Architecture students design second lives for abandoned commercial aircraft

Topic: College of Architecture and Planning

December 13, 2013

An architecture professor is challenging his students to imagine uses for derelict commercial aircraft parked in airplane graveyards
A Ball State University architecture professor challenges his students to imagine uses for thousands of abandoned commercial aircraft parked in airplane graveyards around the globe.

A Ball State University architecture professor is challenging his students to imagine uses for thousands of derelict commercial aircraft parked in airplane graveyards in the United States and around the globe.

“The question is, can we create a second life for these aircraft?” asks Harry Eggink, who posed the challenge to a class of graduate students in fall 2012 and again in fall 2013.

“I want to see if the life cycle for these airplanes can be more than flying them for 25 or 30 years and then abandoning them forever in the desert.”

Both classes attacked the problem with enthusiasm, creating an array of innovative designs. Among them:

  • a durable safe room fashioned from Boeing 747 components that could be embedded inside a conventional home to provide shelter from tornados and other storms
  • an entire house framed with 747 wing and fuselage segments
  • a futuristic small-town library fashioned from sections of fuselage and wings, along with an array of seats, shelves and other airplane pieces
  • a high-rise apartment complex in which the living units are fashioned from fuselages, with overhead compartments used as storage cabinets. Heating and other systems are installed beneath the floors in cargo areas.

Chloe Tyner is among the students who took the class in fall 2013, intrigued by the challenge Eggink had posed.

“It was unique,” says Tyner, a second-year graduate student from Fishers, Ind. “I liked the idea of it — and I figured it would be the last crazy thing we could do before we had to go out into the real world.”

As she worked on her project — a library that she dubbed “Skybrary” — it became clear that incorporating airplane parts into building design is eminently possible. The biggest drawback? Public acceptance.

“In terms of materials and structure, I think it could definitely work,” Tyner says. “In terms of people wanting something built from airplane parts, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

Classmate Nathaniel Keihn agrees — which is one reason his design for an urban structure that combines retail, office and living spaces avoids using identifiable airplane components. Instead, he proposes reducing airplanes to their constituent pieces and then reusing those to build structures that don’t necessarily give away their origins.

“I think that could be a feasible approach, although the problem that I see them running into with that would be the man-hours involved in dismantling the airplanes carefully,” says Keihn, a second year graduate student from Yorktown, Ind. “You would have to pay attention to how you cut up the skin, how you cut out the ribs — you couldn’t just hack away at it.”

Eggink appreciates the care and creativity the student architects have brought to the task.

“Some of the projects were absolutely amazing,” says Eggink. “One student said, ‘Why fly the airplane to one of the graveyards in Arizona? Instead, what if you flew the plane to, say, Africa, then took the whole thing apart and created an educational campus for people who otherwise have nothing?

“In that design, part of the fuselage became a classroom, part of the wings became a shelter. The seats already had computers in them — so all the technology was being used and spread out to become a complete campus.”

In both years he’s taught the class, Eggink has taken his students to Everett, Wash., to visit the aircraft-manufacturing complex of the Boeing Co. and learn firsthand about the planes they used in their designs.

They also met with Boeing officials, including Eggink’s brother, Roy, chief engineer for the Boeing 747-800.

“I told him during our first visit that we had a bunch of our projects with us, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you show them to us?’”

The students wound up presenting their work on a 40-foot screen at the Museum of Flight in Everett to an audience of Boeing engineers and employees, who were intrigued by what they saw.

During the most recent visit, the students presented their work to Boeing engineers at the company’s Flight Sciences University and put their designs on display in the museum. Afterwards, Boeing officials said they found the sessions fascinating and are eager to continue the relationship with Ball State.

That could prove invaluable, Eggink believes, as architects search for new building designs that can withstand disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, the tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., or wildfires that periodically sweep the West.

“Airplane designers are problem solvers,” Eggink says. “They’re people who deal with wind, who deal with temperature extremes — could you imagine having them on board when you’re designing new houses for the Jersey Shore that could withstand big storm surges?”

That’s precisely the kind of issue that architects should be tackling, Eggink believes.

“When you see something wiped away by a hurricane or a tornado, we should ask ourselves, ‘Can I do better? Can I create a better house that’s more durable and more sustainable?’ We should be solving every one of these problems.”

Mahesh Daas, chairman of Ball State’s Department of Architecture, agrees the aircraft design industry can offer valuable insights. The department already has done some research into new composite materials used in aircraft construction and what those might mean for building design.

“This is a developing body of knowledge here in our department: how to work with knowledge generated in the aircraft industry, the aerospace industry, and repurpose it into architecture,” he says.

The concept of recycling discarded aircraft fits both with those efforts and with a tradition of sustainable design championed by the College of Architecture and Planning, which has pursued past projects featuring everything from industrial shipping containers to discarded couches.

“For us, it’s a recurring theme: how can we rethink the life cycles of products, including aircraft, and tie architecture into it so we have different kinds of solutions for problems worldwide?

“I think it has huge potential,” Daas says. “On the scale of a jumbo jet.”

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