The Bio-Engineered Façade
As building-related energy consumption invites increasing scrutiny, architects and engineers have placed additional attention on the architectural envelope. Historically, the façade was a relatively simply affair, designed to protect building occupants from the elements and allow for a modicum amount of light penetration. In modern times, however, the building envelope has become encumbered with an expanded set of functional criteria that are often in conflict with one another—such as the desire to ensure a constant interior temperature and humidity versus the need for fresh air. Given the complexity of such pressures, I often hear architects request a miraculous material solution—which is essentially a kind of transparent Gore-tex—to manage the increasing thermal, moisture, ventilation, and illumination demands we place on the façade.
A collaborative team from the University of California at Berkeley has recently unveiled a concerted attempt to transform such a dream into reality. Bio-engineer Luke Lee and architect Maria-Paz Guttierez are currently at work on a project called SABER, which stands for Self-Activated Building Envelope Regulation. SABER constitutes a new type of biomimetic thin-film membrane that will selectively regulate temperature, humidity, and light within the building envelope. As proposed, the membrane will be comprised of multiple layers of light-responsive micro-lenses, moisture-detecting microvalves, and hydrophobic vapor barriers—a complex mixture of micro-scaled solutions designed to deliver comprehensive autonomic control. Although SABER will require a long-term research study, the implications are intriguing. As Gutierrez proclaims, “the material has become the system.”