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Buildings get wise to the future

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- (Posted on September 8, 2006)

Just how smart can a building be?

Bill Gates and Microsoft might be striving for a future where integrated in-home computer systems do our chores while keeping us warm and entertained, but a new breed of architects have a different vision for how, and where, we will live in the future.

They are working to create smart buildings that act as living systems, able to change shape to match the needs of the people inside and the changing weather outside.

"Forget about the idea of a guy sitting in the middle of a room with a computer telling a blind to come down," says Michael Fox, an architect who started the Kinetic Design Group at MIT and is exploring the field of responsive architecture.

Tristan d'Estree Sterk is another pioneer in developing smart buildings and a member of the Office for Robotic Architectural Media & the Bureau for Responsive Architecture in Vancouver.

Together with Robert Skelton he is developing shape-changing buildings using "actuated tensegrity" - a new system that uses rods and wires manipulated by pneumatics to form a building's exoskeleton. They are able to move in response to sensors on the outershell of the building or the conditions within it.

"A fully-integrated, living system that is sensitive to the environment is the next stage. Intelligent systems for home interiors are just not sustainable because of the amount of energy they command," Sterk told CNN.

"We're living in an age when we are aware of dwindling energy resources and an increasing premium on space within cities. We have to react and we're looking at the natural world to inform how we design buildings."

"The 101 Tower in Taipei, currently the world's tallest building, has a movable steel ball on its mast to dissipate its center of gravity. While it works, it still seems like a silly way to deal with the problem. You wouldn't put a heavy weight at the top of a tree. It bends and flexes in the wind and is stronger for it.

"Imagine a skyscraper where the wind would be able to flow through the external structure and so reducing shaking. The building's exoskeleton would also have the ability to gently twist in the wind to control the building's center of gravity. The result is that architects can build taller buildings more efficiently," he told CNN.

Sterk's partner Robert Skelton has been dealing with the complexities of the task by developing new calculations in maths and geometry to inform all aspects of the building, from its electromagnetic properties to its physical form.

Coming from a background in aerospace engineering, he saw ways in which responsive structures used by spacecraft, for instance, to shield themselves from the sun, could be applied to buildings.

"What we've done is use sophisticated geometry but with common materials," Skelton told CNN.

While Sterk was working with the Skidmore group in Chicago he worked on ultra-lightweight skyscrapers for the city using "actuated tensegrity." Skelton believes that ultimately they could reach for the stars with whole cities within a building.

Population pressure on countries with little or no land to expand could build huge platforms at sea that could convert the energy from waves into energy exported through the structure.

The energy efficiency of these smart buildings is another advantage.

"While there's no such thing as a zero-energy building, one that builds a profile of its environment and reacts intelligently would eliminate the need for air-conditioning and power hungry systems," says Sterk.

Coupled to the grand vision of cities in the sky, Sterk and Skelton's ideas could function on a smaller scale. There are constructing a two-storey prototype house with a surprising appearance.

"The outershell of the building would be soft, but the use of composite materials would make it strong. To the person inside it might look as if the walls were moving back and forth," said Sterk.

Every room could have access to sunlight and the large amount of space between the rooms would allow for modest room size change. Windows could alter their reflectivity and the front of the building could change its appearance to regulate the flow of air either into or over the building.

High concepts and grand visions are not uncommon among architects, but the focus of these smart buildings is as much on the people who will live or work in them.

"Ultimately it doesn't matter if a roof is able to rise up and down if there is nobody inside," said Fox.

"What's comfortable for the occupant is good for the building. There is no difference between the two, it's not one telling the other what to do," said Sterk.

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story.smartbuildings5.jpg

Ultra-lightweight skyscraper for Chicago by Tristan d'Estree Sterk

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Ultra-lightweight skyscrapers for Chicago by Tristan d'Estree Sterk

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Tristan d'Estree Sterk's full-scale prototype of a domestic building

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A detail of the "actuated tensegrity" structure.

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A full-scale prototype of an "actuated tensegrity" structure.

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