Thomas, Candace (Illinois Institute of Technology)

“If it is not first absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

This statement comes from the world of science, but it is as relevant to architecture as it is to physics. This quote, and a few others is where I begin my research.

“Where will architecture be in 50 years?”
“Building = Robot”
“Intelligent, responsive systems that imitate nature.”
“The more absurd, the more promising”

For an extended time, we have been building with the sole consideration of responding to the needs of humans. It is time that we begin to allow our buildings to respond to the natural environment that in addition can address our needs as users of the building. With the recent technological advances in biomimicry and nanotechnology, it is becoming more promising to think of our buildings as living, breathing organisms. Biomimicry, using nature as a model, imitates or takes inspiration from designs and processes found in nature to solve human problems. By placing a high value on nature and what can be learned from 3.8 billion years of evolution, biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge our innovations. Some of the many fascinations found within these designs and processes are self-healing, self-replication, and re-configurability. Nanotechnology takes this knowledge and insight one step further by understanding and controlling matter at a scale of one- to one hundred-billionths of a meter. This research is intended to inform its readers and encourage them to envision architecture in the very near future.

Philip Beesley, Sachiko Hirosue, Jim Ruxton, Marion Trankle, and Camille Turner, eds, 2006. Responsive Architecture: Subtle Technologies. Toronto: Riverside Architectural Press.

David Benjamin, Soo-in Yang, 2007. Life Size, volume 1. New York: Columbia University GSAPP.

David Benjamin, Soo-in Yang, 2007. Life Size, volume 2. New York: Columbia University GSAPP.

George Elvin, 2007. The Nano Revolution: a science that works on the molecular scale is set to transform the way we build. ARCHITECT, 96 (6), 93-93.

“If architects designed a building like a body…”

During the spring of 2006, a group of MIT students designed this 35’ Tower they call “WhoWhatWhenAIR.” This four-story structure has intelligence that allows for change in posture through attached pneumatic actuators. Its inspiration comes from structural engineer Guy Nordenson who once said, "If architects designed a building like a body, it would have a system of bones and muscles and tendons and a brain that knows how to respond. If a building could change its posture, tighten its muscles and brace itself against the wind [or earthquakes], its structural mass could literally be cut in half."

2006. Responsive Architecture [online]. we make money not art. Available from: [Accessed 4 June 2007].

Ker Than, 2006. New ‘Skyscraper’ sways like grass in the Wind. [Online]. Live Science. Available from: [Accessed 4 June 2007].

“Gleaning water from air”

A small beetle that lives in the Namib Desert, one of the hottest places on Earth, is giving inspiration for supplying water in arid, coastal parts of the world. The Namibian desert beetle survives by using its bumpy shell to draw drinking water from periodic fog-laden winds that occur approximately six times a month. The smoothness of each bump attracts water and a wax coating repels the water that is channeled to a spot on the beetle’s back leading straight to its mouth. This natural phenomenon is encouraging more efficient fog harvesting and the creation of super hydrophobic coatings.

One such design is by British architectural designer Matthew Parks. His design for the proposed hydrological center at the University of Namibia is a building integrated fog-catching devise. This devise, a nylon-mesh sail, is used to cut demand of processed tap water. As the fog rolls in, the mesh becomes saturated and gravity feeds the water into an underground tank; the underground tank protects the water from evaporation.

Michael Killeen, 2002. Water Web: An architect’s water-collecting design mimics the insect world. Metropolis, 21 (9), 40.

Bijal P. Trivedi, 2001. Beetle’s Shell Offers Clues to Harvesting Water in the Desert [online]. National Geographic Today. Available from: [Accessed 13 July 2007].

Gleaning Water from Air [online]. Available from:

Living Glass

With slits cut into a polymer window and elastic shape memory alloy (SMA) wires, Soo-in Yang and David Benjamin have developed a kinetic glass that reacts to environmental conditions. When sensors detect high amounts of carbon dioxide, an electric current is sent to the SMA wires that cause them to contract and open the slits etched in the window. Once equilibrium with the outside air is reached, the electric current subsides and the window resumes its original shape.

Blaine Brownell. Transmaterial: a catalogue of materials that redefine our physical environment. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2006.

Laurie Manfra, 2006. Living Breathing Buildings: Envisioning architecture that performs like natural organisms. Metropolis, 25 (5), pp52-54.

Kelly McMasters, 2006. The Mother of Invension: This young Brooklyn firm’s process – necessarily fast and cheap – is quickly earning them a reputation for ingenuity. Metropolis, 25 (12), pp68-70.

A Wall that Responds to the Sun.

Behaving strikingly similar to one’s iris, Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute features a state-of-the-art solar screen along the entire length of the south façade. With numerous light sensors, processors, and motorized devices, this facade consists of a geometric array of 30,000 metallic diaphragms that open and close to control the amount of sunlight that enters the Institute. Even twenty years later, the innovative façade system has stimulated a great deal of interest and is a functioning precedent for future responsive environments.

SmartScreen for Energy Conservation

Smart materials are materials that sense changes in the environment and respond to that change. By going beyond mechanical systems, they are their own sensors, processors, and actuators. Martina Decker’s SmartScreen is a reactive solar screen that is installed at the interior face of glazed facades. By responding to heat this screen opens and closes to regulate the amount of sunlight that enters a room. Similar to Living Glass, strands of shape memory Alloy (SMA) area woven into the material and drive the change in opacity. When the temperature in the room drops, the SMA strands contract, pinching the fabric between the slits to enlarge the openings and let the sun’s warmth into the room. Conversely, when the room temperature raises the SMA strands expand and relax, allowing the elasticity of the fabric to draw the apertures shut, effectively shielding the room from further solar heat gain.

SmartScreen for Energy Conservation [online]. Available from:

Thermodynamic Sunshades

By exploiting the laws of thermodynamics, Lance Hosey has created a Smart Shade device for buildings. The shades consist of louvers with two different metals, zinc and steel. Since the two metals have different thermal contraction rates, they cause the blades to bend in response to interior temperatures. The top layer of the louver is zinc and steel is the lower layer. 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.

Laurie Manfra, 2006. Living Breathing Buildings: Envisioning architecture that performs like natural organisms. Metropolis, 25, pp52-54.

No comments: