Floating Azolla Farmhouses – Circular Agriculture & Living in Rotterdam


Azolla is a minuscule floating plant that forms part of a genus of species of aquatic ferns, also known as Mosquito Fern. It holds the world record in biomass producer – doubling in 2-3 days. The secret behind this plant is its symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing cyanobacterium Anabaena making it a superorganism. The Azolla Provides a microclimate for the cyanobacteria in exchange for nitrate fertiliser. Azolla is the only known case where a symbiotic relationship endures during the fern’s reproductive cycle and is passed on to the next generation. They also have a complimentary photosynthesis, using light from most of the visible spectrum and their growth is accelerated with elevated CO2 and Nitrogen.

Azolla is capable of producing natural biofertiliser, bioplastics because of its sugar contents and biofuel because of the large amount of lipids. Its growth requirements can accommodate many climates too, allowing it to be classified as a weed in many countries. I was able to study the necessary m2 of growing Azolla to sequester the same amount as my yearly CO2 emissions, resulting in 57% of a football field equivalent of growing Azolla to make me carbon neutral.

Why is this useful? Climate change will inevitably bring more adverse climate conditions that will put many world wide crops at risk and, as a consequence, will affect our lives. A crop that produces biomass at the speed of Azolla provides at advantage in flexibility: a soya bean can take months to grow until ready to be harvested, Azolla can be harvested twice a week. This plant has the potential to be used in the larger agricultural sector and diminish the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of one of the most pollutant sectors.



I contacted the Azolla Research Group at the University of Utrecht and they kindly accepted to give us a tour of their research facilities, providing us with an in-depth insight into the aquatic fern. I also decided to approach the Floating Farm with a proposal of using Azolla in their dairy process. They agreed to explore this and I put them in contact with the research team in the University of Utrecht, who are now cooperating with the dairy farm’s team in decreasing the carbon emissions of the cows on the farm.



Floating Azolla District Masterplan

The Floating Azolla District consists on a proposed community that emphasises a circular economy with a focus on sustainable agriculture in Rotterdam. It builds on to the existing Floating Farm found in the M4H area. It is formed of three areas:

1) Azolla – Dwellings combining a series of residential units for the increasing number of young entrepreneurs in the RID with three central cores growing stacked trays of Azolla as in vertical farming.

2) The Floating Farm which continues to produce dairy products and a Bamboo growing area to maintain the upkeep of floating platforms and construction of new dwellings. Floating rice paddies are grown in the warmer months in a closely monitored system of permaculture.

3) A production facility which concentrates on research and development into Azolla as well as retrieving the water fern’s byproducts such as bioplastics extracted from the sugars; biofuel, from the lipids; and bamboo plywood lumber for the construction of the expanding Floating District.

Floating Farm
Bamboo Growing Pods
Closed System in the Floating Azolla District

Floating Azolla District – Dwellings

Floating Azolla District – Dwellings

This section concentrates on the detail construction of the Azolla-Dwellings. These floating units are designed to be used as a combination of co-housing for entrepreneurs working in the Rotterdam Innovation District, where the Floating Farm is located, and indoor Azolla growing facilities which is then used further along in the masterplan. The growing areas are built on a series of building components that provide support for trays of Azolla to be grown in a vertical farming manner and provide support for the floor plates as well as anchoring for the entire dwelling.

Dwellings Construction Sequence
Exploded Axo – Dwellings

The materials are a combination of local bamboo grown on a series of floating platforms that prevent the cold winter winds from affecting the overall masterplan and pallets sourced from neighbouring industrial facilities. Using the reciprocal building system developed in Brief 1, a series of stacked components are linked to form the vertical farming support for the Azolla. This system is then extended to support the floors for the dwellings.

Azolla Vertical Farming Support

Similar to an aperture ring on a camera, this mechanism uses the varying tide to automatically collect the Azolla from the vertical farming trays to then be used throughout the Masterplan. By displacing 2.5% of the area for each tray every tidal change, this mechanism collects 50% of the harvest every 10 days allowing for a continuous growth of Azolla.

Azolla Collection Mechanism
Azolla Vertical Farming Trays and Floor Support
Azolla Vertical Farming Trays and Floor Support

The dwellings’ facade is a result of a careful analysis of harmful and beneficial solar radiation. By setting an initial average temperature to monitory, the facade will block sun that naturally would drive the temperature above the chosen one and the beneficial would bring the temperature up. This shading serves a buffer zone that surrounds the internal living spaces and is used to grow vegetables for the residents.

