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Smart materials

Smart materials are replacing installations in architecture. Imagine replacing heating and conditioning installations with materials! A paint for energy, steps that control light, a bag of salt for cooling? Multifunctional, smart and interactive materials can dramatically change the future of buildings, making them more efficient and sustainable.

Installations are the forgotten facet of architecture. Architects hide cables, piping, tubes and wires behind the ceilings, floors, walls and foundations. Facilities are housed behind voids or they are stuck on rooftops. An ironic statement on installations was made visible with the radical 1977 design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

We now know that relying only on installations can lead to sick building syndrome. So why not just open our windows again? Installations are important, but the techno-love of the late twentieth century has faded. Disadvantages include ugly accessibility options, delayed completion, in situ installation as well as unsightly modular ceilings and demountable floors. Current trends point in another direction which is of great interest to anyone enthusiastic about architecture or materials.

Producers and developers are turning towards replacing traditional installations with materials. Smart materials, that is. Wouldn’t it be great if we could replace the entire installation with materials? A paint for energy, steps that control light, a bag of salt for cooling? Multifunctional, smart and interactive materials that replace the functions of these facilities can dramatically change the future of buildings, making them more efficient and sustainable. CO2-absorbing, temperature regulating and self-cleaning materials are currently trends, but will be the standard within a generation.

‘Council House 2’, a project by Mick Pearce, saves water and energy by regulating its temperature using water cooling and phase change materials. PCMs store and return their energy at certain temperatures as they change from solids to liquids and back. As an example, the house uses salt water, which freezes at night time, to cool the water during the day.

The project also uses conventional solar panels, but such buildings will generate their own energy with a spray that converts into solar cells within twenty years. Researchers are currently developing a gel dissolved in a liquid that can be applied as a paint with a performance similar to PV cells.

Insulation is another hot item. Aerogel is a good example. It is a solid with a very low density, as it is approximately 98 percent air, though it has a solid, porous structure. Material Xperience demonstrated examples such as EcoCradle, a sustainable insulation made of chipboard fibre and mushrooms. Or a cork that can be turned into a kind of popcorn-like insulation board.

Generating energy is an innovative solution for sustainability. Take piezoelectrics: crystals that produce electricity under the influence of pressure, such as bending, and vice versa. The Israeli company Innowattech specializes in absorbing mechanical energy from motorways, railways, pedestrian traffic or dance floors. So perhaps a well-trodden office staircase could be used to light the workplace?

Consider transporting energy. An optical film from 3M with a prismatic surface reflects more than 98 percent of incoming light and is able to provide daylight to underground parking spaces or basements through ‘light pipes’. The same principle could colour a roof and façade black during winter and white in the summer. And ingenious daylight regulation can be made by making awnings out a moving material: bi-metallic surfaces that deform under the sun’s heat due to different coefficients of expansion.

These examples all go to show that small scale solutions are taking over from mechanics. Smart materials chemistry can replace mechanical systems and may spearhead a completely new, sustainable path for construction and architecture. So the power lies in multifunctional materials: constructive, daylight regulating, insulating, air-purifying and energy-providing. Architecture’s next generation will be shaped by multitasking materials.

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