Biomimetic Materials

Life Lessons: Architects turn to biology for solutions to all that ails us.
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Architectural Record

Recent innovations in brick also demonstrate biomimetic structural hierarchies. “Bricks have not changed in millennia,” says Jenny Sabin, professor and researcher at Cornell University’s College of Art, Architecture, and Planning, and principal of Jenny Sabin Studio. “But now, with 3-D printing, every single brick can be different,” she says. In a product series called Polybrick 1.0, Sabin’s interdisciplinary lab developed the algorithmic design and additive manufacturing of cellular-form brick for mortarless assembly and mass customization. Subsequent collaborations led to the development of bricks generated according to the principles of human bone formation: Polybrick 2.0 generates osteoid bricks with densely structured lattices for use where loads are greatest, at the base of a wall, and increasingly porous lattices as loads lighten toward the top. A further series, Polybrick 3.0, incorporates synthetic DNA as a “programmable glaze.” It emits bioluminescence in nano- to macro-scale patterns of the designers’ choosing. Ultimately Sabin sees this technology having the potential to signal the presence of certain air contaminants (and perhaps even to mitigate them), or to encode data to facilitate self-assembly.

With this, the series is beginning to manifest other quintessentially biological characteristics: sensing, responding, and adapting. Sabin’s studio’s most recent work, Ada, a project developed within Microsoft Research’s Artist in Residence program, takes these characteristics even further.

Now installed at the company’s campus in Redmond, Washington, Ada is “a pavilion of knitted light,” says Sabin, “a cyber-physical architecture that immerses visitors in an interactive glow of photoluminescence.” Its lightweight, digitally knitted structure consists of responsive and data-driven tubular and cellular components. Sensors in the pavilion and throughout the building collect indications of emotion, such as facial patterns and voice tones, from visitors choosing to participate. Artificial intelligence (AI) processes the data, and scripts developed in Sabin’s architecture firm translate it into three different scales of lighting that transform Ada’s responsive materials (such as textiles and photoluminescent fibers) to reflect individual and collective sentiment. “It’s an interactive, human-centered project that celebrates AI,” says Sabin, “an architecture that is happy to see you and smiles back at you.”


Jenny Sabin’s Polybrick series includes a mortarless masonry system developed with an algorithmic design (top) and bricks that have dense structural lattices for use where loads are greatest and more porous lattices for other areas (bottom).

Where Ada deploys sensors and AI to elicit a material response to affect-based inputs, the work of DO|SU Studio (San Francisco) relies on inherently responsive smart materials, such as thermobimetal, to create dynamic building envelopes that help to regulate conditions in the interiors. Thermobimetal consists of two metal alloys laminated together, each with a different coefficient of expansion; as temperature rises, one side expands more quickly than the other, and the material curls. Using alloys of nickel, manganese, iron, and copper, DO|SU has developed assemblies that make the most of the material’s kinetic properties to mimic the way living things respond to the sun—opening and closing—all without electricity or external control systems.

“It’s fantastic,” says Doris Sung, the firm’s principal. “Here we are, dealing with global warming and the need to conserve energy, and we can actually make a material that reacts to changes in temperature autonomously.”

A result of DO|SU’s wide-ranging research into self-shading, self-ventilating, self-assembling, and self-propelling projects, InVert, an insulated glazing unit, is now market-ready. Its integrated shading device consists of a matrix of small, leaf-like pieces of thermobimetal inserted as an interlayer between the panes. As the pieces heat up in the sun, they toggle on a little pivot to lie perpendicular to the sun angle, shading the inner pane; as the sun moves on (or, rather, as the earth turns) and the pieces cool, they toggle back. Eliminating the need for films or coatings, the system achieves a heat-gain coefficient of 0.37 while maintaining 70 percent visibility and admitting full-spectrum daylight even in shading mode. In addition to its functional contribution to the building skin, InVert contributes biophilic qualities as well. It provides a dynamic index of outdoor conditions for people inside the building, connecting them to their environment, and, because the pieces operate individually rather than all at once, “it’s almost like leaves fluttering on a tree,” says Sung.


One of the best-known examples of a biological process is photosynthesis, the method by which plants use solar energy to convert water, carbon dioxide, and minerals into oxygen and carbohydrates. In a hybrid example of biomimicry and bio-utilization, a building-skin material developed by London-based ecoLogicStudio integrates algae (whose photosynthesis produces about half of our atmospheric oxygen) into a membrane that serves as a shading device or cladding while enabling buildings to improve urban air quality.

“When you think of technology as something that is not separated from society, but embedded in it, architecture—and the city—is the perfect vehicle,” says Marco Poletto, cofounder with Claudia Pasquero of ecoLogic. “It exists in between, as a kind of interface between technology and life.” As an interface in itself at a finer level of scale, Photo.Synth.Etica, as the cladding system is called, comprises three components: hardware (the membrane—now ETFE, with a 3-D-printed, bio-based iteration under development), wetware (a watery medium supporting a culture of microalgae, which can be configured to make a meaningful contribution to the building design), and software (which encompasses design, as well as monitoring and management).

It works by admitting unfiltered city air at the bottom of each biomodule; as the air bubbles naturally through the wetware, CO2 molecules and air pollutants are captured and stored by the algae, which grows into a biomass that will contribute to existing supply chains for biofuel, pharmaceutical, bioplastic, or—since a teaspoon of spirulina contains the same amount of protein as a T-bone steak—nutritional uses. Air is then returned, filtered and oxygen enriched, from the top of each module to the city.


DO|SU Studio’s InVert insulated glazing units incorporate leaf-like pieces of thermobiometal (above). As the pieces heat up in the sun, they toggle to provide shade. Even in shading mode (below), visibility to the exterior is maintained.

When Photo.Synth.Etica was retrofitted, bannerlike, onto a two-story section of the facade of the Printworks at Dublin Castle, during that city’s 2018 climate innovation summit, it captured CO2 from the atmosphere at an estimated kilogram per day—equivalent to 20 large trees. A subsequent installation in Helsinki earlier this year configured the photo-bioreactors more densely on the membrane and then shaped and distributed the components across the facade, in a design that remained effective from a functional perspective while responding aesthetically to its new context. “Of course the project contributes to the consumption of CO2 and the production of oxygen and protein, but it can also contribute to the psychology of the city,” says Pasquero, “so aesthetics are important.” Currently available for custom applications in collaboration with ecoLogicStudio, Photo.Synth.Etica is expected to launch commercially in late 2020.

A membrane that integrates algae (left) and can be configured to provide shading while improving urban air quality has been developed by ecoLogicStudio. The system appeared on a facade in Dublin during a 2018 climate innovation summit (right).

These examples of innovative materials—from carbon-sequestering structures to sensing and responsive skins—suggest the biomimetic paradigm’s profound potential. Yet obstacles to its widespread development and uptake remain. “We live in a bizarre age in which we have all the solutions we need to make very rapid progress on tackling climate change and reversing biodiversity loss,” says Pawlyn, “but it’s not happening at anywhere near the pace that it should be.” He used to think it was fairly straightforward things we need to get better at, like advancing the economic arguments and building some exemplary projects. About a year ago, however, he reached the conclusion that the problem exists at a higher, systemic level. To induce rapid change, we need, on the one hand, more adventurous exemplars and material-research projects like those profiled here, and, on the other, he says, “some radical re-thinking of the metaphors, values, and systems by which we live.”

Supplemental Materials

Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture, Michael Pawlyn/TED Salon London 2010

Katharine Logan is a designer and writer focusing on architecture, sustainability, and well-being.


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Originally published in Architectural Record