Thermal Responsive Facade Options.

Semi-public spaces are located on the ground floor (open plan kitchen and living) and bedrooms are located on the first floor, surround a central spiral staircase for circulation.

Ground Floor Plan
First Floor Plan
Exterior View
Interior View

The same building system based on reciprocal structures is coated in azolla bioplastic preventing the wood from rotting and making the form waterproof. These are used as underwater columns which allow the dwellings and platforms to float. Each ‘column’ can support a load of 2011Kg.

Support Floating Columns


Floating Farm Rotterdam

Based on relationship between the University of Utrecht and the Floating Farm taking place outside the initially academic intention of the visit, I decided to use the Floating Farm as a site and a starting point for my proposal. The floating farm is intended to stand out and create an awareness of the possibility or idea of living on water and taking ownership of one’s food production, which seems to match the potential uses and benefits of Azolla. The researchers at the University of Utrecht expressed their need of getting the advantages of this plant to a wider public and this remained in my mind, possibly being the main reason behind my approach to the Floating Farm.

The Floating Farm sits in the Merwehaven area or M4H in the Port of Rotterdam. Highlighted below are the natural site conditions that determined the placement of the masterplan parts according to their function. Bamboo growing pods are placed southwards of the port to block the winter wind while allowing the summer winds from the west to navigate through.

Site Study

In 2007, Rotterdam announced its ambition to become 100% climate-proof by 2025 despite having 80% of its land underwater, therefore it was important to look at the flood risk and tidal change. The Merwehaven area in Rotterdam seems to have an average tidal change of 2 metres which I thought could be taken advantage of in a mechanical system mentioned previously.

Tidal Changes in the Floating Farm Rotterdam
Flood Risk & Tidal changes in Rotterdam



The reciprocal building system used in the construction of the dwellings began by looking into the Fern plant and its’ form. All ferns are Pinnate – central axis and smaller side branches – considered a primitive condition. The veins never coalesce and are known to be ‘free’. The leaves that are broadly ovate or triangular tend to be born at right angles to the sunlight.

Reciprocal Fern Building System

I then decided to model a leaf digitally, attempting to simulate the fractal nature found in a fern frond and the leaves to 3 degrees of fractals. I then simplified the fern frond to 2 levels to allow for easier laser cutting and structural stability. The large perimeter meant, therefore, there was a large amount of surface area for friction so I explored different configurations and tested their intersections.

Iteration 1 Component Study

I then selected the fern frond intersection I found to show the best stability out of the tested ones shown previously. By arraying them further, they began to curve. When pressure is applied to the top of the arch, the intersections are strengthened and the piece appears to gain structural integrity.

Iteration 2 Double Curvature Study

When a full revolution is completed, the components appear to gain their maximum structural integrity. Since I had decided to digitally model the fern frond, I was able to decrease the distance between the individual leaves in the centre of each frond through grasshopper. By doing this, the intersections connecting a frond with another were less tight in the centre than on the extremities of each frond, allowing for double curvature.

Iteration 2 Double Curvature Study – Stress Test
Iteration 2 Double Curvature Study – Stress Test Findings

I continued to iterate the leave by decreasing any arching on the leaf and finding the minimum component, the smallest possible component in the system. By arraying a component formed of 3 ‘leaves’ on one hand and 2 on the other, I would be able to grow the system in one direction as before due to the reciprocal organisation and in the other direction by staggering the adjacent component. The stress tests of this arrangement showed a phased failure of the ‘column’. Instead of breaking at once, row by row of components failed with time, outwards-inwards.

Iterations 3, 4, 5 Minimum Building Component
Iteration 5 Minimum Building Component – Stress Test
Iteration 5 Minimum Building Component – Stress Test Findings

I extracted the minimum possible component from the previous iterations and attempted to merge the system with firstly, 3d printed PLA bioplastic components and then with an algae bioplastic produced at home. I became interested in the idea of being able to coat the wood in an algae bioplastic substituting the need for any epoxy for waterproofing. The stress tests for this component showed a surprising total of 956 kg-force for it to fail.

Agar Bioplastic Test

Here, I began combining different quantities of vegetable glycerine, agar agar (extracted from red algae and used for cooking) and water. By changing the ratios of agar and glycerine I was able to create 2 different bioplastics: one being brittle and the other flexible. See above for the flexible sample and below for the brittle sample. Both samples appeared to fail under the same 7 Kg-force.

