Material Marvels: Smart Buildings

27 January 2010 (Last Updated January 27th, 2010 18:30)

The key to designing smart buildings involves not only information technology, but also imaginative use of materials. These are sometimes simple ones deployed in new common-sense ways, sometimes components fresh from the R&D labs. Bill Millard investigates three recent projects that work variations on a theme of experimentation.

Animal Wall, Cardiff, Wales, UK

London-based designer Gitta Gschwendtner responded to a brief for a site-specific public artwork near the new Strata residential development in Century Wharf, Cardiff Bay, with a useful enhancement to the local environment that involved real animals.

Gschwendtner's wall strives to mitigate damage to the Taff River area's wildlife habitat by creating nesting space for local birds and bats. Working with David Clements Ecology to ensure the project's feasibility in the Cardiff Bay ecosystem, she devised a series of approximately 1,000 nest boxes mounted atop a breezeblock wall, partially freestanding and partially supporting the Strata development's podium level above the car park – the number corresponds loosely to the number of human apartments.

The nest boxes are constructed of woodcrete, which combines Portland cement with wood fibre instead of sand as the aggregate; this environmentally friendly material behaves like concrete but is lighter, breathes and has good insulating properties. "It weathers very well, like concrete, and withstands the elements," she says; "this is important in a permanent artwork."

"Animal Wall strives to mitigate damage to the Taff River area's wildlife habitat by creating nesting space for local birds and bats."

Like a diversely populated, high-turnover housing block, Animal Wall is designed for vibrant activity. The wall uses four different nest box designs to accommodate different species; when next spring's nesting season rolls around, Gschwendtner and her ecological consultant expect the wall to host sparrows, starlings, great tits, pied wagtails and bats. The full set of nests won't all be occupied at once, because the different species move in and out during the season, as in a sequentially blooming garden.

"As they finish nesting and move out," she says, "then the worms move in and clean up the box, and the birds and bats can move into the box next door, so there's a constant change of occupancy in the wall." These species are mainly insectivorous, keeping pest populations down.

Strata's human occupants have been advised of the plan, Gschwendtner notes, and "most of them are quite keen on the idea of wildlife living there".

"Not really knowing much about ecology, I thought I could just reverse some of the damage that had been done to the area," she comments. However, the ecologist advised her that this was impossible. "They've changed the nature of the river," formerly tidal before the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barrage in the 1990s; "that means you can't really reintroduce some of the animals that have disappeared." By building housing for amber-list species (those declining in numbers), Gschwendtner says, "we've maybe not turned back the clock, [but] we've done some good for the overall animal population in Britain."

"It's almost like an artificial cliff wall," and, like its natural models, it's beyond human prediction or control. "When I came back to take photographs," she recounts, "loads of spiders had started to create webs across the different boxes," an unexpected effect. Clements, the local ecologist, will keep an eye on how the system evolves over the coming years. "Currently it's almost like a theoretical piece of art or ecology," Gschwendtner says. "Time will show whether it works the way we predicted."

Brandhorst Museum, Munich, Germany

Architects look to Germany for some of the world's most advanced environmental technologies, and Sauerbruch Hutton's experience with strategies like geothermal energy, passive climate control and radiant heating is extensive. Yet principals Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton and their associates would prefer to integrate a building's energy performance into its design so thoroughly that it is essentially invisible. The firm emphasises façades, forms and fenestration, rather than nuts-and-bolts, eat-your-vegetables engineering features. Newcomers to sustainable architecture may add ostentatious "green bling" for marketing purposes, but these green-design veterans are confident enough to keep the green features quiet.

"Brandhorst Museum's façade has a functional side, serving as a sunshade and aiding in thermal control."

Energetic use of exterior colour is the Sauerbruch Hutton signature. At the Brandhorst Museum in Munich's Maxvorstadt arts district it's provided by an unexpected material: a series of 36,000 ceramic rods in 23 different colours, vertically mounted in front of a skin of perforated sheet metal. This choice, says project architect David Wegener, resulted from "an evolutionary pathway" driven at first by local noise-control requirements mandating some form of absorptive façade.

