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What is a Space Frame?

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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
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Used mainly in the context of building construction and automobile manufacturing, space frame design is a technique for putting together a structure using a skeleton-type approach, as opposed to traditional piece-by-piece or ground-up construction. The advantages of space frame design include weight savings, enhanced rigidity, and greater durability over conventional alternatives. Though the concept dates back to 1900, space frames only began to see widespread adoption around the turn of the 21st century.

The main benefit of space frames — their great strength to weight ratio — is rooted primarily in the natural rigidity offered by angular constructs. This is a concept borrowed from nature, as honeycombs, for instance, are known to have tremendous strength for their relative mass. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to try to adapt this idea to man-made construction in 1900, specifically with an eye to making lighter, more rigid flying machines. Though Bell largely failed in his particular pursuit, another great name in science, Buckminster Fuller, took the roots of space frame theory and adapted them to building design with much greater success around the middle of the 20th century.

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In architecture, space frames are most commonly employed in large roofs, though more experimental buildings, such as the geodesic domes known as the Biospheres, located in Oracle, Arizona and Montreal, Quebec, are constructed entirely using the technique. The best way to think of a space frame roof is as an expanded version of a crane gantry, with angular, criss-crossing struts going back and forth across horizontal girders. Expanded over a football field or similar arena-type layout, space frames become a cost-effective and more attractive solution compared to using a series of pillars or another load-bearing technique. In addition to less material needed, the simpler design requires less labor and lasts longer as well, with a reduced need for routine repairs or maintenance.

In automobile construction, space frame design has generally been cast off in favor of monocoque design by the manufacturing industry. Select high-end carmakers — including Acura®, Audi®, and Lamborghini&reg, among others — still make and develop new space frame cars, however. In automobiles, a space frame design consists of placing various sections of a car on a tubular frame, in almost a modular fashion. This offers the same benefits over traditional body-on-frame construction, as space frame architecture does over traditional buildings. Monocoque remains largely the design school of choice for cars, however, due in part to safety considerations that are irrelevant in architecture.

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