Shape-shifting Structures Adapt to Environment

September 13, 2006

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Imagine a high-rise tower that braces itself against sudden strong winds by distributing stresses, or a home that shakes the snow from its roof. A new breed of architects is working to create smart buildings that act as living systems, able to change shape to match the needs of the people inside and the changing weather outside.

Smart buildings take advantage of information exchange to provide a flexible, productive and cost-effective environment for building occupants. The integration of smart-building design features into a new construction project isn't new. Building-automation systems (BAS) that control heat, air conditioning, lighting and other building systems have been around for a while. Many large corporations, in fact, already have centralized BASs that monitor and control the environment throughout large buildings and across campuses.

Despite perennial predictions heralding the era of the fully automated "smart building" as the next big thing, for practical purposes the prospect of intelligently networked buildings and devices, until recently, have remained somewhat fantastical. For decades, reality has lagged behind promise.

Yet imagine if buildings could function like living systems, altering their shapes in response to changing weather conditions or the way people use them. These would truly be smart buildings.

Such it is that a new breed of visionary architects can be found working on the intriguing notion of "responsive structures" that observe their internal and external environment and change form to suit any situation.

The Office for Robotic Architectural Media & The Bureau for Responsive Architecture (oframBFRA) is a small, award-winning architectural practice that designs buildings as well asA full-scale prototype of an 'actuated tensegrity' structure, pic via CNN.jpg systems, specializing in the development of actuated structural and advanced sensor systems for use within the architecture. There, founder Tristan d'Estree Sterk and partner Robert Skelton are working on shape-changing "building envelopes" using "actuated tensegrity" structures — a system of rods and wires manipulated by pneumatic "muscles" that serve as the building's skeleton, forming the framework of all its walls.

Sensor/computer/actuator technologies are used to produce Sterk's intelligent envelopes and structures that "seek fresh relationships between the 'building' and 'use,'" according to Interactive Architecture.org. The buildings are covered by skins with the ability to alter their shape as the social and environmental conditions of the spaces within and around each building change. By connecting the skeleton to embedded, intelligent systems, Sterk and his crew are creating smart structures that are light, robust and capable of making extensive shape changes without consuming a lot of energy.

According to a recent Wired feature:

A building that mimics a living system would be able to sense and respond appropriately to exterior conditions like varying winds, temperature swings or changing sunlight. Inside, the building might change to accommodate crowd flow or better circulate warm air.

Consider, for instance, a high-rise tower that braces itself against sudden strong winds by distributing stresses, or a home that shakes the snow from its roof. Ultra-lightweight skyscraper for Chicago by Tristan d'Estree Sterk, pic via CNN.jpgOf a set of ultra-lightweight skyscrapers he's working on in Chicago, Sterk told Wired, "By using an exoskeletal, actuated tensegrity superstructure, the building lets wind blow through it, reducing harmful shaking and swaying, The frame also swivels and twists gently in the wind to control the building's center of gravity since it doesn't rely on its own weight to hold it in place; this allows architects to build taller and more sustainably."

Architects have known for quite some time that the way buildings are lit, heated and cooled is intimately related to a building's shape; taller spaces heat and cool very differently from short spaces.

"Building skins clad in new generations of energy-making materials could alter their form to track the sun, enable greater shading or sunlight penetration while also producing energy," says Sterk. "A building like this could even eliminate the need for air conditioning by using shape to improve ventilation rates." 'Muscles,' a 35-foot-high skyscraper constructed in front of the Stratton Student Center at MIT in May 2006, via WhoWhatWhenAIR blog.jpg Also consider "Muscles," a 35-foot-high skyscraper constructed in front of the Stratton Student Center at MIT in May 2006. The brainchild of four graduate students known collectively as the WhoWhatWhenAir skyscraper team, and winner of MIT's first mini-skyscraper design competition, "Muscles" was designed to change posture thanks to a jointed spine and pneumatic muscles.

The MIT team's goal was to design a "smart" structure that responds to the people interacting with it.

The "Muscles" tower was an articulated jointed spine controlled by a series of pneumatic muscles. Activating the pumps allowed the structure to bend in different directions by introducing a twist in the jointed core. By stacking and activating several "muscle" units, the mini-skyscraper was able to gently curve in space away from its upright equilibrium position. If no muscles were active, the core kept the structure upright.

Anders Nereim, chairman of the department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, explained the significance of such developments to Wired this way:

Trees that bend are stronger and lighter than trees that don't bend. The interior of a structure also needs to change responsively. We can't afford to have spaces that sit unusable for large portions of the day due to a fixed configuration.

While advances in technology have made interiors more intelligent and comfortable, the idea of a building as a whole changing shape is only just emerging because of the complexity of the task. Skelton, director of the Structural Systems and Control Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego, has been dealing with the complexities of the task by developing new calculations in maths and geometry to understand the structural equations that drive any natural construction and inform all aspects of the building, from its electromagnetic properties to its physical form, CNN reports this month. Coming from a background in aerospace engineering, he saw ways in which responsive structures used by spacecraft, for instance, to shield themselves from the sun, could be applied to buildings.

And according to We Make Money Not Art in May, the "Muscles" project and others like it are inspired in part by structural engineer Guy Nordenson's idea of responsive structures for buildings: "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, its structural mass could literally be cut in half."

These smart buildings, in some ways, would come alive.

Resources

Smart Buildings Make Smooth Moves by Lakshmi Sandhana Wired, Aug. 31, 2006

Using Actuated Tensegrity Structures to Produce a Responsive Architecture by Tristan d'Estrée Sterk The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, October 2003

Responsive Architecture: User-centered Interactions within the Hybridized Model of Control by Tristan d'Estrée Sterk The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, March/April 2006

Responsive Architecture We Make Money Not Art, May 17, 2006

Buildings get wise to the future CNN, Sept. 8, 2006

The Office For Robotic Architectural Media & Bureau For Responsive Architecture by Ruairi Glynn Interactive Architecture dot Org, July 31, 2006

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