some background

by Ian

This project started about a year ago, during the planning for the new Core Fellows house at Penland School of Crafts. The house will be a passive solar building, with a large, cast concrete wall inside of the heavily glazed (i.e. lots of windows) south face of the building. The function of the concrete wall is to absorb solar energy and store it during the day, then to radiate that energy out as heat at night. It acts as thermal mass, a key principal in passive solar design. You may get some sense of the layout from this preliminary rendering from architect Louis Cherry. The wall we’re concerned with is the one behind the refrigerators.

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Our task, then, is to cover this wall with tiles, transforming the large concrete surface (21’x9′) into a design feature of the house without compromising its function. We will in fact get a small boost in its capacity as thermal mass by increasing the surface area of the wall with our high relief tiles.

Our tile design is inspired by a system of Middle Eastern ornament, known as “girih,” that dates back at least to the year 1200 and probably further back than that. It is used to produce some of the typically stunning mosaics of the region like this archway from the Darb-i Imam shrine in Isfahan, Iran.

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For a deeper look into this system of ornament check out this video. It is a lecture by the physicist who, as a grad student, decoded its structure and explained how it was probably implemented by artisans and architects of the time. It is fascinating and intensely geeky.

We’ve maintained the footprint and the basic lines of these five “girih” tiles, but used triangular facets to make them high relief. The wall is made to be in sunlight, after all, and with the higher relief light and shadow become the major actors on this design. Here are some painted plaster prototypes that Ian made in preparation for the residency.