The 22-foot Elevator B honeybee habitat was the winning proposal in a design competition sponsored by Rigidized Metals and the University
The disquieting phenomenon of colony collapse disorder is seeing global bee populations vanish before our eyes, threatening the pollination of much of the world’s food crops. So when Buffalo, New York, metal fabricator Rigidized Metals discovered a colony of bees in an abandoned grain silo that its owner purchased, the company sponsored the Hive City competition. Students at the University at Buffalo (UB) were invited to design a viable bee habitat that would spark interest in the Silo City area and demonstrate the strengths of various building materials suppliers in Buffalo’s First Ward. As the first, permanent new construction on the Silo City site, Rigidized Metals wanted something that would be visible from nearby Ohio Street, stand out in the industrial landscape, and be reverent to neighboring silos.
The winning design, known as Elevator B, is a 22-foot tower of 18-gauge sheet metal panels, with strategic perforations for natural ventilation, light, and heat management. An operable bee “cab” in the interior supports the actual hive on a pulley system, allowing beekeepers to access the colony and return it to a level that keeps the population safe from predators.
“We did lots of research on how bees build hives and colonies,” said Courtney Creenan, a student at UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, and one of the designers of Elevator B. “The structure also induces the motion of standing inside of and looking up through a grain silo, where you have no where to look but up.” However, instead of a perfectly rounded oculus at the tower’s summit, Elevator B viewers see the outline of a honeycomb.
The student design team mocked up the tower with plywood cutouts in UB’s School of Architecture workshops and Rigidized Metals fabricated the panels, but the design was completed in Grasshopper. The software helped determine a workable pattern of perforations, particularly along the top of the elevator where winds could compromise stability. In the team’s initial design, all of the 70 metal panels received an 80 percent perforation, though each had a unique number of cuts in a unique array. Grasshopper brought out the commonalities from these disparate patterns, and allowed the team to scale back to six types of panels with maximum perforations of 60 percent. “You can barely see a difference,” Creenan commented.
Once the design was simplified in Grasshopper, the Elevator B team devised a matrix to deliver to Rigidized Metals that indicated the number of panels to be fabricated and which had to be folded around the corners of the tower’s steel frame. To ensure accurate installation on-site, each panel was numbered. Since the grain silos are unoccupied most of the time, with the exception of special events and tours, the tower had to be vandal resistant. The students fastened the panels to the frame with self-tapping screws, which required no predrilling. The steel frame was hand-made and the panels were machine-formed, but Creenan said there was little error and the pieces came together easily onsite.
Beekeeper Phillip Barr successfully relocated the bee colony in the spring of 2012 and it has survived its first Buffalo winter. With the warmer weather, the colony’s member numbers are on the rise. And though Elevator B was designed specifically for bees, Creenan said that other animals have taken a shine to the tower. “Before [the bees] moved in we noticed robins had nested there,” she said. Though the design team hasn’t been approached about adapting its design for other animals throughout Buffalo’s Olmsted-designed park system, Creenan likes the idea. “It’d be interesting to test this somewhere else in the city,” she said.