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THE MAKING OF A TENSEGRITY TOWER

Herbert Klimke, Soeren Stephan


MERO GmbH & Co. KG, Max-Mengeringhausen-Strasse 5, D-97084 Würzburg, Germany
Herbert.Klimke@mero.de, Soeren.Stephan@mero.de

Introduction
Tensegrity adds a modular system to the design of cable structures: modules, consisting of compression
members and cables, are becoming stable by pre-stressing the cables and then can be interconnected to
structures [MOT 92]. This relates to a design principle that is known from the “composition” of space
trusses [MEN 75], when modules, consisting of stiff members, are interconnected to structures.

For the fair in Rostock (Germany) a tensegrity tower was conceived by architects Gerkan, Marg and
Partners (gmp) in cooperation with engineers Schlaich, Bergermann and Partners (SBP) [SBP 03]. The
modules of the tower are consisting of three compression members of about 10 m length and nine ca-
bles, six horizontal cables and three diagonal cables.

The key problem of tensegrity structures


with respect to the production is the big
movement of each module due to pre-
stressing of the cables. All deflections have
to be anticipated in the design of the
components to eventually meet the desired
geometry of the tower.

At the beginning of the planning process


was the quest for the best pre-stressing
method, considering that each module was
missing three horizontal cables either at
the top or at the bottom of each module
(except the very first one, positioned on
the foundation).

Fortunately the “missing link” guided to the best


possible solution: as the three missing cables had
to be substituted temporarily, it became obvious
to do this by a frame that could be used to jack
the three nodal points into their nearly final
position and by doing so, to pre-stress the whole
module.

The pre-stressing Concept


Preposition for the application of the above pre-
stressing method was that the pre-stressing of
single modules adds together to the required pre-
stress of all elements by interconnecting the
single modules.

A simple calculation (pre-stressing one diagonal


cable by 50 kN – see attached print) showed
clearly that no interaction of adjacent modules
had to be expected, except for the horizontal ca-
bles.
A separate calculation revealed that the required horizontal movement, to pre-stress the cables to the-
pre-scribed value, was only 60 mm at each node. Three jacks with 100 t capacity each were necessary
to provide the required pre-stress, 1200 kN for the diagonal cables and 1500 kN for the compression
members.

The Tolerance Concept

The biggest challenge for the production was the tight tolerance regime that was requested by the engi-
neers. The crucial point was that even a cable tolerance of 1 mm would result in approx. 10% loss of
pre-stress! The normal tolerance acceptance for cables of the required size (75 mm for the 9,6 m long
diagonal cables) is about + 5 mm.

The same refers to the steel struc-


tures. Heavy welding at the nodes is
related to big shrinkage. Fur-
thermore, changes of temperature,
shrinkage of the cast cable terminals
and creeping of the cables had to be
considered.

The use of turnbuckles was


prohibited for architectural reasons,
i.e., only one method remained -
simply manufacturing the cables as
accurately as possible, measuring
the pre-stressed cables and only then
manufacturing the compression
members.

The principle problem however, is that the cable length, as the distance between the anchor bolts and
related boreholes between two compression members, can only be determined in the final 3D-position.
This requires a fabrication jig for positioning the pre-fabricated compression members and fixing the
position of the components prior to welding.

All not accurately predictable tolerances


had to be adjusted by eccentric bushings at
the nodal plates for connecting the cables.

To adjust the bolt positions from the cable


open spelter sockets, the bushings provide
eccentric bore holes. An eccentricity of
6mm allows for an adjustment of max. 12
mm tolerance.

After adjustment, the bushings were fixed


by welding. The small imperfections,
caused by the eccentricity of the system
nodal points, could be neglected for the
static analysis.

Production
The production was performed by means of a fabrication jig, where each component of one module
was positioned with an accuracy of less than one millimetre. The compression members were pre-
welded to the head plates (nodes) in the jig, removed again for full welding and assembled again in the
jig for final measurement and tolerance adjustment by means of eccentric joints for the cables.

The following measurements had to be considered for the positioning of the eccentric joints:
- the length of the compression members after welding
- the length of the cables after casting of the fittings and pre-stretching.

