Multitasking materials in future construction and architecture

“Parasitic” energy harvesting systems. An Israeli company shows it can collect energy from Israel’s highways. Installations are often a practically invisible part of a building. Miles of cables, piping, tubes and wires are concealed behind the ceilings, floors, walls and foundations. The facilities themselves are tucked behind voids or form unsightly blemishes on rooftops. It was long assumed that these installations were the holy grail of a comfortable working and living environment.

Future buildings

The ultimate tribute was the radical 1977 design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris by architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, in which this belief was illustrated by turning the building inside out. The construction, tubes, piping, air-ducts and all other installations were conspicuously shown as an ode to technology.

Sick building syndrome is a condition in which physical symptoms are attributed to bad, or poorly maintained, air-conditioning systems and the presence of bacteria, fungi and viruses. This resulted in a reversal of thinking about buildings and led to a new awareness: couldn’t we just open our windows again? The installation of all that piping during construction slows progress and delays the interior completion, besides leading to higher failure costs.

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.

Installations are becoming more important, but if current trends continue we should be looking to other solutions. Complete, comprehensive prefabrication of components is complicated because it is difficult to integrate water, electricity and heating systems in prefabricated elements, so the entire system has to be completed in situ. Another disadvantage is that the installation needs to be accessible for maintenance, or in case of failure. The result is ugly, modular ceilings and demountable floors. 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.

Many material innovations are copied from nature. Mick Pearce’s ‘Council House 2’ in Melbourne saves 70 percent of its water and 80 percent of its energy by regulating temperature using water cooling and phase change materials (PCM’s).

City of Melbourne's Council House 2
‘Council House 2’ in Melbourne
PCMs are materials such as paraffin or salts that store and return their energy at certain temperatures as they change from solids to liquids and back. The building uses water as a coolant by passing it through five tubes made of lightweight fabric. The remaining water flows to some 10,000 salt-filled, stainless steel spheres that have a high freezing point of 15 degrees Celsius. At night they freeze and by day this cools the coolant.
In addition the building has a green façade that feeds incoming air with oxygen. This is not only a sustainable solution; the owner also claims that this has increased productivity in the workplace by nearly 11 percent. The greatest advantage of this architectural investment is completely refreshed air every half hour. The CH 2 project also uses conventional solar panels. Within twenty years, such buildings will easily generate their own energy with a spray that converts into solar cells.

Brian Korgel, a professor of nanotechnology, and his team have produced a nano-crystal made of copper, indium, gallium and selenium. This inorganic material is dissolved in a liquid so that it can be applied as a paint with a performance similar to PV cells. The thin layer means that the yield is much lower, but this is compensated by using large surfaces.

Aerogel - also known as frozen smoke - is the world’s lowest density solid, clocking in at 96% air.

Aerogel – also known as frozen smoke – is the world’s lowest density solid, clocking in at 96% air.

The insulation must, of course, be top-notch. 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. Most aero gels are silicon-based, but there are also gels based on metals or carbon compounds. Insulation is a hot item, of course. The Material Xperience show had examples such as the ‘EcoCradle’, a sustainable insulation made of chipboard fibre and mushrooms.
EcoCradleEcovative grow EcoCradle. Credits: Ecovative.
Or a cork that can be distorted to a kind of popcorn-like, lightweight insulation board under the influence of heat, pressure and steam.

Motorways & dance floors

Another innovative way of generating energy is the piezoelectric cell. The piezoelectric effect is the phenomenon that certain crystals produce electricity under the influence of pressure, such as bending, and vice-versa: they deform when electrically charged.
The Israeli company Innowattech specializes in absorbing mechanical energy from motorways, railways, pedestrian traffic or dance floors.

INNOWATECH - “Innowattech Piezo Electric Generator,” or IPEG for short.  Their generators will harvest energy from the weight, motion, vibration, and temperature changes of the roadways.

INNOWATTECH – “Innowattech Piezo Electric Generator,” or IPEG for short. Their generators will harvest energy from the weight, motion, vibration, and temperature changes of the roadways.

In Tel Aviv there is a section of road fitted with a strip of piezoelectric material. They yield claimed is impressive. The electricity generated from the vibrations of six hundred lorries driving over the road every hour could power forty homes. Surely this means that a well-used office staircase should be able to light the workplace?
Besides generating energy with solar paint and piezoelectrics, cooling with PCMs, insulating with vacuum panels and airgel materials, other materials can take over the functions of installations. An optical light film from 3M with a prismatic surface reflects more than 98 percent of incoming sunlight and is able to provide daylight to underground parking spaces or basements through ‘light pipes’. Window washing is no longer necessary if a coating with the Lotus Effect (Stolotusan) is applied and shading can be controlled by glass with a photochromic or electrochromic effect.

Saint Gobain’s Sage glass is an example. The same principle could colour a roof and façade black during winter and white in the summer. And an awning can be made of a moving material: bi-metallic surfaces that deform under the sun’s heat due to different coefficients of expansion can incorporated in the façade to function as an ingenious system for daylight regulation.

These examples all go to show that chemistry can take over from mechanics. Smart materials chemistry can replace mechanical systems and may spearhead a completely new and sustainable path for construction and architecture.

Increasingly, the power lies in multifunctional materials: constructive, daylight regulating, insulating, air-purifying and energy-providing. The next generation will be shaped by multitasking materials.


Els ZijlstraAbout Els Zijlstra
Els founded Materia which is gathering innovative materials worldwide and expose them through a search engine, lectures, books, articles, etc.
> More about Els Zijlstra

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