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New materials inspire architects

Features | May 1, 2008 | By:

The latest films, membranes and new materials fire the imagination of architects.

A fountain of light-filled fabric is the center of The Soft House, one of 15 architectural innovations created for the 2006 Intelligent Living by Design exhibit at Germany’s Vitra Museum. The futuristic vision by Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA), Boston, Mass., invites visitors to bask in a glowing world of curves, curtains and translucent screens.

Not so apparent is its flexible infrastructure comprised of natural photo-luminescent pigments, light-emitting diodes (LED) and film-encased photovoltaic cells applied to, woven through and integrated within fabrics. The textiles harvest energy, translating it into as much as 16,000 watt-hours of electricity, half the daily use of an average U.S. household. “Instead of a centralized grid, imagine a distributed energy network that is literally soft—a flexible network made of multiple, adaptable and cooperative light-emitting textiles that can be touched, held and used by homeowners according to their needs,” says Sheila Kennedy, KVA principal and architect.

Concept exhibits in museums grab attention, but hold little relevance to manufacturers, construction firms and architects working in the real world … right? Wrong, says Chris Macneal, architect and senior associate at KieranTimberlake Associates LLP, Philadelphia, Pa., a firm that created the SmartWrap™ pavilion for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, N.Y., in 2003. The SmartWrap concept involves use of a building wrap that is a substrate for printed and laminated layers with the capacity to provide climate control, lighting, information display and power.

“The exhibit was a form of provocation,” Macneal says. “Materials just coming into use on a small scale have applications on a larger scale. We’re looking at exterior walls that promise to do more with less material. It is a vision and catalyst for new materials and methods of building construction.”

If you build it, will they come?

Hallmarks of this new form of building include modular construction, digital design and manufacturing, mass customization, off-site fabrication and intensive knowledge among architects about technological advances and materials. Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake published “Refabricating Architecture” (McGraw Hill, 2003), now in its sixth printing, outlining their philosophy about building processes and transfer technologies. They advocate an integrated architecture that involves technology, materials and production methods, with examples from the auto, ship-building and aerospace industries showing how the approach has saved time and money without sacrificing quality.

Central to KieranTimberlake’s designs are cartridges that include infrastructure elements—lighting, plumbing, heating or cooling—that are manufactured digitally, transported to the site and assembled. “Lots of firms do this,” says Macneal. “The idea is standard in the furniture industry, with the consumer as the fabricator.” What’s new is pieces that fit together to provide power or water. “In construction, these pieces are assembled, not built.”

Therein lie some of the obstacles to modular architecture. Construction firms and subcontractors with expertise in electrical wiring, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), lighting design or other specialties may not be thrilled about putting together modules with those systems already embedded. Modular construction may be faster and involve lower transportation and labor costs, but it would eliminate jobs in an industry already struggling in a tanking housing market.

Building codes pose another challenge. Inspectors can’t examine plumbing and wiring to ensure that it is up to code if they can’t see it. “Some jurisdictions allow inspection of pieces in the factory,” Macneal says, allowing for easier transition of pieces to places.

There’s always a market for efficiency, quality control, waste reduction and cost-saving technology, however, and some construction firms are interested in the approach—as are clients. KieranTimberlake completed renovations of dormitories at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., installing panels with light fixtures and other systems intact. “Large housing providers and institutions can benefit from this approach,” says Macneal.

On the waterfront

Commuters taking the ferry from the 34th Street Ferry Terminal along New York City’s Harlem and East River waterfronts will wait under a waterproof membrane roof with a reflective lining capturing the water’s shifting light. The city commissioned KVA to design seven ferry landings, including intermodal passenger shelters, commuter ferry boat docking facilities, site improvements and community amenities.

KVA’s projects include schools, universities and government agencies. Veit Kugel, architect and associate, says those commissions reflect an investment of public dollars in economics and sustainability. “Governments have been criticized for building things without ‘wow,’” Kugel says. When they choose an architect, good looks matter, but so does practicality. The ferry landings get daily use and downtime costs money, as does power consumption. The steel cables, columns and textiles pre-assembled off-site can be put in place fast. “No lighter roof exists, and nothing is easier to fabricate,” Kugel adds.

