Breathing Space: BERSABARC Design Studio’s HEXARION

How will a future colony of humans survive on Martian soil? BERSABARC Design Studio's HEXARION advances a solution anchored on the hexagon

Interview Patrick Kasingsing
Images BERSABARC Design Studio is an official media partner of the World Architecture Festival 2022.
Our coverage is supported by GROHE Philippines

Congratulations, Neil and team, for getting shortlisted at the WAF! Why did you select HEXARION for the competition? What do you think makes it a winning project?

We chose HEXARION as our first-ever entry for the World Architecture Festival because it challenges an architect’s role in the design process and rethinks how we conceptualize building for extreme environments. We think it has the potential to win because, aside from directly giving form to a building, we designed the system for how urban growth can transpire in an extreme environment such as the Martian landscape.

This is the Philippines’ largest showing at the WAF in the eight years we have competed; would you recommend more studios and firms join the competition? Why so?

Absolutely. We should participate in the representation of Filipino architects on the world stage; the recognition is affirmation of the competency of Filipino architects and is reflective of our aspiration for design excellence. This opportunity is an avenue for contributing to the global knowledge of design. The collective could also learn from our methods, culture, and architecture as much as we learn from them.

When should one join the WAF? As a fledgling studio? As an established firm?

There is no particular time to join WAF. In our case, we are a team of 12-18 young designers that just started our small studio in 2017. We believe that it is not about the age of the studio but the quality of the idea you’re able to share.

How would you describe a WAF-worthy project?

A WAF-worthy project is a project that showcases ideas that matter. It is a project that challenges norms and advocates a more innovative way of thinking about problems and sensibilities.

How would you describe the role of architecture competitions within the field? Why is it important?

Architecture competitions are a necessary aspect of our field that puts designers in an environment with creative constraints. It challenges us to think critically and harness better solutions out of the exercise. Admittedly, it might pose a challenge regarding financial resources, time, and effort, wherein a ‘survivability’ state of mind is a risk people rarely tread. On the other hand, architecture competitions are avenues for research and development where designers can design creatively and develop something that could benefit in the future. Overall, it’s an opportunity to share your ideas and refine your cognitive ability for problem-solving.


Project description edited for brevity

In search of a sustainable solution for a livable Martian colony, HEXARION aims to provide the fundamentals of managing growth and providing for a circular economy that would thrive in the harsh Martian environment. The colony’s design is the product of an iterative process, anchored on the concept of automated development and modularity; expansion of the colony and adaptation to the surrounding landscape will be determined through regular data gathering and parsing of information and contextual parameters. The colony was designed to harness the required energy, food, oxygen, and other essential elements to support life through dedicated modules focused on these specific aspects. The concept design is adaptable with no fixed developmental growth but would depend on the computational concepts introduced.

What was the organizer of the competition you first joined with HEXARION, the Jacques Rougerie Foundation, looking for?

Neil John Bersabe, principal of BERSABARC Design Studio: The Jacques Rougerie Foundation is an architectural competition on the lookout for visionary ideas that apply innovative solutions to problems living in the sea, space, and the sea-level rise scenario. They also look for projects inspired by the ‘genius of nature’ and concepts resulting from close cooperation between scientific and artistic disciplines. The Foundation encourages boldness and innovation in architectural undertakings to bring out the Leonardo da Vincis, Gustave Eiffels, Frank Lloyd Wrights, and Le Corbusiers of the 21st century. This exciting brief is what encouraged me to enter with HEXARION.

Did your entry advance well into the competition? Did it win accolades?

Yes. We won a Special Mention of the Focus Prize: Architecture and Innovation for Space award in the 2021 competition.

What was your process in conceptualizing the design for a location that is literally out of this world? How much research took place? How did you arrive at the parameters, measurements, and target inhabitants for your Martian colony?

Our design process for the project mainly revolved around understanding the hard constraints imposed by the Martian environment. We inferred that to be able to live on the planet, we should take a modular approach to design by creating a system that is scalable and would automate the construction process of the primary base before the first inhabitants would even arrive. The system would learn from the gathered data on the extreme environment and develop the urban settlement in response to the data collected, a parametric approach to design.

We used the parameters and metrics gathered from NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) research. In their research, the bare minimum to create a sustainable Martian colony was 110 settlers, where each person has a role to play. Overall, the critical aspect we mainly considered in the design was the ability of the architectural system to provide for the basic physiological needs and sustenance of the inhabitants; they need to thrive for prolonged periods sustainably for the colony to be a success.

What were some of the factors and sources of inspiration that helped influence your facility’s design? What are the pioneering facilities needed to kickstart the development of HEXARION?

