Five Technologies to Watch in 2015


Interactive surfaces, soft machines, and self-healing products are among the developments in architectural technology expected to continue this year.

In 1988, the author Tom Forester claimed in The Materials Revolution: Superconductors, New Materials, and the Japanese Challenge (The MIT Press, 1988) that three mega-technologies would one day dominate global industrial activity: information technology, biotechnology, and new materials. As we witness massive achievements in each of those areas, it’s hard to find fault in Forester’s claim. Even more significant, though, are the connections that are developing among them, which continue to increase in quantity and scope. The most intriguing new materials, for example, are often linked to developments in information technology or biotechnology—and oftentimes both.

The following five material typologies are poised to enhance their integral connections in 2015 through innovations in areas such as interactive surfaces, soft machines, and self-healing capabilities. [...]

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Visible Green

article_EBP_visiblegreenNew material opportunities in sustainable design

Throughout history, the designed environment has been visibly influenced by transformations in technology, culture, and the natural world. Historians like Bashford Dean have visually chronicled the morphological evolution of human products and artifacts over the course of centuries, revealing design’s responsiveness to crises and opportunities. In the latter part of the 20th century, three megatechnologies were predicted to dominate future international industrial activity: information technology, biotechnology, and new materials. [...]

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Made in Germany by Robots

Stuttgart University employs robots to fabricate the shell of a pavilion about innovative construction methods.

Robots are gaining traction when it comes to the highly precise construction of geometrically complex assemblies. Initially, architects employed them to fabricate small-scale, prototypical installations. But as the technology continues to develop, architects are using machines to create larger, permanent structures.

In April, Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design completed the construction of the Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall, a 1,345-square-foot, 20-foot-tall pavilion created for the purpose of demonstrating innovative building methods. Its prefabricated lightweight timber shell, which has a surface area of 2,640 square feet, is the first structure to be made entirely of robot-fabricated plates, according to the project team. [...]

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A Coating that Detects Defects in Concrete

The conductive coating spots surface-level cracks in concrete.

Monitoring the integrity of heavy-use infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, is critical to maintaining a resilient built environment. But managing extensive systems in real-time can be a challenge. To address the issue, researchers have been at work on integrated sensors and skins that obtain qualitative information about the physical health of a building or a component. For example, the University of Michigan’s Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Technologies created thin films with wireless sensors that can be attached to structures, while MIT engineers crafted patches of flexible, titanium oxide–infused plastic for placement atop problem areas. [...]

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Highways of the Sun

The federally funded prototype project could one day feed the grid and power electric vehicles.

Solar power has an area problem. Unlike fossil fuels, which pack large amounts of energy into small volumes, solar power relies on each unit of area delivering relatively small quantities of harvestable energy. When it comes to building-integrated photovoltaics, this fact privileges groundscrapers—low-slung structures with roofs that make up a large portion of the envelope. Geometrically, small structures and towers are not as effective as their wider and shorter counterparts since compact buildings lack adequate surface area for solar collection and tower façades generally collect less energy than roofs due to incident sun angles. [...]

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Star-Crossed Paths

Pro-Teq Surfacing’s photoluminescent finish gives paving new life in a brilliant way.

Illuminating the outdoors can be a good—and necessary—thing in areas of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. While NighTec Leuchtsteine’s luminous pavers, Studio Roosegaarde’s Smart Highway, and BIG’s Digital Interactive Roadway are either still in the early stages of development or have proven too costly to implement market wide, U.K.–based Pro-Teq Surfacing has a solution that literally dazzles. [...]

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Iron Man


Steel is the world’s most widely recycled material, but its high embodied energy is roughly equivalent to that of concrete. A new method to extract iron from virgin resources might give the metal alloy the environmental edge after all.

With a manufacturing process responsible for 7 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions, concrete often gets a bad rap. But steel, frankly, is no better. Steel production is the second-largest industrial consumer of energy. [...]

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Out of Thin Air


“Design similes” emulate biological processes for environmental benefit in the production of everyday goods.

In recent years, the desire to emulate botanical processes for environmental benefit has inspired “design similes,” such as cities that behave like forests, buildings that act as trees, or products that operate like plants. Although such comparisons serve to promote ideal goals, they are difficult to put into actual practice. [...]

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Paper or Plastic?


Australian company Zeoform has created a biodegradeable plastic with nothing more than recycled paper waste and water. Someday it may clad one of your projects.

Cellulose is the most pervasive natural polymer on the planet. As the primary structural material in plants, it is essentially a long chain of connected sugars. We encounter cellulose in consumer goods such as textiles and wood pulp, in the form of paper. However, the Australian company Zeoform has figured out how to turn the soft, fibrous material into a hard plastic. [...]

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Natural Advantage


Though modern technologies may seem incredible, humanity can learn a lot from nature, which has evolution on its side.

Nature has created many miraculous things, but humanity has added a few inventions of its own. Or has it? Scientists at the University of Cambridge recently discovered something unexpected in nature: a cog mechanism with an observable function. The gears appear in the issus nymph, the adolescent stage of the European hopping insect with opposing cogs and interlocking teeth in its hind legs. The intermeshed joints allow the insect’s legs to synchronize when jumping; thus, “the skeleton is used to solve a complex problem that the brain and nervous system can’t,” said lead author Malcolm Burrows in a university press release. [...]

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