The curved roof consists of one layer of waterproof PTFE membrane 30m long and 9m wide, with standard marine lighting between it and the second layer, PDFE mesh with a silver reflective coating. Light comes through the membrane and is diffused by the mesh, eliminating lighting costs during daytime hours. Street furniture uses energy-conserving LEDs, photo sensors and PV cells.

“Each material has a different set of rules and different host fabrics,” says Kugel. KVA’s MATx materials research unit has been exploring material use and development for several years. The computer-aided design of components shaves time from the process, which used to involve sending a 3D model and waiting for the manufacturer’s shop drawings. The more complex or curved the design, the more difficult the pattern development by the manufacturer. Now software calculates and creates the pattern, and that data can be input into digital laser cutters, routers or printers. “There is a direct connection between design tools and fabrication,” says Kugel. “The whole approach is rooted in logic.”

Through the looking glass

These bold experiments may get more businesses thinking about building components and products employing film and fabric innovations with photovoltaic cells, LED lighting, light-collecting pigments and phase-change materials, such as a cool type of privacy glass.

Whenever a light-filled office or pod space vacates, the wrangle begins about whether merit, seniority or business logic should determine the successor. People want windows—except when the sun beats down, glare hits the computer screen or gawkers make faces. Saint-Gobain Glass Solutions, Courbevoie, France, solved the problem with liquid crystal film that can turn a window from clear to opaque (and back) with the flip of a switch.

Priva-Lite® consists of liquid crystals within film, an exacting process requiring clean room lamination. This film is sandwiched between two interlayer films, then between panes of glass rimmed with conductors. Without power, the liquid crystals are scattered randomly, giving the window a 90% haze coefficient and an opaque appearance. With power turned on, the crystals align to give a 7.5% haze coefficient and a clear view from either side. When paired with video or slide projection gear, the window becomes a screen allowing high-resolution graphics, luminous colors and special effects (depending on whether the power is on or off).

Greenlite Glass Systems Inc., Vancouver, B.C., Canada, is an authorized distributor of Priva-Lite, and orders for the product are expected to reach $80 million this year. “Because of the privacy features, it has been popular with hospitals, hotels and institutions,” says Ryan Dennett of Greenlite Glass. Priva-Lite’s ability to multi-task as a screen makes it ideal for displays, and the Medal of Honor Museum, Hixson, Tenn., and Nevada State Museum, Carson City, Nev., have used it in installations. “We’ve measured power consumption at about 2.2 watts/m2 of glass,” Dennett says. “We have installations 15 years old still functioning after regular use.”

Applications for the Priva-Lite technology abound. Hospital privacy curtains and blinds that make hygiene difficult could become redundant. Bulletproof glass on either side of the liquid crystal film gives security areas safety and privacy. And those coveted window offices could masquerade after work hours as external displays for a business’s products.

Another company using film technology to power creative products is Konarka, Lowell, Mass., manufacturer of Power Plastic®, a flexible lightweight material coated or printed with conducting polymers and nano-engineered materials. It can be used “anywhere there is light and a battery,” according to Konarka, to give devices, systems and structures low-cost embedded sources of renewable power.

Power to the people

The Soft House and SmartWrap exhibits elevated interest about film and fabric technologies among the haute monde, but these innovations may do the greatest good among the powerless.

The Portable Light Project teamed KVA MATx with the University of Michigan and other partners to prototype small-scale flexible textile lighting applications. In a remote village in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains, the team piloted a self-contained, 1.13kg portable engine incorporating high-brightness semiconductors, flexible thin film photovoltaic cells and polymer batteries. The portable light is soft, flexible and emits 80 lumens per watt, adequate illumination for reading and work.

On the Portable Light Web pages (, photos of the Huichol semi-nomadic community show families clustered in wonder around a flexible textile that emits light. The indigenous Huichol survive through textile weaving, thatch and wood-braiding traditions, and extreme poverty is commonplace. The only path to literacy requires resettlement to fixed townships outside the Sierra Madre. Now, light makes both reading and mountain living compatible. In a world in which more than 2 billion people do not have access to light or power, film and fabric technology could change lives on a grand scale.

Katherine Carlson is a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

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