An Energy-Producing Algae Facade

Smart is the wonder word for today's development. It won't be wrong to mention that the inspiration here is the smart phones that have changed the way we live. From a tool for just voice and text communication, they have become the centre of one's life. Now, anyone can access Internet to connect with others, watch movies, pay bills or carry out bank transactions from anywhere. A similar sea-change is expected from the 100 smart cities that the government plans to build in the country.

As the government is working on the plan, a few smart cities are already coming up across the country. These include Kochi Smart City, Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) – a 900 acre smart city in Ahmedabad, Naya Raipur in Chhattishgarh and Wave Infratech's 4,500-acre smart city near New Delhi. These state-of-the-art cities will use technology to make life of its citizens more organised and less stressful by developing spaces that are smart and sustainable. This not only includes cleaner and greener atmosphere within a city but good quality buildings and dwellings too.

No wonder that buildings too are gradually becoming smarter and have started responding to human calls. While buildings' interiors have been experiencing this for around a decade now, the exteriors have started gaining attention from last few years and moved along by the recent advances in chemical and material science. Below are some of the most interesting building facades to come across the screen in the recent past: From a thermal metal screen that curls up when it's hot, to a titanium dioxide-covered wall that scrubs the air of pollutants. Sample these facades, which are smart building skins that breathe, farm energy, and gobble up toxins:

An Energy-Producing Algae Facade

This 2,150-square-foot wall in Germany is the result of three years of testing by a group of designers from Splitterwerk Architects and Arup. It isn't just an aesthetic flourish—in fact, it's tinted by millions of microscopic algae plants, which are being fed nutrients and oxygen to spur biomass production. Facilitated by direct sunlight, the speedily-growing little cells end up heating the water, and that heat is harvested by the system and stored for use in the building. According to Jan Wurm, Arup's Europe Research Leader, it is a test for the technology, but it also represents a huge step forward. "If we can demonstrate that microalgae bio-façades can become a viable new source of sustainable energy production, we can transform the urban environment."

A Light-Responsive Facade That "Breathes"

This pair of Abu Dhabi towers are sheathed in a thin skin of glass—fashionable, but not ideal for the desert climate. So the architects at Aedas designed a special, secondary sun screen that deflects some of the glare without permanently blocking the views. All thanks to the innovative series of faceted fiberglass rosettes—based on traditional Islamic mashrabiya—which open and close in response to the temperature of the facade. Accordingly during the night, these fiberglass rosettes get un-folded and closed, thereby enhancing the visibility of the façade. "It's using an old technique in a modern way, which also responds to the aspiration of the emirate to take a leadership role in the area of sustainability," said Aedas director, Peter Oborn.

Abu Dhabi Towers

A Facade That Eats Smog

Mexico City Hospital
Back in 2011, the chemical company Alcoa unveiled a remarkable technology that could clean the air around it. The material contained titanium dioxide, which effectively 'scrubbed' the air of toxins by releasing spongy free radicals that could eliminate pollutants. The stuff has made appearances on streets, clothing, and architecture since then—most recently, on the sun screen of a new Mexico City hospital, the Torre de Especialidades.

The hospital is cloaked in a 300-foot-long skin of Prosolve370e tiles, developed by a German firm called Elegant Embellishments. The technology is based on the same process: As air filters around the sponge-shaped structures, UV-light-activated free radicals destroy any existing pollutants, leaving the air cleaner for the patients inside. According to Fast Company, even the shape of the sun screen is significant: It creates turbulence and slows down air flow around the building, while scattering the UV light needed to activate the chemical reaction.

A Low-Tech, Operable Skin

In Melbourne, Sean Godsell Architects sheathed RMIT's design school in thousands of small, sandblasted glass circles—each affixed to a central rod. Based on humidity and temperature inside the building, these rods pivot automatically to facilitate (or block) the flow of air through the facade. This is a simple but clever solution.

A Low Tech Operable Skin

A Metal Mesh That Reacts to Heat

Bloom, a temporary installation by USC architecture professor Doris Kim Sung, isn't technically a facade. But it's not long before a similar technique is used in buildings. Sung's research deals with biomimetics, or how architecture can mimic the human body. This sun shade was made with thermobimetal—a material that's actually a laminate of two different metals, each with its own thermal expansion coefficient. That means that each side reacts differently to sunlight, expanding and contracting at different rates—causing tension between the two surfaces, and ultimately, a curling effect. So when the surface gets hot, the thin panels on the shade curl up to allow more air to pass through to the space below—and when it cools down, it closes up again.

All these clearly depict that the onus of taking the façade industry to new heights lies on the shoulders of architects and builders alike both of whom are greatly involved in planning a building. They need to make the customers understand that a sustainable façade system in a building is as important as having a proper defensive guard. In commercial and similar buildings, the building envelope components, especially, the curtain wall provides two key functions: Weather barrier against the environmental factors for air and water infiltration and light transmittance to the interior space.

Bloom by USC Architecture

Weathering and continuously deteriorating environment has been paving the way for the development of envelope around the buildings making it one of the most important exterior elements for building functionality. While the façade is an elegant component that helps to define the unique architectural aesthetics of the building, it also has the critical role related to energy performance and interior function of a building.

As technology continues to improve, different options for improvement become available for incorporation into building facades. While curtain wall systems are proprietary systems, there are many available to the industry but not all systems have the same function. These elements are geared toward improvement of the building envelope performance.

MGS Architecture February 2015