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Creating more with less

Case Studies, Features | November 1, 2010 | By:

Enhanced functionality in architectural textiles

As building related energy consumption and resource utilization invite increasing scrutiny, architects and engineers have placed additional attention on the materials that comprise the architectural envelope. Historically, the façade was a relatively simply affair, designed to protect building occupants from the elements. In modern times, however, the building envelope must do more with less. Not only should the architectural enclosure seek enhanced functionality, but it should do so while using fewer resources. Given the relative lightness, flexibility and technological sophistication of many new fabrics, architects and engineers are increasingly looking at architectural textiles for solutions.

Energy harvesting fabrics make use of solar exposure, augmenting a building’s energy portfolio with renewable power. FTL Solar’s PowerMods® (see image in the box above) are energy-generating fabric modules that are easy to transport and install. The biomimetic modules also allow quick access for recharging portable appliances and electronic devices such as phones, computers and projectors. SkyShades’ SOLARBrella™ is a similar device that incorporates Konarka’s organic photovoltaic (OPV) thin film technology to generate highly distributed, flexible power.

The building envelope may also be used as a responsive surface to indicate the condition of environmental health. Litmuscreen (see image in the box above) is a chemically imbibed, UV-resistant textile based on the adaptation of chemical properties found in lichen to indicate acid/base imbalances in a liquid. Developed by Jordan Geiger, the rugged textile is suitable for awnings, canopies and tent structures, and displays real-time shifts in color to red or blue as an indication of environmental pollutants in rain. The intuitive interface provides real-time information regarding local air pollution conditions—without the use of electricity or additional construction.

A collaborative team from the University of California, Berkeley offers a glimpse into the future of intelligent architectural textiles. Bio-engineer Luke Lee and architect Maria-Paz Guttierez are currently at work on a project called SABER, which stands for Self-Activated Building Envelope Regulation. SABER constitutes a new type of biomimetic thin-film membrane that will selectively regulate temperature, humidity and light within the building envelope. As proposed, the membrane will be comprised by multiple layers of light-responsive micro-lenses, moisture-detecting microvalves and hydrophobic vapor barriers—a complex mixture of micro-scaled solutions designed to deliver comprehensive autonomic control. Although SABER will require a long-term research study, the implications are intriguing. As Gutierrez proclaims, “The material has become the system.”

Case studies

For more information on innovative uses of new materials, click on the following case studies.


For more information on the actual materials, click on the product names below.

Blaine Brownell is an architect and former Fulbright scholar with a research focus on emergent materials. He is a principal of the design and research practice Transstudio and an assistant professor and director of the Master of Science program in Sustainable Design at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. Brownell authored the Transmaterial series as well as the upcoming title Matter in the Floating World: Conversations with Leading Japanese Architects and Designers with Princeton Architectural Press.

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