It could be foreseen that, despite all efforts, the required low tolerances for the cable production would
not be achieved. The only possibility was, to minimize the tolerances. For that objective, the cables (up
to a diameter of 75 mm) were stretched five times by a force equivalent to 40% of the calculated break-
ing load, to eliminate the non-elastic cable elongation. After that treatment, the cables were cut under
pre-stress, considering the expected settlement from the casting material of the cable fittings.

A 75 mm cable was subject to a long term tension test. After 100 h, a permanent strain of 0,1 mm/m
was measured, which could be taken as an end value, as 80 % of the strain was reached already after
50 h time. For the given length of the diagonal cables of 9,6 m, this value corresponds to an elongation
of 1 mm, which could be neglected even for a sensitive structure like the tensegrity tower.

Because of the rotation of the upper to the lower cable fittings by 30°, the fittings (open spelter sockets
of up to 280 kg weight each) had to be cast in the rotated position, to avoid torsion of the cables during
erection. After casting the sockets, all cables were stretched again three times with a load equivalent to
1,5 times the design pre-stress, especially to eliminate the settlement of the casting.

For the final measurements of the cables under design pre-stress, two standardized tape measures were
used. Each cable was measured three times and results were documented. The second tape measure was
than used for the steel production, to eliminate even small deviations form different measurements.

For the final measurements of the cables under design pre-stress, two standardized tape measures were
used. Each cable was measured three times and results were documented. The second tape measure was
than used for the steel production, to eliminate even small deviations form different measurements.

Erection
After evaluation of the non-feasibility of transporting the completely assembled modules, it was de-
cided to assemble the modules at the site.

It was obviously advantageous to assemble the modules, each with a height of 8,30 m, on ground and
than lift one on top of the other. This was possible, as each module was self-stable with pre-stressed
cables.
The pre-stressing of the cables was performed
by means of three jacks with 100 t capacity, po-
sitioned at the corner points of a triangular
frame, which moved the three base points of a
module inwards by about 60 mm to achieve the
design pre-stress. The pre-stress device (frame
and jacks ) remained in position for lifting of the
modules, until the lower and upper nodal plates
were bolted together.
After erection of the lower half of the tower, the
upper half was assembled on a temporary
foundation and eventually lifted on top of the
lower part by means of a 170 t mobile crane.

Three steps have been investigated for each of the


six twisted elements (modules):
- step A: the state of assembly
- step B: full pre-stress
- step C: state of the interconnection of two modules

Step C is the most interesting: prior to connecting


two elements, the horizontal cables of the lower
module are loaded with only half the final pre-
stress. As the cables however, were cut under full
pre-stress, the jacks at the horizontal frames of the
upper module had to be overstressed to match the
bore holes in the nodal plates of the lower und up-
per nodal plates. This was the very moment to apply
the bolts for interconnecting the lower and upper
modules and was coincidently the state with the
max. stress in the horizontal frame.

Summary
The final measurement of the tower revealed that
the tight tolerances – max deviation of the mast top
less the 1/1000 of the height, about 50 mm – were
perfectly met.

This is not so very much surprising, considering the required amount of detailed work. However, this
amount of work can only be invested for very special projects as e.g. this tower for an International
Garden Show (IGA) in Rostock / Germany. However, if the erection can be simplified to a simple in-
terconnection of equal self-stressed modules, tensegrity structures may become economical for more
general applications.

Participants in the Project:


client: IGA Rostock GmbH
architect: gmp Hamburg
engineers: SBP Stuttgart
realization: MERO GmbH & Co. KG, Würzburg

References:
[ SBP03] Schlaich, M.: „Der Messeturm in Rostock – ein Tensegrityrekord”,
Stahlbau 72 (2002), Heft 10
[MEN75] Mengeringhausen, M.: „Komposition im Raum – Raumfachwerke“,
Bauverlag Wiesbaden, 1975
[MOT92] Motro, R.: editor:: „Tensegrity Systems”, Int. Journal of Space Structures,
Special Issue Vol 7, No. 2, 1992