Agar Bioplastic Tensile Test

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Bending Lattice System

My initial studies stemmed from researching into Stellation. This, in simple terms, is the process of extending  polygon in two dimensions, polyhedron in three dimensions, or, in general, a polytope in n dimensions, to form a new figure. Through researching the application of this process, I came across the sculptures created by George Hart, as he has experimented with stellated geometries to which are subdivided to create mathematical interweaving structures.Stellation 1

My Research into the method and calculations of George Hart’s Mathematical Sculpture’s focused on the sculpture ‘Frabjous’. Through rigorous testing and model making I have understood the rules behind the complex form. This is based on the form of a stellated icosahedron, whose shape is contained within a dodecahedron.grey card model

Lines are drawn from one point, to a point mirrored at one edge of the face of the dodecahedron form – as shown in the diagram. This creates intersecting lines at each face as you can see from the diagrams below. Each dividing line has two intersection points, with symmetry at the center of the line. The sculpture aims to avoid the intersections of these lines by introducing a sine curve with the domain 0 to 2*pi. As you can see, each component is exactly the same – for this model, 30 components are used.

george hart diagram 1george hart diagram 2george hart diagram 3

`To simplify the construction of the sculpture, I extracted a build-able section which uses ten components in total. Two of these sections are then weaved together and joined up by a further ten single components to form the entire sculpture.Diagram Sequence of Researched SculptureOne Component ImageryGeometry 2

Following this research, I extracted the concept of avoiding the intersection and subdivided a cube with lines from each corner of the cube. These lines were then weaved around eachother using a sine curve with a domain of 0 to pi. I then mirrored the curves and rotated them to create an intertwining form.Avoiding Self Intersection 2

Another test was created with the same process, however subdividing a cube using the midpoint of each face. – This creates an octahedral geometry.Avoiding Self Intersection octahedron

Using this interweaving geometry, I have created different three dimensional arrays to create a spatial form. The concept of avoiding intersections naturally cause a structure to fail. To form a structurally efficient version of this geometry, I introduced the idea of a reciprocal structure, and allowed the beams to self support by resting on eachother. This did not create a structure strong enough to stand on, however through adding a cube whose dimensions are equal to the width of the beams, the structure became very strong.

Avoiding Self Intersection octahedron 3

Testing the component at a small scale required the design of a joint which allowed me to assemble these components together through interlocking elements. Each beam element slots into the joint; When two joints and two beams are connected together the curves naturally stay in place due to the angle cut into the joint. Three of these connected elements together form the component.

Diagraming the Joint

As mentioned previously, avoiding intersections create inefficient structures – For this small scale experimentation, the concept of Tensegrity was implemented. Tensegrity is a structural principle based on using isolated compression components within a net of continuous tension, allowing the compression members to not need to touch each other. This model was constructed using 1.5mm plywood which has been laser cut; the modularity of the system ensures minimal material wastage.

Construction Sequence of ModelModel Photographs

The three dimensional array of this geometry creates many interesting shapes and patterns when viewed from different angles – this is visible in the following video:





Hexagonal Patterned Spacial Definitions

The inspiration for this research came from the Asian artist Ren Ri, who uses bees in order to generate his sculptural  work. He predefines the space for the bees to work with, and allows for a time period for the honeycombs to take shape.Portfolio__Page_06Portfolio__Page_07Portfolio__Page_08Portfolio__Page_09

There are three types of surface division that manage to fill up all the area with prime geometric space – triangular (S3), square (S4) and hexagonal (S6). Other types of surface division, either leave gaps between the prime elements, which need to be filled by secondary shapes, or are confined to irregular shapes.
Research shows that the most efficient way of dividing a surface is through a minimum number of achievable line intersections, or a maximum number of membranes. In either case, the hexagonal division fits the case. This type of organization is a second degree iteration from the triangular division. It is formed by identifying and connecting the triangular cell centroids.
Such as in the case of soap-bubble theory, these cells expand, tending to fill up all the surface area around them, and finally joining through communicating membranes.
From a structural point of view, the best integration is the triangular one, because of the way each element (beam) reacts to the variation of the adjacent elements.
By converting the elemental intersection in the hexagonal division from a single triple intersection to a triple double intersection, the structure would gain sufficient structural resistance. This can be done through two methods – translation or rotation. Translation implies moving the elements away from the initial state in order to open up a triangular gap at the existing intersection. This method results in uneven shapes. In the case of rotation, the elements are adjusted around each middle point until a sufficient structural component is created. It is through rotation that the shape is maintained to a relative hexagonal aspect, due to the unique transformation method.



