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Architecture's new frontier: Buildings that mimic nature

John Conti
| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 6:06 p.m.
Dale Clifford, assistant professor of architecture, sends current through the filament on his solar petals to show their curvature, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall on the Oakland campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Dale Clifford, assistant professor of architecture, sends current through the filament on his solar petals to show their curvature, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall on the Oakland campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Examine some of the 150 or so tiny artifacts that you find in Dale Clifford's office at Carnegie Mellon University, and you just might find the future of architecture.

Clifford is a leading researcher into what might be called “bio-simulant architecture,” or architecture that simulates biological processes.

We're talking about things like the facade of a building outfitted with panels that, just like leaves on a plant, react to the sun. These “solar petals” would move automatically with the sun to provide optimum glare reduction and shade, or maybe, someday, even be used to “curl up” to open the sides of a building for ventilation.

They could then go flat, closing the sides of a building when the sun goes down, and it gets cold.

Or, how about thin glass-block windows that absorb heat during the day and release it at night — and change in transparency, as well, being clear during the heat of the day but gradually turning opaque as the temperature drops.

All this fascinating work by the assistant professor of architecture at CMU is illustrated by the models of every sort — most of them representing potential building components — that neatly line the shelves and cover the big table that together make up Clifford's office.

The intent of Clifford's futuristic work is to find more ways to make buildings environmentally efficient and self-sustaining, reducing their need, as they operate daily, for expensive resources such as utility-supplied gas, electricity and water. Making buildings “green” has become common in recent years, but this next step — simulating nature in the design of a building — is a new frontier.

Part of what's intriguing about the work of Clifford and his associates is that the eventual use of this “bio-simulance,” or what some call “bio-mimicry,” in architecture could dramatically change what everyday buildings look like and how we experience them. It could bring a whole new range of aesthetics to architecture with new biological-like forms for buildings.

The looks of buildings have always changed with new technologies. The invention of the steel skeleton and the elevator at the turn of the last century brought about the skyscraper. Subsequent advances in technology led to modern buildings clad in thin layers of metal and glass.

More recently, computer technologies have made it possible for architects and engineers to design all those awesomely unusual curvy buildings like the ones that architect Frank Gehry and others do.

Virtually all of the work that Clifford does is at table-top scale right now. But the glass-block windows he's developed will soon have a real-life role to play: They will be used in a window wall at a new nature center to be built in Frick Park.

The window wall will give visitors to the center a dramatic demonstration of how heat can be stored in a building and then released. It's actually a relatively low-tech process that takes advantage of the “phase-change” of materials. Water, for example, “changes phase” from solid to liquid at 32 degrees. These glass blocks will be filled with palm oil that changes phase from solid to liquid at about 70 degrees, about the temperature at which humans are most comfortable.

On a warm day in Frick Park, the palm oil will be above 70 degrees and in its liquid or “melted” phase. It also will be transparent and will help store the day's heat. As the day cools, the palm oil will cool, too, and it will give off its heat gradually until it “freezes” and turns totally opaque. When the sun starts to shine in the park the next day, the palm oil will again absorb heat as it melts and becomes transparent again.

Why do this? Well, in this case, it will illustrate for visitors what will actually be going on inside the walls of the building, which will contain palm oil and, in this process of freezing and thawing, substantially reduce the building's heating and cooling needs. This technique has already been used hidden in the walls of buildings — notably in the new Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory — but using it in windows will be an innovation. And, once demonstrated as a window, such blocks could be useful in a variety of architectural applications.

Currently under construction in a lab at CMU is an experimental “solar petal” array that will soon be tested in Miami as a small-scale demonstration in a new mixed-use high-rise. The petals — in this case each about 8 inches long — will expand or contract to illustrate to building users and the public how much solar energy is available to the building at any given time. The petals have thin wires in them that respond to heat, or, in this case, photovoltaic electrical current.

Clifford, at 48, has spent much of his career dealing with the environmental aspects of architecture and materials. He's emphatic about looking for bridges between esthetics and the new technologies. And he believes buildings with bio-simulant technology will someday “inspire wonder,” which, he notes, “is what architecture does at its best.”

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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