Research News

Song’s steel assembly proposal wins Forge Prize

Jin Young Song stands under an arch constructed from SIMS prototypes, assembled in the corridor of Hayes Hall.

Jin Young Song stands under an arch constructed from the SIMS prototype assembled in a corridor of Hayes Hall.


Published July 8, 2019


A proposal by architecture faculty member Jin Young Song that envisions a more efficient assembly system for steel construction has been named the 2019 Forge Prize Grand Prize Winner.

The two-stage competition is organized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture to engage designers in design innovation for steel as a 21st-century building material. The prize was established by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

Song’s proposal — Snap-Interlock Module System (SIMS), a structural module with a unique, interlocked configuration that is easily assembled by a single worker — was one of three designs selected in February to advance to Phase 2 of the contest. After advancing to Phase 2, Song and his team further refined the concept, meeting with industry partner Cast Connex, as well as steel engineers and design professionals, to discuss the future viability of the concept.

The three Phase 2 finalists prepared a final submission and presented to the jury in May; the announcement that SIMS had been selected as the grand prize winner was made early last month at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas. Phase 2 finalists received a $10,000 stipend, with SIMS receiving an additional $10,000 award as the grand prize winner.

More than 60 years after German architect Konrad Wachsmann imagined a modular construction system, building structures are still based on the steel-post-and-beam system with conventional bolt/weld connections. Even after significant development in digital and manufacturing technologies, most advancements in the construction industry simply add new subcomponents to this primary building system.

However, new smart fabrication techniques and advanced digital design tools allowed Song and his team to revisit Wachsmann’s holistic approach for a unit-based “part-to-whole” system.

The SIMS prototype is based on the elastic instability of steel, or the buckling of the material when subjected to large compressive loads. It distributes forces through stacked modules. Each module has four hooked legs on the top and bottom, and snaps into four legs from four adjacent modules. The five modules are interlocked as one unit, where individual steel modules brace each other. The central unit of the module can be modified to create specific angles and generate a curved geometry. The snap-interlock stacking is easily executed by a single worker.

Song, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, developed two arch-shaped prototypes using 3D-printed modules that exhibit the system’s geometric flexibility. Further structural analysis and new interpretation will be necessary to demonstrate how this “part-to-whole” system can be applied to the building structure, facade, substructure, architectural partition walls and more.

Daniel Vrana, fabrication manager in the architecture school’s Fabrication Workshop, will work with Song as co-principal investigator for the ongoing research and funding applications.

Other collaborators are UB’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies research group; Jongmin Shim, associate professor of structural engineering; and Xiandong He, a doctoral student in civil, structural and environmental engineering.