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Installations of materials 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.

Future Buildings


Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano as young architects

The ultimate tribute was the radical 1977 design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris by architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. 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 inadequate 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 open our windows again? The piping installation during construction slows progress and delays the interior completion, leading to higher failure costs.

Installations are becoming more critical, but we should look for other solutions if current trends continue. Complete, comprehensive prefabrication of components is complicated because it is difficult to integrate water, electricity and heating systems in prefabricated elements. Hence, 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, innovative 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 trends but will be the standard within a generation.

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.

Many material innovations are copied from nature. Mick Pearce’s ‘Council House 2’ in Melbourne saves 70 per cent of its water and 80 per cent of its energy by regulating temperature using water cooling and phase change materials (PCMs). Brian Korgel, a professor of nanotechnology, and his team have produced a nano-crystal made of copper, indium, gallium and selenium. This inorganic material dissolves in a liquid and is then applied as a paint with a performance similar to PV cells. The thin layer means the yield is much lower, compensating by using large surfaces. 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 very low density solid, as it is approximately 98 per cent 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.

Motorways & dance floors

Another innovative way of generating energy is the piezoelectric cell. The piezoelectric effect is that certain crystals produce electricity under pressure, such as bending, and vice-versa: they deform when electrically charged.

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, and insulating with vacuum panels and airgel materials, other materials can take over the functions of installations. For example, an optical light film from 3M with a prismatic surface reflects more than 98 per cent of incoming sunlight. It 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 is controlled by glass with a photochromic 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. An awning is made of a moving material: bi-metallic surfaces that deform under the sun’s heat due to different coefficients of expansion incorporated into the façade to function as an ingenious system for daylight regulation.

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

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