"We experimented with meshes of many kinds, and in the end we came up with a mesh of ceramics, a bit like a fabric, with two directions, a front and back layer intertwined upon the metal cladding," he says.

Having previously worked with the manufacturer (the family-owned firm NBK Keramik), Wegener and colleagues selected its Terrart-Baguette product for a distinctively varied tactile component in its glazing and reliable colour stability, unchanged by sunlight or acid / base atmospheric variations.

Pieces that look stable in isolation offer wide variability when assembled on the façade. A close view of the ceramic rods shows their polychromatic complexity; from a distance, they blend together and read as a neutral colour. "If you try to take a picture, it appears to be out of focus because there's this moiré effect," Wegener notes. The rods have proven popular with visitors – including occasional thieves, whose artful souvenir-snatching has required the museum to store 8,000 replacement units.

The façade has a functional side as well, serving as a sunshade and aiding in thermal control as well as acoustic isolation. The fenestration and fabric filters maximise daylight on all levels, so that the museum needs no artificial light during 70% of its opening hours; all walls and floors contain water tubing within the concrete for radiant heating and cooling (an approach termed Bauteilaktivierung, meaning component or building mass activation); air exchange and peak-time cooling rely on a coactivation system using thermal energy from groundwater. These technologies add up to substantial efficiencies in both lighting (the largest energy consumer in museums) and climate stabilisation.

Yas Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Asymptote's high-tech, high-profile hotel for high-net-worth travellers is a study in contrasts and extremes. It is set partially on land and partially on water, adjoining the Yas Marina and straddling the track of the Yas Marina Circuit raceway, site of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (the hotel opened on 3 November 2009, two days after the inaugural race).

The structure comprises two conjoined 12-storey towers forming a T-intersection, with the raceway passing beneath both a connecting pedestrian bridge and the structure's signature feature above it, a "grid shell" of 5,800 diamond-shaped glass panels mounted on a steel diagrid frame, capable of both illumination (the structure includes some 5,000 light-emitting diodes) and movement. This project can claim global leadership in two respects: it is the first building ever constructed across a Formula 1 racetrack, and it is reportedly the world's largest LED project to date. Between these two milestones, the auto races will probably grab more immediate attention, but the exterior is the Yas Hotel's truly revolutionary element.

The 217m grid shell is exuberantly ornamental, but it blurs the distinction between ornamentation and functionality. Its LED fixtures can provide either gradual colour-shifting sequences or low-resolution pixel-mapped video content on the curved surface.

"Yas Hotel features a 'grid shell' of 5,800 diamond-shaped glass panels mounted on a steel diagrid frame."

By day, the grid shell functions as an adjustable brise-soleil and windscreen, assisting in thermal and ventilation control through its controlled reflectivity, along with offering a distinct biomorphically scaly texture. By night, it converts the hotel into a massive light source and assumes a different kind of biomorphism, akin to the graceful forms of luminescent jellyfish.

Many recent buildings worldwide have begun wearing some form of overcoat, from mesh claddings to glass or ceramic screens, but the grid shell extends the clothed-body metaphor into the realm of overt display and performance.

Underneath the glass-and-steel garment, the Yas offers visitors 500 rooms and a five-star array of facilities and amenities – eight restaurants, four bars, and lavish recreational facilities including an 18-hole golf course and a 143-berth marina, plus access to nearby attractions like the Ferrari World theme park – distributed across a total area of 85,000m².

The hotel and associated recreation complex stand as a bright monument to the 20th century's most transformative technology, the internal-combustion engine, and to the astonishing wealth that those engines have helped transfer to certain organisations and petrostates, away from much of the rest of the world. For those inclined to celebrate that circumstance and revel in the pleasures it makes possible, the Yas Hotel is an ecstatic beacon and a splendid harbour. This being the 21st century rather than the 20th, there are also a few perspectives from which those ecstasies and splendours evoke reactions other than celebration.