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Ingber: Ecological Urbanism

Bioinspired Adaptive Architecture and Sustainability

Written by Dr. Donald E. Ingber, Wyss Institute director,  for the book "Ecological Urbanism," M. Mohstafavi, ed., Lars Muller Publishers, 2009.

Ecological Urbanism means different things to different people, but at its essence it represents the challenge of establishing a new order in architecture in which there is harmony between people, the buildings they inhabit, the cities they construct, and the natural environment in which they live. By contrast, construction approaches used currently are designed to create buildings that function largely in isolation, and utilize resources in highly inefficient ways, which can ravage the local environment. We must therefore confront this challenge head on if we are to sustain the natural resources and quality of life required for fruitful survival of our species. Yet, it is unlikely that new applications of existing building materials and construction approaches will satisfy this goal.

One potentially exciting approach to meet this challenge is to learn from living systems. All living creatures – from the simplest single cell organism to man – have evolved ways to change their shape and function, and thereby optimize their performance in response to environmental cues in order to survive. Man builds with structural materials, and then adds separate systems for temperature control, plumbing, electricity and communications. Nature builds with multifunctional materials that provide all of these functions simultaneously. Cities are filled with buildings that rely primarily upon compressive forces for their stability; Nature almost always constructs tensile structures that minimize material requirements. Buildings consume huge amounts of carbon resources, and in the rare structures that have automated reconfiguration capabilities (e.g., louvered windows), structural transformations are driven by energy-guzzling motors. In contrast, Nature designs its materials so that they harness energy from their environment, and spontaneously change shape through structural rearrangements that manifest themselves across multiple size scales. So there is much to be learned here, and to be inspired by.

One can envision a future where buildings are designed to sense environmental cues, and to adapt their shape and function to continuously optimize energy efficiency, light transmission, thermal gain, and other behaviors critical for sustainability. Imagine buildings covered with layers of small lenses that mimic how sea creatures concentrate light deep under the sea, but instead these illuminate photovoltaic cells or living bacteria that have been genetically reprogrammed to convert light into energy. Or what about houses trimmed with rain gutters that feed into microscopic capillary systems that work to raise water to a rooftop storage tank without requiring pumps or energy using capillary action and evaporation like leaves in plants. Or perhaps someday we could construct roofs covered with a ‘fur’ that exposes tiny hairs to prevent ice from sticking, collect water from rainfall, or harness energy from wind. At the Wyss Institute, we seek to apply lessons learned from Nature, such as these, to design entirely new types of multifunctional building materials.

These bioinspired adaptive materials also can potentially bring a new aesthetic to architecture that combines the beauty of Nature’s designs with the efficiency of their performance and adaptability. Chuck Hoberman, the winner of the 2009 Wyss Prize for Bioinspired Adaptive Architecture, demonstrated a first step in this direction with his ‘Adaptive Fritting’ installation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in concert with the Ecological Urbanism Symposium. His design incorporates a dynamically reconfigurable fritting mechanism to modulate the opacity of glass, and thereby control light transmission and thermal gain. He accomplished this by engineering multiple moveable clear sheets layers, each containing opaque circles, that either align to transmit optimal light or move laterally to cover more area and thus, fully restrict light passage. This is reminiscent of the mechanism by which certain living cells found in the skin of amphibians and on the scales of many fish change their color by moving spherical packets containing pigment through the cell. The cell appears clear or light colored when all of the packets are concentrated at one point, where it darkens and restricts light transmission when the thousands of colored spheres are moved laterally and distributed throughout the cell. Although Hoberman’s design did not have the richness of color, nor use rail-like microtubule tracks to move around his opaque circles as cells do, it shared the beauty of a living system in the patterns of its transformations. Hence, it combined several key features of living systems into a single bioinspired adaptive material.

The problem of sustainability is one that will not go away. A new architecture that incorporates natural designs and biologically inspired materials and mechanisms offers a potential technological solution that brings the beauty of Nature to the fore as well. But making this a reality will require designers to work together with architects, engineers, and biologists in ways they have never worked before.

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