Living, Breathing Buildings

Envisioning architecture that performs like natural organisms.

In his 1914 manifesto Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote, “Nothing in the world is more beautiful than a great humming power station holding back the hydraulic pressures of a whole mountain range and the electric power for a whole landscape, synthesized in control panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.” The triumph of industrialization as envisioned by Marinetti has since passed, and evidence for a less stalwart way of integrating technology into the built environment can be found in the entries of two finalists in Metropolis’s 2005 Next Generation® Design Competition.

Lance Hosey, of Atmo, and Soo-in Yang and David Benjamin, of the Living, have designed responsive building systems that exploit the inherent properties of materials. Hosey’s Smart Shade employs the thermodynamics of zinc and steel to control the amount of sunlight passing into a building’s interior. Yang and Benjamin’s Living Glass uses elastic shape memory alloy (SMA) wires to control the level of carbon dioxide in a room. Both teams are working toward a similar goal: independence from the power grid and mechanically produced energy.

Hosey began to explore the possibility for a building to respond to its immediate environment while working at William McDonough’s firm. “During one of our conversations Bill proposed that a building could be considered alive in the sense that it is self-regulating and adapts to changing external conditions,” he says. “While he meant it metaphorically, I took it literally and began to look at traits of life, which led me to examine materials that work with natural forces.” Each Smart Shade blade consists of a layered composite metal—similar to the bimetallic strip in thermometers. The top layer of zinc expands and contracts more readily than the steel beneath it. Contraction during cold winter months causes the blade to bend upward and to let more light in; expansion during the summer causes the blade to curve downward, shielding the interior from the sun’s rays.

Columbia graduates Yang and Benjamin are developing a window system that will sense the amount of carbon dioxide in a room through sensors and SMAs that are arranged horizontally on a pliable plastic window. When activated by a waft of carbon dioxide, the sensors send an electric current through the SMA wires, which are made of nickel titanium and encased in silicone, causing them to contract and pull open slits etched in the window. Fresh air flows inside the room until there is equilibrium with the air outside, at which time the electric current subsides, the slits close, and the SMA wires resume their original shape.

Both designs are inspired by natural forms. Yang and Benjamin’s system is based on the gill, the respiratory organ that controls the absorption of oxygen and the secretion of carbon dioxide in most aquatic organisms. Future versions may integrate flexible solar cells and lithium ion batteries to make the system energy independent. “The material actuators and solar cells we will use are very small, thin, and light, so they won’t have much physical presence,” Yang says. “And because the movement of the SMAs is proportionate to their size, they will produce subtle, more organic changes in shape.” Future prototypes of Smart Shade, which will resemble blades of grass, may produce undulating movements on a building facade. Hosey is also considering enclosing the blade panel between two panes of glass so that the exaggerated temperatures inside the double curtain-wall trigger more pronounced curling of the blinds. By devising systems that work with natural forces instead of against them, these young designers are inventing a new kind of architecture that instead of being at odds with the environment, works with it.

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