Pursuing the opportunity to test the system through a 1:1 scale project, I was offered the chance to design a bar installation for a private event at the Saatchi Gallery. The project has been a success and represents a stage test for the system.Portfolio__Page_36Portfolio__Page_37Portfolio__Page_38Portfolio__Page_39Portfolio__Page_40Portfolio__Page_41Portfolio__Page_42Portfolio__Page_43Portfolio__Page_44Portfolio__Page_45Portfolio__Page_47Portfolio__Page_49Portfolio__Page_46Portfolio__Page_48Portfolio__Page_50Portfolio__Page_51

Moving further, the attempt was to implement dynamic force analysis to the design, through variation of the elemental thickness. The first test was a bridge design. The structure was anchored on 2 sides, and had a span of 5m.  Portfolio__Page_54Portfolio__Page_55

The next testing phase includes domed structures, replicating modular structures and double curved instances.

Kinetic systems

“…the main task is to unfreeze architecture- to make it a fluid, vibrating, changeable backdrop for the varied and constantly changing modes of life…”

Reciprocal systems can be used to create a wide variety of movable structures based on pin-joint assemblies, especially in planar form.

One of the most widely known reciprocal kinetic structures is the iris diaphragm which uses four or more elements hinged at their ends with pin joints to generate a sliding motion for opening and closing. The elements join one another at different points along their spans and these intermediate points of connection can be used to determine new kinematic behaviour.

              658px-Lens-iris   7a4b032b5d49095bf3d6465baa2ee078

Iris diaphragm with 6 and 8 elements

Jean Nouvel’s facade design for the Institut du Monde Arabe is based on the iris mechanism, with aluminium diaphragm panels employing squares, circles, stars and polygons to generate decorative patterns through rotation. This light-responsive south facing facade uses a photoelectric cell to adjust the admission of natural light by the opening and closing of the mobile diaphragm.


Institut du Monde Arabe by Jean Nouvel

Calatrava’s project for a restaurant in Zurich has some similarities with the principles of retractable reciprocal frames. The roof structure is composed of nine metal and glass tree-like elements 12m high. Each of the nine columns is mechanically operated and folds simultaneously with all the others to provide shelter for the restaurant underneath.



Model for a restaurant in Zurich by Santiago Calatrava

The idea of a retractable roof which operates similar to the iris of the camera lens was first patented in 1961 by Emilio Perez who proposed a dome built of 3D curved segments which retract. The segments twist simultaneously and create a circular opening at the top.

Patent of retractable dome

Patent for a retractable dome by Emilio Perez

However, issues such as cladding materials, the changing geometry due to the retraction, design details of the hinges, eliminating the danger of progressive collapse, drive mechanisms which will provide simultaneous reaction to the beams and the cladding as well as overall construction detailing have to be considered and developed.

Chuck Hoberman’s research in the field of mobile and folding structures can have a remarkable impact on the development of kinetic reciprocal structures. His unique approach in the field of transformable design has created created objects that simulate the behaviour of living organisms, fostering a dynamic relationship between structure and user.

The Iris Dome has a fixed perimeter with a centre retracting in a smooth radial motion. A lamella dome with a geometry of interlocking spirals, the structure is based on a Vierendeel grid which carries the load by bending action rather than by axial forces which makes it similar to a retractable reciprocal structure. The main difference however is that the segments which form the Iris Dome are an assembly of pairs of structural elements connected with hinges at their midpoints which move like scissors.

Scissor-like movement is the main generative force also for the Hoberman sphere. The unfolding structure resembles an expanding geodesic sphere which can reach a size up to five times larger than the initial one. It consists of six great circles, each made of 60 elements which fold and unfold in a scissor-like motion. There are also 60 nodes which give rigidity to the structure and prevent the circles from expanding further into elliptical shapes.

Hoberman’s piece emerged in part from working with NASA on their deployable structures programme: ‘rather than constructing a structure in space, you unfold a structure in space’.

Reciprocal Structures

A reciprocal frame is a self-supported three-dimensional structure made up of three or more sloping rods, which form a closed circuit. The inner end of each rod rests on and is supported by its adjacent rod, gaining stability as the last rod is placed over the first one in a mutually supporting manner.

These rods form self-similar and highly symmetric patterns, capable of creating a vast architectural space as a narrative and aesthetic expression of the frame. The appearance of the entire structure is determined by the geometric parameters of each individual unit and the connections between the units.


