Rain, with a chance of poetry

How architectural skins can work with the elements against climate change

Imagine a skyscraper that changes colour depending on the temperature. Or poetry that’s revealed on a building as it absorbs and collects rain drops for use as potable water.

A SSHRC-funded researcher has created architectural fabrics that do just that, with a purpose.

Filiz Klassen is an artist, researcher and professor in the School of Interior Design at Ryerson University. With a SSHRC Research-Creation Grant, she created: Malleable Matter: Material Innovations in Architecture, a project to investigate the possibilities of “responsive architecture” in the form of textiles wrapped around buildings to work with, and protect against, environmental changes—an intersection of design and function.

A main practical use of the materials Klassen has created is that they can make buildings more energy efficient and less reliant on energy from fossil fuels for heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

“The SSHRC grant allowed me to explore how new materials and integrated technologies in existing materials in particular, might transform rigid architectural surfaces into responsive, ornate and energy generating weather laboratories in our future practices,” says Klassen.

Her light/temperature net, for example, integrates LED modules and microcontrollers that sense temperature differences.

“The temperature of a building surface can thus vary from red, indicating hot; to blue, indicating cold; to green, yellow and orange indicating median temperatures. Thus the colour of the building skin changes when the building is overheated, cooled or subjected to atmospheric effects such as wind chill. It is intended that our dependency on automatic heating and cooling will lessen” with visual cues like this.

“By raising the awareness of people who are moving in and around the buildings and entwining their spatial perceptions with surfaces that are created with the spontaneous choreography of weather elements, I hope that people will be enthusiastic to take action towards energy reduction,” says Klassen.

Klassen’s “new language of architecture” has met with interest from inventors who would like to commercialize her prototypes, and architects who want to integrate her applications into their projects.

In addition to being practical, her materials also offer an aesthetically pleasing, artistic approach to environmental awareness.

“An example is the prototype where poetry appears on buildings with rain fall. If people are reading poetry on buildings everyday, it has been a rainy season. If not, they are going through a dry spell,” observes Klassen.

“I have tried to solicit a subtle message by integrating appropriate technology to make people aware of changing climate/ environmental variables in the built environments that they occupy.”

With buildings draped in fabrics that reflect car lights back to the street, or respond to a windy day by lighting up with every breeze gust, the concrete jungle may never be the same again.