The Take

Robo-facades that mutate and move

Robo-facades that mutate and move

Posting in Architecture | From Issue 09 February 3, 2014

Imagine a future where buildings use robotic parts to open and close windows, dim lights and change in other ways to make people happier. A new book explores the possibilities.

Can your building respond to how you feel, ensuring that operating conditions are optimal for occupants (and for the bottom line)? A book out this week, Kinetic Architecture: Designs for Active Envelopes (Images Publishing), describes a new wave of architecture that does just this by responding to the time of day, the seasons and real-time weather conditions. Many of these buildings can also "know" what's happening inside the walls, too.

The book compiles 24 examples from around the world. They have different uses but all share one feature: They are designed with facades that can somehow automatically respond to changing conditions and needs. No two are alike, and some are seen first in this new book.

The authors of Kinetic Architecture are engineer Russell Fortmeyer and architect Charles D. Linn, FAIA, who have also been architectural journalists for many years. SmartPlanet caught up with Linn, who's now at the University of Kansas architecture school, to find out more about this architectural concept.

What drew you to the subject? Do you like robots or are you just fixated on buildings with automatic and kinetic facades?

We noticed that no one had ever put a substantial number of these buildings into a single book. And some of these have never been written about before.

What exactly is kinetic architecture, and why do some buildings have active facades?

Architects and engineers differ on exactly what they are. The matter is further complicated because every design is different. But all the buildings are more complex by several degrees of magnitude than regular buildings. They involve many moving parts, such as venetian blinds that raise and lower by themselves, shading louvers, vents and windows that open and close with no human intervention, and lights that dim automatically.

One building in our book has 20,000 wind, temperature, light and humidity sensors, which tell a complex building management system what the walls should do to make the building more comfortable and energy efficient. 
  
So if I'm inside the building, how does this affect me?

Say your office is getting hot because there’s too much sun. Sensors would tell the building's "brain" -- its building management system -- and that system would be able to open a window or an outside vent, and drop the shades. Or when your office was too bright, it would dim the lights to save energy. You don't have to worry about it, because it's done automatically.

And the way the building responds depends on the season, right?
 
Yes, in the summer an active envelope would help reject heat, thereby reducing the air-conditioning loads. In the winter, the exterior walls would be used to capture heat that could be used by the building. 

What are the most recent examples?

There are two very nice buildings at Loyola University in Chicago. One is the Richard Klarchek Information Commons. The other is the Marcella Neihoff Center at the School of Nursing. Solomon Cordwell Buenz was the architecture firm for both buildings, along with Transsolar, a climate engineering firm. 

What do architects need to know to make their own active facades?

Teams of architects, engineers and consultants design these buildings together. It is important to note that the facades are generally just one component of a whole suite of energy conservation strategies. They are often paired with high-efficiency heat pumps and geothermal wells, for example. 

Don't these complex moving parts fail a lot?

Most of the buildings we wrote about are less than five years old, so they don’t have a lengthy track record. But this is an important point. Maintaining any building with an active façade will require a great deal of care, and a passion and commitment on the part of the owner. 

What are the oldest examples?

The Occidental Chemical Building, designed by Cannon Design and built in 1980, might be the oldest modern active envelope. It was extremely sophisticated for its time. Its architects succeeded at doing many of the same things that designers are trying to do today. Sadly, the building was vacated and fell into disrepair. The active façade no longer functions.   

Are any being built now that we should watch closely?

The PNC headquarters tower in Pittsburgh, designed by the architecture firm Gensler, is now under construction. It’s a skyscraper with vents in its walls that open and close automatically. The building has two glass exterior walls a few feet apart, which are large enough that employees will be able to step into and use these spaces as “porches.” Skyscrapers that are naturally ventilated, such as this one, are extremely unusual. 

On another note, are active facades part of green building? Do they help you get LEED certification or similar credentials?

Yes and yes. The primary justification for going to an active façade is to save energy and improve human comfort. Nearly all of the owners of these buildings have sought LEED certification, however, the façade is only one of many credits that are required for a certification.

Cover photo: RMIT University’s Design Hub supports and expands the school's position as an internationally renowned leader in design education and research. It is one of the 24 examples in the new book. Courtesy of RMIT University.

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure