October 4, 2010

Column | Korky Koroluk

Adaptive buildings more than a concept

As people become more and more concerned about energy usage, as advances are made in microprocessor technology, new language is slowly entering the construction industry.

The introduction has been sudden, based as it is on technological developments that have occurred just in the last decade. Now we’re hearing about something called “adaptive buildings,” about “integrated concentrating solar façade systems,” about a “liquid wall.”

I saw an article recently on biomimicry. It was about “giving green buildings a smarter skin.” The author teaches “bio-inspired design.”

A couple of innovative international concerns have joined in a partnership they called the Adaptive Building Initiative. They’re finished one project in Tokyo, have a second under way in Madrid, and a third in the planning stage in Abu Dhabi.

Korky Koroluk

All of these things have come about as a result of the need for cleaner energy. After all, as ABI reminds us on its website, the operation of buildings represents roughly one-third of all energy consumption in the United States, and the owners and occupants of those buildings pay the price in higher energy costs and reduced comfort and flexibility.

Because buildings are almost always conceived of as rigid objects, their configuration is often fixed when design choices are made. The problem with that is that the lack of flexibility and responsiveness makes them unsustainable.

“Rising energy demands, along with the lack of design solutions that sufficiently respond to the changes in our environment, may well be the defining problems of our century,” the company says on its website.

“Adaptation is the means by which we can begin to address these daunting challenges and enter a new era of innovation.”

Adaptive buildings are possible now because of a number of things that have happened in the last 10 years.

Production costs of motorized systems have dropped significantly. Standardization within the automation industry has been a big factor in improved system reliability. Microprocessors are moving continuously toward lower cost and lower power requirements, which allows for greater distribution of embedded network intelligence.

Nanomaterial science has grown explosively Add in improved sensors, computational tools and environmental modelling, and there is an opportunity now to create built environments that respond to the influences around and within them.

Consider the Madrid project that ABI has under way. It’s a new home for Spain’s supreme court.

ABI installed 27,000 square feet of adaptive shading. As the sun moves overhead, a computer system continually adjusts the shades. Light filters into the atrium, but the technology deploys enough shades to prevent offices from overheating.

The hexagonal shading units made of steel and aluminum fold flat and disappear into the roof’s structure when closed. A small servomotor built into each unit needs only minimal power to extend or retract the shade.

Now there is a proposal for a new type of thin-film building membrane that would serve to control humidity, light and temperature transmission into the building. It’s called Self-Actuated Building Envelope Regulation, or SABER.

It employs nanomaterials that will substitute for energy now expended to solve the problem of climate control in buildings. The nanomaterials themselves will take a specific action instead of awaiting an external command. So matter will become active matter with the ability to adapt, regulate and control. Smart matter, in other words.

And although it sounds like science fiction, the ability to produce smart matter is here now.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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These projects have been selected from 500 projects with a total value of $2,096,783,397 that Reed Construction Data Building Reports reported on Tuesday.


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