Precedent image

Reciprocal frame (RF) principles have been around for many centuries, proving themselves versatile, efficient and resistant. They were present in the neolithic pit dwelling, the Eskimo tent, Indian tepee and the Hogan dwellings where mutually supporting beams form a rigid skeleton. The Hogan dwellings consist of a larger number of single RFs being supported by a larger diameter RF structure. Later development of the structural form can be seen in the timber floor grillages of larger medieval buildings where they were used for spanning spaces wider than the length of available beams.


Eskimo tent

Leonardo da Vinci explored two forms of reciprocal structure: a bridge and a dome. His work was commissioned by the Borgia family, with the purpose of designing light and strong structures which could be built and taken down quickly. This was to aid them in their constant quest for dominance over the Medici family in Renaissance Italy. The bridge would have been used for crossing rivers, and the dome could have functioned as a military camp.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 17.21.33

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook

Understanding the geometry of the reciprocal frame and the parameters that define it is essential in order to design and construct larger systems. The parameters that define RF units with regular polygonal and circular geometry are the following:

– n: number of beams;

– R: radius through the outer supports;

– r: radius through beam intersection points;

– H: vertical rise from the outer supports to the beam intersection points;

– h: vertical spacing of the centerlines of the beams at their intersection points;

– L: length of the beams on the slope;

– l: plan projection of the length of the beam.

16.10.14 Systems 6Manipulating the length (L), height (H) and radius of the circumscribed circle of the three intersection points (r), the geometry of the structure changes as follows:

-increasing the length of the beams reduces the height of the entire structure;

-increasing the height of the RF structures reduces the span of the overall structure;

-increasing the radius of the circumscribed circle reduces the span of the overall structure.

16.10.14 Systems

Each RF member is subject to forces of compression, bending moments and shear forces as well as axial forces. The members transmit the vertical forces of their own weight and any imposed loads through compression in each member. These forces must be resisted at the perimeter supports. In addition, the lower part of the beam, between the outer support and the point where the beam is supporting the adjacent one, is in compression whereas tension forces will occur in the upper part of the beam.


Rhino model

Having investigated various morphologies through digital and especially physical modelling, I have started creating a dome-like structure which, through an irregular reciprocal unit, folds into a super-dome. Repeating the process, I arrived at a spiralling domical structure which I have then panelled, using the same reciprocal morphology. This lends a recursive effect to the entire structure.

IMG_5964 IMG_5987 IMG_5996 20141110_091903 20141110_050054

Progression of the structure in physical form

17th October 2014 Tutorials

Here are couple pictures from our last tutorials. DS10 is back with some exciting experiments, models and diagrams for Brief01:Systems. From Lorna’s spiralhedrons to Sarah’s pyritohedron, Maria’s stalagtites to Charlotte’s Jitterbug, Garis’ curved folding to Tobias’ Rheotomic surfaces, students are exploring the mathematical, natural or biological system of their choice, both with physical and digital parametric models.

Lorna Jackson's Spiralhedron
Lorna Jackson’s Spiralhedron

Lorna Jackson's Spiralhedron
Lorna Jackson’s Spiralhedron

Toby holding the curved Folding by Garis Iu
Toby holding the curved Folding by Garis Iu

Curved Folding by Garis Iu
Curved Folding by Garis Iu

Water, Speaker and Smart Phone, beautiful patterns by Toby Plunkett
Water, Speaker and Smart Phone, beautiful patterns by Toby Plunkett

Joe Leach's 3D Reciprocal Structures
Joe Leach’s 3D Reciprocal Structures

Mesh Recursive Sub-Division by Aslan Adnan
Mesh Recursive Sub-Division by Aslan Adnan

Sarah Stell's  Pyritohedrons
Sarah Stell’s Pyritohedrons

2014-10-16 10.50.52
maria vergopoulou’s stalagtites

Charlotte Yates Buckminster Fuller's Jitterbug
Charlotte Yates Buckminster Fuller’s Jitterbug

Bismuth Crystals Growth Analysis by John Leung
Bismuth Crystals Growth Analysis by John Leung

Cellular Automata model and diagram by Alex Berciu
Cellular Automata model and diagram by Alex Berciu

Rigid Miura-Ori Origami by John Konnings
Rigid Miura-Ori Origami by John Konnings

Inversive Geometry Diagrams by Tom Jelley
Inversive Geometry Diagrams by Tom Jelley

Recursive cube growth by Diana Raican
Recursive cube growth by Diana Raican

Sectionned Rheotomic Surfaces by Tobias Power
Sectionned Rheotomic Surfaces by Tobias Power