Launch Slideshow

Living City

The Living creates a building facade that breathes using gills, can sense the levels of pollution in the air, and responds accordingly to protect the people inside.

Living City

The Living creates a building facade that breathes using gills, can sense the levels of pollution in the air, and responds accordingly to protect the people inside.

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    The concept behind Living City is that a building-through a variety of sensors-can gather information about air quality, temperature, and other environmental factors, and then wirelessly share that information with other buildings on a dedicated network.

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    A lightweight, transparent building skin has gill-like openings that can close or open in response to the air quality of the surrounding environment, effectively allowing the building to breathe.

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    A mockup shows how the skin would appear in application, and contrasts alternating gilled panels with solid ones.

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    A control board was designed specifically to connect input data from the sensor network to the façade, and to control the pin mechanism that opens and closes the gills to permit or prevent airflow.

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    A sensor sits on the exterior window ledge gathering environmental air quality data while another sensor, uncovered, sits inside to monitor the interior air quality. The data are all routed to a software program that the team intends to publish so that others can create similar systems in other cities.

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    Depending on the location and planned duration of deployment, the input nodes or sensors have larger or smaller batteries and casings. This smaller version shows a sensor module connected to a radio module that transmits the collected data to computers and output nodes.

Living City explores the notion that building façades and access to fresh air are the frontiers of public space in urban areas—that in the future, façades will belong to and serve residents as streets and parks do today. To that end, architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang believe that façades should be active: gathering, transmitting, and reacting to data about the surrounding environment, and dialoguing with other buildings to create a network of information. The team designed a system of sensors that can be easily mounted on a building exterior to gather information about carbon monoxide and nitrogen content in the air.

Prototype sensors were deployed on the Empire State Building and three other buildings in Manhattan to test their data-gathering and communication capacities. The next phase of the project involved getting the buildings to actually respond to the data. The team designed a prototype of façade louvers that can open or close depending on air quality readings, in effect allowing a building to breathe in reaction to environmental conditions.

The jury was taken by the project's initial premise, that air is public space. “It's the last public commodity that's available for some kind of uploading of design capacity, a sort of engagement by the public realm,” Chris Genik said. “I thought that was insightful.” Andres Lepik agreed: “I like the idea of buildings that communicate with each other. This is a stream of data and now these structures are starting to talk.”

Genik thinks the idea should continue to be explored and developed. “The fact that it is open is what makes it a good kind of research,” he said. “Not all the questions are solved, but there's a method in place. There's a set of assumptions that are being investigated. It has that kind of generosity that research should bring with it—it's not closing down opportunity.”

PROJECT Living City

ARCHITECT The Living, New York—David Benjamin, Soo-in Yang

SOFTWARE CONSULTANT Jason Cipriani

ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING CONSULTANTS Jesse Lackey, Todd Polenberg

WIRELESS COMMUNICATION CONSULTANT Robert Faludi

VIDEO ANIMATION Softlab—Mike Szivos, Jose Luis Gonzalez

With support from the Van Alen Institute New York Prize Fellowship, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and Dynalloy, Inc.

In association with the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation


  • Soo-In Yang
    Soo-In Yang
  • David Benjamin
    David Benjamin

2008 R+D Awards

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