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The breathing building

Posted by Elizabeth Manus  November 16, 2012 04:29 PM

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Architects talk a lot about a building’s “skin,” but how literal could that idea someday become? TED recently posted a talk, “Metal that breathes,” by architect Doris Kim Sung, who describes a way to use bimetals—sheets of two metals fused together—to clad buildings in “architectural skins” that change shape in reaction to outside temperatures.

It’s a new and fascinating development in the “living architecture” movement that the Ideas section explored a couple of years ago. Sung is one of many cutting-edge architects, designers, and engineers around the world who are dreaming up buildings that themselves will be reactive to such external stimuli as heat, moisture, or light.

In her talk, Sung says that as she works to develop new building components for the market—in this case, a “smart” concrete block she is looking for inspiration to the grasshopper and its breathing pores, called spiracles, which open and close along the grasshopper’s abdomen to allow oxygen into its tracheal tubes. She illustrates the point by showing a portion of a concrete masonry wall perforated by openings lined with bimetals that, depending upon the temperature, either block or allow air to pass through.

Sung walls image for Brainiac.jpg

Since her talk, Sung told Brainiac in an interview, the “Tracheolis” project has moved forward. “The part we’re working on is the tubing of the treachea. Next we’ll work on how to optimize the drawing in of the air.” She added that the holes, which will be visible on the interior walls of any room, needn’t be large. “We haven’t determined the scale of the holes—they can actually be extremely small, a quarter of inch in diameter. They could possibly even be nano, invisible to the naked eye.”

Without relying on controls or an external energy source such self-ventilating walls could be a way, Sung contends, to free people from reliance on mechanical systems, such as air-conditioning and the old-fashioned pores we call windows.

Photo: prototype of a two-foot concrete block with large "breathing" pores. Courtesy DOSU Architecture.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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