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Gondor to Dubai: Chainmail as a Structural Solution

Gondor to Dubai: Chainmail as a Structural Solution

By Luke Carothers

During the Iron Age (1200-300 BCE), nobility and royalty as well as their protectors began wearing shirts of interwoven metal rings to protect themselves.  Known as chainmail, this technological improvement vastly improved the wearer’s chances of surviving a blow from a sharpened weapon.  The earliest versions of chainmail were formed when leather or cloth shirts had overlapping rings of iron sewn onto them, but by the 10th century smiths were fashioning divided chainmail suits that covered the head, neck, and torso while also facilitating use from horseback.  In addition, improvements in industrial practices meant that chainmail was cheaper and easier to produce, meaning that it was no longer exclusively for nobility and their protectors.

However, chainmail began to fall out of favor starting around the 14th century with the introduction of plate armor, and fell largely out of use until the late 20th century when it was found to be incredibly useful when diving with sharks.  Now, thanks to Kayne Horsham and his company Kaynemaile, chainmail is making its way back into the conversation. 

Horsham and his team at Kaynemaile, based in New Zealand, have developed a chainmail material made from lightweight polycarbonate that protects buildings as well as bodies; this update from the iron and steel of centuries past makes the material incredibly robust while still being lightweight.  When Kaynemaile is used in place of steel sheets or mesh, it presents several key advantages.  For example, Kaynemaile reduces the static load on buildings and cuts down on installation time and costs.  Furthermore, Kaynemaile reduces the solar energy and sunlight entering a building, which has been one of its earliest applications in parking garages.

Horsham first became familiar with chainmail when he served as an artistic director for the creatures, weapons, and armor department on the set of the iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy.  When he was initially approached for the film, Horsham knew he had to not only make the materials look good on film, but also stand up to the rigors of moving to different filming locations over years of shooting.  The first material they tried to use was steel, which looked beautiful, but weighed too much.  Because the material was to be worn by actors and not battle hardened knights, Horsham knew he had to find a lighter material.  Strict requirements set out by director Peter Jackson set aside the possibility of using some sort of painted material.

Horsham’s solution was to create a set of plastic rings then coat the rings with  pure silver and copper using a process called electroforming.  The resulting mesh very closely resembled the medieval chainmail with the pure silver adding a necessary element of fantasy.  While this product looked good on film, the labor of creating it was intensive.  Each of the links were hand welded individually, which took thousands of hours for Horsham and his team.  Additionally, because the material was used in all the stunts throughout the film, Horsham and the team constantly had to replace torn or broken pieces.  It was during this time that Horsham began to think about ways to make his chainmail, dubbed “Kayne’s-maile” by actor Viggo Mortensen, both stronger and easier to manufacture.

After filming wrapped, Horsham briefly worked in miniatures before he started working on a machine to assemble this material.  Once this machine was assembled, it was fully automated to create the material, but it still took a lot of time and cost a lot of money.  Coming to the realization that he was making chainmail the same way it had been made for thousands of years, Horsham changed direction and focused on creating the rings already assembled.  Thus, the liquid state assembly (LSA) system was created.  Horsham likens it to part printing rather than layered printing in that it “prints a part at a time in a desired position and [builds on] that.”

According to Horsham, this paradigm shift in the assembly process alleviated quality control issues because he no longer had to worry about the strength of each assembled link.  With quality control assured, Horsham began experimenting with different materials to build the links with.  Because of his previous work, he originally intended to use this new process and material in the fashion and costuming industry.  Developing the world’s first liquid state assembly process allowed Horsham to develop his mail with modern materials such as polycarbonate, which has a high strength to weight ratio and could give the material applications in the architecture and engineering fields.

Once Horsham and his team focused on the architecture and engineering markets, the material applications of Kaynemaile soon became evident.  After Kaynes maile became an established company in 2006, their lightweight polycarbonate mesh soon began to feature in art installations and architectural designs.  Kaynemaile also poses significant advantages from an environmental perspective.  Unlike other materials, Kaynemaile is fully recyclable and is created using a “nil-waste” process.  Due to this and other structural advantages, Kaynemaile is being used in projects across the world.

A few years ago, the Kaynemaile team was approached by architecture firm Woods Bagot who was familiar with the material from a number of projects throughout the United States as well as Mace Engineering.  Woods Bagot was working with the Dubai World Trade Center on a project to create a new exhibition space.  Part of this project involved the space between the train station and the new exhibition space.  This space would not only need to capture the imagination of crowds entering the exhibition space, but it also needed to shade users from the harsh desert sun.  Woods Bagot and Mace had struggled to find a permanent material to serve as a canopy for the space; they built three test structures using different materials, but none of the three traditional shading methods could stand up to the desert sun and wind.  Based on their previous work, the teams decided to use Kaynes maile as the shading material for the project.

Horsham traveled to Dubai and began working with the teams to fit the material to the specific designs necessary for the project.  It soon became clear that Kaynes maile was able to outperform the other materials due to its unique design and construction.  Its seamless design allowed the material to respond to wind force smoothly as the rings are able to move independently from one another.  This also means that no one area of the canopy is subject to more constant force than another.  In addition, Kaynes maile has unique shading properties that made it the perfect material for the project.  The material’s three dimensional design simultaneously creates shadow and circulates air, which allows it to function as a radiator and keep the entire structure cool.

While this structure had to perform in the desert heat, it also needed to capture the imaginations of the people entering the exhibition space.  In this regard, Kaynes maile stood out immediately.  The over 120,000 square feet of material dazzles in four colors overhead the entrance to the expo.  Wind moves through the overlaid mesh screens, causing shadows and light on the ground to move, breathing life into the space.  Horsham and his team call this the “Wondercool Effect”.  Kaynesmaile also worked with CD+M Lighting Design Group to use dramatic lighting effects to further add to the sensory experience.

Kaynemaile’s canopy structure is debuting at the Dubai World Expo 2020.  This event, which was postponed due to the pandemic, features exhibits from 192 countries and only happens every five years.  Kaynemaile also worked on the New Zealand pavilion for the World Expo.  For the pavilion, which is located in the sustainability district, Horsham and his team conceptualized, designed, and created a living building facade.

Horsham believes that the uses for Kaynemaile are only limited by the creativity of the user.  For example, several parking garages throughout the United States have turned to Kaynemaile in part to combat the heat island effect.  Furthermore, because each solution can be customized, Kaynemaile is a scalable solution for a variety of project sizes and needs.    As exemplified by Kaynemaile’s selection as a shade canopy for the Dubai expo space, the future uses of this material will be determined by the problems architects and engineers seek to fix.

This article was originally published in December 2021.