Illustration: Michael Kirkham

For centuries, fabric was largely a decorative element of architecture in the form of curtains, wall hangings, and floor coverings. Today, new technologies are transforming fabric into a building material in its own right, creating what some researchers call “responsive architectural systems” in which users act as de facto architects, determining how a space may be used and, indeed, transformed to fit changing needs.

At the University of Michigan, Sean Ahlquist is examining how textile-composite materials can be reshaped for architectural use without complex armatures or mechanical controls. It is work that can transform not only our streets and cities, but also the very way we think about architecture in our lives.

Ahlquist is one of three recipients of the AIA’s 2014 Upjohn Research Initiative grants, which support applied research efforts that push the boundaries of design and construction. All three engage users in novel ways, including a project at the University of Buffalo that combines Google Glass–type eyewear with BIM, and another at the University of Washington that examines how the psychology of human behavior influences design. Taken together, they represent a trend toward viewing building users not just as clients who will be given an end product, but as participants who will help shape and reshape the spaces they inhabit.

Morphable Surfaces

Incorporating lightweight materials and fabric into structures is not new—think of the Denver Airport’s tent-like fabric roof (designed by Curtis Fentress, FAIA, and a partnership of architects) or the Munich Olympic Stadium, designed by Frei Otto, who died on March 9 at the age of 89, one day after being told that he had won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. In his project, Sean Ahlquist, an assistant professor of architecture at Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and his colleagues are hoping to take these existing technologies a step farther. Their goal is to create a wide new range of so-called “morphable surfaces” using a composite material that has the appearance and behavior of a textile but can be manipulated to act as a structural component, encouraging more user-adaptable spaces. Imagine a material that is rigid enough to be used as a work surface but malleable enough to be folded and easily pushed out the way.

In particular, says Ahlquist, the team is studying how industrial knitting methods can create interlocking and looping structures (as opposed to weaving, which is about bidirectional overlapping) that afford greater flexibility in terms of shaping, layering, and fiber orientation to create form. Since winning the Upjohn grant, Ahlquist’s team has acquired an industrial knitting machine through which the researchers are testing hybrid fabrics knitted from special yarns and nickel titanium memory wire.

“The basis of the research for the grant is looking a bit more into composites, thinking about how much variation in one piece of material you could produce,” Ahlquist says. “This is about embracing an architecture that is about elasticity, about materials that are designed to be malleable and transformable.”

Yet these materials are also designed for efficiency, functionality, and resiliency, allowing bending and extension without requiring a hinge or other mechanical movement that may fail down the road. And failure is not an option in a post-Katrina or post-Sandy era, where there’s a high premium on reliability.

Another goal of the work is to make architecture a full, sensory experience. “We’re making these incredible textures, and the first thing you want to do is touch it,” Ahlquist says. “But the last thing we talk about when we talk about architecture is touching it.”

Behavior and Building

Like high-performance fabric, high performance buildings are malleable, too—but not in the way one might expect. Upjohn grant recipient Julie Kriegh, AIA [see this month’s AIA Voices], is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Washington and, as principal of Kriegh Architecture Studio, designing high-performance Passive Houses. Working with a multidisciplinary team—including environmental psychologists Lynne Manzo and Linda Steg as well as Center for Integrated Design researchers Joel Loveland and Heather Burpee—she is examining how architecture might influence people to become better global citizens. The trick? Getting people to exhibit what she calls “pro-environmental behavior,” or PEB.

PEB, at a basic level, is about turning off lights when you exit a room, recycling, conserving water, taking public transit, and purchasing sustainable or third-party-certified products. And for years now, many architects have focused on designing buildings and spaces that aid such behavior—low-flush toilets and sensors that know when a person leaves a room to automatically dim the lights are two examples that have become relatively ubiquitous. But, for Kriegh, there is a disconnect between the modeled energy performance of a Passive House, for example, and the actual energy used. That difference often comes down to the users.

“There’s sometimes a gap between intention and behavior,” Kriegh says, “that led me to study the role architecture plays, in and of itself, as an actor in people’s lives, and how that relationship impacts energy use and pro-environmental behavior.”

One of the questions Kriegh is examining is whether people who exhibit PEB are drawn to living and working in high-performance buildings, or whether high-performance buildings influence people to exhibit more PEB, or both. Similarly, Kriegh and her team are studying what she calls the “place-attachment” and “green-identity” context of architecture (how people attach to a place and how that affects their self-identity and worldview, like the way people might be attached to their homeland, a favorite vacation spot, or the place where they grew up). What is it about architecture that creates that attachment? Does architecture have anything to do with it at all?

To answer such questions, Kriegh and her team are using a combination of tools, including implementing PEB surveys, gathering data from energy measurement systems, and studying different design and delivery methods and case studies. In some cases, the team will install dashboards to monitor energy usage in a building. After sharing that data with users, the team will assess how perceived behavior (survey) predicts actual behavior (energy monitor) to see whether and how the feedback data changed their behavior. This data will be compared to energy bill data to establish an EUI (energy use intensity) that can then be compared to national and regional energy use data baselines.

Soon user-acquired data might even be able to instantly inform how the construction phase of a building is unfolding—on the ground, in real time. Upjohn grant recipient Mike Silver, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, leads a research team that is developing an “augmented reality tool” based on Google Glass–type eyewear that would have 3D scanning capabilities—facilitating the rapid assembly of masonry structures. The prototype would be wirelessly linked to Building Information Modeling (BIM) and allow architects and contractors to share data and make decisions quickly. The result? Silver’s term: “augmented craft.”

“After the failure of Google Glass, a lot of people were trying to figure out more appropriate applications for augmented reality hardware,” Silver says. “Instead of bringing this technology to a bar, it seemed more natural to use it for specific work-based applications. The isolation of BIM for the day-to-day activities of the jobsite is  problematic. Bringing BIM to the construction site and the construction site to BIM is an obvious next step.”

Silver and his collaborators, Karthik Dantu and Nils Napp, are currently working with robotics experts to test how this technology could be combined with semiautonomous robots on a jobsite to see where some greater efficiencies in construction might occur. At the same time, Silver is cognizant of how such technologies might affect the trades.

“There is a real fear that many jobs will be wiped away by automation,” he says. “I worry about this too, so we are trying to design systems with the artisan in mind. We don’t want to undermine human skill. We want to find better ways to help [workers] do the dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs in a more efficient and safe way.”

That said, the hand of the architect and the hand of the user are, together, integral to shaping the success of architecture over time—how buildings and spaces address the motivations, behaviors, and challenges that define not only a building’s program, but also architecture’s reason to exist.

Learn more about the Upjohn Research Initiative, and other initiatives, at