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Interview // Frank Barkow / Barkow Leibinger

On Pioneering Prefabricated Construction in Berlin


Your tower design for Urban Living proposes a modern pre-fabricated solution to housing. What is special about your pre-fabrication technique, the building materials and the qualities they offer?

We are proposing “Infra-Lightweight Concrete” in this application: a self-insulated, lightweight concrete that is complimented with in-line vertical steel imbedded in the concrete that carries the vertical load. In this way the concrete stiffens the thin rods, fire protects them, and is the building insulation as a hybrid structure. For us, this is a way of re-visiting a historical technique (pre-fabrication), updating it as a sustainable and forward-looking material. Digitally fabricated technology allows us more complex casting and forming techniques, as envisioned by the precast element we are proposing here, which exploit the plastic potential of concrete fully.

Prefabrication is fast, energy- and cost-efficient but has a stigma of low quality, monotony and of lacking the ability to respond to the context. Do you see the chance for a new era in prefabrication? How and in what ways can prefabrication be better now?

Historically, prefabrication favored redundancy: identical, repetitive, modular and geometrically simple elements. Digital technologies enable differentiation within each element and the possibility for a much larger array of element types which can respond more economically to structural loading or formal ambitions. This coupled with new materials like Infra-Lightweight Concrete anticipates a revolution in how this method can be imagined and conceived.

What are the biggest challenges for an architect designing affordable housing typologies in Berlin/ in general and how do you respond to them?

In our case the biggest challenge in Berlin will be legislative: how do you get permits and acceptance for materials and systems that are emerging and without precedents? This will require research, testing, and approval, which take time and money. Once approved, however, and put into place the initial costs will be offset enormously by the benefits of an economical, sustainable, flexible, and aesthetically powerful design tool and system.

What do you consider as a best practice example – worldwide – using prefabrication as a housing solution?

Once built, ours will be a compelling example so you’ll have to forgive me for our enthusiasm, but to cite a historical example I would have to name Angelo Mangiarotti—the Italian post-war maestro. His work in ceramics (slip casting) vases and bowls of extraordinary beauty and formal complexity, as well as housing examples such as his ‘Edificio per Abitazioni a Monza, Como’ 1972, 1977, as well as industrial buildings, are masterful and never far from our thoughts regarding precast concrete.


Interview by Kristien Ring (AA Projects) with Frank Barkow


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