to highlight the use of parametric design and digital fabrication technologies, such as composite material systems, casting, forming, 3D printing, and automated components.

The designers, architects, and fabricators comprising the jury were: Benjamin Ball, Assoc. AIA; Alvin Huang, AIA; Virginia San Fratello; Kenneth Tracy, Assoc. AIA; Christine Yogiaman, Assoc. AIA; and Joshua Zabel. The judges picked four finalists and five honorable mentions from 70 entries submitted from around the world.

Though the selected projects may look like theoretical exercises, they were chosen for their “innovative approach to composite manufacturing and potential contribution to the field of architecture,” according to Tex-Fab’s press release. The four finalists will each receive a $1,000 stipend to develop prototypes for exhibition at the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA)’s 2014 Design Agency conference at the University of Southern California in October. There, a second-round jury—Craig Dykers, AIA; Jeanne Gang, FAIA; Bill Kreysler; Greg Lynn; and Roland Snooks—will select the winner.

The winner gets to build and showcase a full-scale version of their proposal at the Tex-Fab 2015 conference at the University of Houston next spring. Brief descriptions of the four finalists’ projects follow.

Puff’d Composites explores the plasticity of composite construction and the use of seams for joinery and articulation in architecture and, in particular, the fabrication of mega panels. Instead of the conventional method of casting panels with milled-foam formwork, Puff’d uses a six-axis robot to sew two glass-fiber sheets into a folded envelope with hyperbolic-shaped surfaces. Areas requiring more stress resistance are thickened by inflating the regions with expandable spray foam. The foam is injected manually or robotically into each cell prior to the glass fiber’s full cure, forcing the panels to expand and stretch.

When the cure is complete, the finished panels can be locked together via the joints and then keyed into place. Actual and added seams articulate the curved surface. Juror Huang said he was “intrigued by the formal articulation of the soft puffed interior versus the interlocking seams of the hard shell.”

Monolith Translucent Lattice creates a parametrically-irregular lattice wall by using heated nichrome wires, electricity, and a meltable material, such as ice, wax, or cured gelatin solution, for a mold. The process has two potential applications. First, this molding method can produce joints for irregular space-frame structures. Second, it could be used to manufacture full-size networks, such as walls. Through initial testing, the researcher has found that gelatin molds are compatible with epoxy resin. Juror San Frantello said that the molding process has the potential to make “manifold connectors, structural surfaces, pipes and chambers” along with a “range of end products at potentially different scales.”

Plastic Stereotomy aims to revive masonry stereotomy—the creation of complex structures with precisely cut stone—by using cut-solid and molded, hollow fiber-reinforced plastic. After combining multiple layers of tessellated surfaces to establish a 3D form, the researcher conducts a preliminary structural analysis to adjust the assembly’s wall thickness and deformations to achieve structural stability. Finally, the team constructs a plastic masonry structure that alternates courses of thinly-molded fiber-reinforced plastic sheets and thick expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Juror Zabel said he looked forward to seeing how “EPS foam as a finish material would be considered.” Plastic reflectors in an iridescent paint finish the EPS courses while LEDs illuminate the structure's interior to create a kaleidoscope room.

To create a dynamic, aggregate surface, ViscoPlasty uses a fabrication process that its researchers call Straw-k. The process uses heat to meld thousands of plastic homogenous components into a single piece that can assume various haptic and formal properties in response to different lighting, acoustic, and structural objectives. After turning 250,000 melted drinking straws into a courtyard furniture installation with the Straw-k process, the group wants to use 5-centimeter-diameter plastic pipes to create a human-scale composite that can control light and sound. A robotic arm would stack the pipes into a tilted fabrication mold and then heat-weld the plastic pipes to weld at their points of tangent. Subsequent melting passes would then deform the surface to create three-dimensional relief.