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Smart architecture

Features | March 11, 2019 | By:

New forms offer promising small-scale, smart fabric applications.
In the RESET Stress Reduction Pods designed by UNSense, three different pods are created with the smallest ‘Intimacy’ for reclining positions, ‘Mind & Body’ for meditation and stretching then ‘Escape’ for multiple positions. Photo: UNSense.

The intense focus on IoT as the panacea for smart buildings may be premature, and instead it could be time to pay more attention to smaller, more achievable steps that will ultimately feed into the greater complexity. For advanced textiles, it affords an opportunity for innovation and new partnerships.  

In the early 1990s architects and engineers in Japan, as well as the United States, looked to smart buildings as a route to solve problems with issues, such as structural health monitoring and earthquake resistance. These were largely computer-controlled smart systems housed within conventional building materials—generally hard, often concrete.  

 Europe around the same period looks to a more artistic expression in a smart building.Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Mond Arabe (1987) in Paris is a case in point. The architect designed a façade resembling a camera lens, with a series of apertures designed to open and close to allow in light or reduce solar gain as needed. It, too, was made of hard material, metal in this case. Today’s advanced textiles have the ability to offer new forms in building design, contributing to the health and well-being of its occupants and reducing the environmental impact of the structure.

Flexible buildings

Dynamic facades are now giving way to “kinetic building.”  Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron’s signal box (1999) next to a railway line in Basel is a louvered structure that though physically static appears kinetic with changing light and to the viewer walking around the structure. 

As technology has advanced and materials become lighter, buildings that actually move are attracting attention. Shape-shifting is not readily associated with a permanent building, but The Shed arts centre overlooking New York’s High Line does just that. Designed by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), that’s also responsible for The High Line, it’s scheduled to open on April 5 of this year.  The arts centre has eight levels housing performing and visual art as well as popular culture events and creative spaces.  

The Shed in New York City is an arts center for performing arts, visual arts, and popular culture. The building is designed to physically transform to support artists’ most ambitious ideas. Photo: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

The need for flexibility has been transformed into the building’s own aesthetic.  Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) pillows create a translucent telescopic outer shell that can be deployed to glide along rails to meet an adjoining plaza, effectively doubling the buildings footprint when it is needed for larger events.  Power, lighting and theatrical rigging are all integrated into the soft structure held on a steel frame that acts as a skeleton. 

The architects’ vision is for a building whose “open infrastructure can be permanently flexible for an unknowable future and responsive to variability in scale, media, technology and the evolving needs of artists.”  

Tellingly, the inspiration came from the work of the British architect Cedric Price, a member of the influential Archigram Group, which conceived new forms of building and living such as the Fun Palace for the Joan Littlewood Project (1959-61), an unrealized building-machine concept.  Like The Shed, it was designed as a flexible framework into which programmable spaces could be introduced, changeable at the behest of occupants rather than prescribed by the designer architect. In other words, a smart building.

Mediating technology

The Dutch architect Ben van Berkel, in describing the motivation behind the launch of UNSense, sees that “our aim is use technology is a tool to make the built environment more humane and healthy on a physical, mental and social level.” He is continuing with his main studio practice, UNStudio, but in this initiative is looking to harness technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital and sensorial technologies to create buildings and even cities that can adapt to the needs of people, rather than have the users work around the architects’ vision.  

In a presentation at the Media Architecture Biennale 2018 in Beijing, the architects made clear their intention to see the user or occupant become an active rather than passive participant in the construction of their environment. As technology miniaturizes and becomes invisible to the eye, they see a risk that this will cause an increase in non-attentive social participation impacting on the individual as well as society.   

Part of the architect’s role has become mediating in the technological age so that “it can interface with inhabitants, activating there consciousness and allow for empathic human engagement.”  They are now putting the philosophy into practice with a number of large and small scale projects, including the RESET Stress Reduction Pods, designed as an immersive, modular structure that features scientifically proven stress reduction methods in a playful and interactive way.

Numerous studies suggest that workplace stress has more serious repercussions, and has been on the increase. The RESET Stress Reduction Pods are comprised of a series of break room ‘pods’ designed to be situated within an office space inviting workers to a “time out.” in a stressful working environment. The soft environments measure an individual’s stress levels using wearable sensors. It then changes projections on the wall, sounds and music to induce calm. 

The biometric information gathered includes brain signals and heart rate that are coupled with human movement to initiate changes in spatial qualities.  Embedded in the textile walls are kinetic devices to track human proximity. These can enable the projections to modulate and respond to touch with personalized projections, colors and sounds.  

Monitoring at home

In home health monitoring, much of the focus has been on measuring the patient or elderly person’s physical well-being.  As sensing and diagnostic capabilities have advanced, researchers are now looking at ways to introduce these to the smart home. 

Acceptance is an important issue, so incorporating the technology within existing interiors and home furnishings has a number of advantages. A favorite chair, for example, means that the person can be monitored in a familiar place. For the purpose of data collection it also gives a more reliable reading. 

Embedding sensors in smart cushions is showing positive results. At the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Dr. Debraj De and Dr Sajal K. Das have developed a Care Chair. It’s designed to monitor the daily behavior and mental health of rehabilitation patients as well as the elderly in their own home or in assisted living facilities. 

Four sensors embedded in a cushion that slips over the back of the chair are used to detect the user’s emotional state through their activities. “When we move, subtle movements can indicate our mental state,” according to Dr. De. 

In tests, 19 sedentary activities were monitored, including sitting still and napping, head and hand movement, as well as user functional activities, such as talking, eating and drinking. Activities related to the emotions are also monitored and these include crying, laughing, shouting, weeping and yawning. Elsewhere, researchers in Italy are starting to find encouraging results that show that body movement and posture itself can convey emotion-specific data. 

Writing in the early part of the last century, Le Corbusier saw, “the problem of the house is the problem of the epoch. The equilibrium of society today depends upon it.” The Swiss-French architect, designer and urban planner is considered to be one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture.

Technology has prompted innovations in building forms, improved safety, and brought added convenience and communication. The question that now needs to be asked is, “’Smart’ to what purpose?” Le Corbusier’s vision that architecture should engender a state of equilibrium in society is a good place to start.  


Video: UNSense.



Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author and academic. She the author of several books on advanced and smart textiles published by Thames and Hudson and Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London.

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