While Americans were fretting the arrival of tax day on April 15, the French were mourning the loss of the roof and spire of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Around the world, those who had been fortunate enough to visit Notre Dame in the past began replaying memories in their heads. And now, several weeks later, it’s time to start talking about rebuilding. Carbon fiber could very well be part of that rebuilding process.
In the days immediately following the fire, numerous government officials promised to rebuild Notre Dame according to its original, grand design. But if such statements are to be taken literally, that would mean reconstructing with wood and lead. That’s not likely to happen. Both the wood and lead contributed to the devastating effects of the April 2019 fire.
Carbon fiber would seem to be a logical addition to design plans in that it could replace the wooden portions of the structure rather easily. But it’s too early to say exactly what materials will be used. The world now waits while the best architectural and design firms in the business put together their proposals.
Strength and Fire Resistance
Let’s assume the eventual design remains aesthetically true to the original roof and spire. The goal would be to make the reconstructed building look as close to the original as possible. Carbon fiber could play a significant role here. We’ve already seen a variety of structures from London to Seattle incorporate large amounts of carbon fiber as a structural material. There’s no reason to believe it could not be incorporated in Notre Dame.
Utah-based Rock West Composites explains that carbon fiber beams could replace the wooden beams that burned in the fire. Carbon fiber offer superior strength and rigidity as well as fire resistance. And thanks to modern fabricating techniques, the beams could be fashioned to look just like the wood they replace.
Designers certainly have a number of similar projects to look to for inspiration. For example, an April article published by Composites World cites a Russian orthodox cathedral in Paris with a roof made of glass fiber-reinforced domes. Each dome weighs in at just 20% of the weight of a conventionally produced dome yet offers superior strength.
Walking That Fine Line
As much as carbon fiber seems like a reasonable replacement for wood, there’s no telling what Notre Dame’s builders will settle on. They have to walk that fine line between making the structure safe for the next hundred years while not harming the cultural integrity of the space. It is not an easy line to tread.
To those of us who don’t live in France, replacing wood structures with carbon fiber probably wouldn’t mean much. Notre Dame would still be a top 10 site to see on any visit to Paris. But for the French – and particularly Parisians – there is something unique and special about Notre Dame’s historic past. Inserting modern composites into that past may seem like an affront.
More than €1 billion has already been raised to fund reconstruction efforts. As the contributions continue pouring in, architects and designers will have plenty to work with. That’s good in the sense that they might realistically be able to do whatever their minds imagine. When budgets are virtually unlimited, any previous restrictions slowly fall away.
So now the world waits to see what the Notre Dame of tomorrow will look like. Perhaps its underlying structure will be made of carbon fiber or another composite material. Maybe steel will be chosen instead. We won’t know until plans are revealed.