A source of inspiration that influenced the design was the work of Hassell Studio on a 3D-printed Mars habitat. The design lead for the project was my professor at IAAC, Barcelona, and he taught me the other sensibilities for living in space and how technology, machine learning, and AI in architecture could help bridge the limitation of manual construction and resource extraction on the planet. Arctic research stations also served as case studies for architecture in extreme environments where scarcity of resources and isolation are critical factors in the building design.

The core facilities (or modules as we call them in the project) are the residential pods and food modules. These facilities form the basis of the urban growth of the colony, for they provide life and sustenance to the inhabitants. For example, a development condition we prescribed for the colony is that for every ten residential modules, we need to have one food module to sustain them. Applying this rule and many other constraints into the system would define what modules would be built next for the colony.

What technologies or processes need to be invented first to enable the existence of HEXARION? What existing technologies may already allow components of your facility to be fabricated?

Innovations in drone technology, 3D printing, and CNC fabrication are constantly improving and would be the critical building tools of the future. Aside from innovations in construction tools and machinery, an important discussion on materiality and fabrication must also be negotiated. The possibility of using sintering (a process of coalescing powdered material through heating and pressure without melting) on a ubiquitous resource such as the Martian regolith would create a viable construction material for 3D printing. Understanding swarm intelligence (a multi-agent-based behavior, e.g., a school of fish, a flock of birds, a herd of sheep) and integrating it into construction methods would be the project’s vision for an automated building process.

In a nutshell, how are circularity and modularity facilitated by your scheme? does a limit exist to how HEXARION can grow?

A circular ecosystem is assumed to thrive in the colony through the aggregation of the different modules. Each module structure is purposed to cater to various aspects of human existence like health, sustenance, science and technology, governance, and residency. The modularity of growth is showcased through the use of the hexagonal prismatic grids as a guide to the development, and it assures each real estate occupies a single volume in space.

The project’s idea defines no limit on how the colony could expand but only sets conditions and parameters to create sustainable growth. An example of this: One power module must be built for every cluster of twenty residential pods, and a food module must be nearby to feed every ten residences.

For the circulation, we ran adjacency matrices and space syntaxes to determine connection rules on what modules could connect, and this would ensure proper growth; for example, residential pods should not connect directly to the center module to improve privacy and must always connect to horizontal or vertical bridge connectors first before connecting to any other module.

Were there Filipino cultural concepts or traditions that you drew inspiration from for your design?

The residential pod takes inspiration from the adaptability of most Filipino nuclear houses, like the bahay kubo, where small spaces adapt to different functions throughout the day depending on their use.

Harmonizing and understanding nature as a core sensibility is innate in traditional Philippine architecture, a quality we assimilated for how our artificial intelligence model is designed. The datasets we gathered in the study to process different parametric solutions and train the AI were synthesized from a careful understanding of the environment and applying pragmatic solutions as a response. The ingenuity in using indigenous materials as a resource, processed into building materials with the least embodied carbon possible are values we share with Philippine design.

What made the hexagon the ideal shape by which to support the colony’s expansion and integration?

We conducted studies on different space-filling polyhedra, and the hexagon was ideal due to its compact geometry and ability to fill space without waste. This geometric pattern could also be seen in honeycombs, and the structural capabilities and space efficiency are affirmed through its ubiquitous use in nature. The advantage of using hexagons over the regular quad grids is the flexibility of the growth direction to move diagonally by 30 and 60 degrees. These additional degrees of freedom are ideal when we build structures in irregular terrain.

A lot of calculations and automation appear to inform the growth trajectory of HEXARION; why won’t a more organic and intuitive approach work?

The limited resources and the realization of building structures the right way incentivized us to create this performance-based approach to design. It was necessary to use advanced tools like machine learning and AI to simulate multiple iterations (humans could only do so much) of designs and come up with the best solution before building without wasting time and resources.

To sustain life in extreme environments and isolation, building organically and intuitively might not be ideal. This is where technological advancements offer us designers the ability to iterate over different permutations of designs in a shorter amount of time optimally and sustainably.

How is the facility designed to induce a sense of familiarity and security for the colonists who will no doubt be missing their home planet?

According to NASA, traveling to Mars would take approximately nine months to a year. For this mission, a paradigm shift in terms of lifestyle and thinking about familiarity would be necessary; digital technology and user interface design would play the core role in terms of communication with earth. Nonetheless, colonists would no doubt be shifting their mindset regarding defining a sense of space and what’s familiar. This evolution of perspective would be the new normal for the next generation of settlers living on Mars. The project’s design also encourages a sense of ownership and familiarity by providing the option to personalize and customize each module to one’s specifications and create modular components. •

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