Martina Decker
Jordan Alport Martina Decker

In academia and practice, research increasingly involves collaborations between multiple disciplines. Architecture and science have become unlikely, yet highly appropriate, partners in the pursuit of shared challenges like environmental responsibility and human health.

The architecture–science connection is familiar territory for Martina Decker, assistant professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) since 2012 and director of the Material Dynamics Lab (MDL)— part of research space for faculty called the Idea Factory which she has directed since 2016. Known for her trailblazing work in smart materials applications in her former New York practice Decker Yeadon, Decker believes that architects should be directly engaged in the development of new material technologies.

I recently had the opportunity to tour MDL and speak with Decker about how the lab operates as a platform for material innovation, and how architects can become involved in similar multidisciplinary endeavors.

What motivated you to establish the MDL Lab at NJIT’s Idea Factory?
My former practice—an architectural research office—was housed in a cooperative space that included design professionals, strategists, makers, scholars, and others, and was a most energizing environment to me. But it was difficult to conduct investigations on the nanoscale.

Since nanotechnology is solely defined by scale, it is in itself a collaborative undertaking. Most of the nanotechnology experts that study our world at a scale from 1 to 100 nanometers come from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The opportunity to work with many disciplines in the creation of unique design trajectories that are inspired by nanotechnology was one of the most intriguing prospects for me when I joined a research university. At the Idea Factory, the interdisciplinary hub has gained many qualities that I valued greatly about my former research office, but it most certainly benefits from the close vicinity to more specialized laboratories on campus.

What is the vision and purpose of the MDL?
The Material Dynamics Lab serves as a vital junction for interdisciplinary collaboration focusing on how emergent materials and technologies can help us address contemporary issues and challenges. The lab connects research from many departments at NJIT, and we pursue applications for novel materials and nanotechnology in designed products and the built environment. This includes materials that can enable interactive and reactive objects as well as architectural environments addressing a wide range of problems, including water conservation and quality; energy conservation and production; health and safety; and security.

Scenedesmus microalgae in bioreactor on day 10 of a 14 day grow cycle.
Courtesy Libertad M. Harris, George Hahn | Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab Scenedesmus microalgae in bioreactor on day 10 of a 14 day grow cycle.
Microalgae incubator room.
Courtesy Libertad M. Harris | Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab Microalgae incubator room.

Describe some of your current projects.
Bio-enabled building technologies go beyond the adaptation of geometric and formal similarities that we are familiar with through biomimicry, and integrate living organisms directly into designs. This performative adaptation of biological systems is inspiring smart building components that are not only emulating biological processes but incorporating them into active and reactive building blocks. Our research is looking at the benefits and drawbacks of integrating organisms such as microalgae or higher level plant life into building skins. The developed systems are being studied for their potential to produce or conserve energy, food production, phytoremediation, as well as the control of environmental conditions.

Soft robotics is a very young research field that is emerging at the intersection of robotics and nanotechnology. It integrates materials that are soft, stretchable, malleable, flexible, and squishy. Unlike the industrial robots, soft robots are more akin to the physical properties of our own bodies. We are researching their potential for architectural environments where they can assist in controlling environmental conditions at the façade level. We are also studying their potential in product design, such as novel human computer interfaces or even soft exoskeletons.

Shape memory alloys are polymorphic smart materials that are known to respond to fluctuations in temperature with a change in shape. These materials can operate devices without electricity, sensors, or conventional motors. We are investigating these materials for zero-energy, adaptive building technologies and how they can enable advanced thermo-regulation in building skins. The proposed materials system is designed to respond to seasonal fluctuations in ambient thermal conditions but could also be used to mediate the unpredictable nature of a changing climate.

The Soft Frit Robots can expand and contract to either allow or deny solar heat gain in façade systems. An integrated photoluminescent pigment allows the robots to glow at night.
Credit: Jorge Cruz, Libertad M. Harris, Anthony Morrello, Anthony Samaha, |Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab The Soft Frit Robots can expand and contract to either allow or deny solar heat gain in façade systems. An integrated photoluminescent pigment allows the robots to glow at night.
Soft Acoustic Tile Robots can modulate their surface morphology and change the way sound propagates in interiors.
Credit: Ryan Berg, Paulo Guerreiro, Jesus Vasquez, |Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab Soft Acoustic Tile Robots can modulate their surface morphology and change the way sound propagates in interiors.
Soft Barrier Robot for the control of thermal transfer through soft skins.
Courtesy Dan Beltran, Michelle Ghanime, Salma Mahmood | Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab Soft Barrier Robot for the control of thermal transfer through soft skins.

As an interdisciplinary space, the MDL represents a compelling hybrid programmatic model—a combination of a design studio and a scientific laboratory. Is the MDL an exemplar for future academic research environments?
The MDL is a vital platform to expose students to research that is being conducted across the entire campus. It is a creative environment for students at the undergraduate and the graduate level to work in interdisciplinary teams and encourages innovation, invention, and design outside the typically discipline dominated colleges and departments.

Our society is facing great challenges, such as climate change adaptation and mitigation. Hence, finding solutions in a timely manner is imperative. Exposing students early on in their education to interdisciplinary working environments and methods can prepare them to be part of a new generation of architects and designers that will easily integrate in interdisciplinary teams in the future.

How is the scientific method similar to or different from the design method? Put another way, how do scientific inquiry and design inquiry find synergy—and when are they in conflict?
Design processes have been greatly enhanced by the continuous improvement of modeling and simulation tools in recent decades. However, evidence has revealed that our buildings often do not perform as well as they were expected or designed to. The so-called performance gap between predicted energy efficiency in buildings and actually achieved outcomes has been of increased concern. Hence, the testing and validation of data has become a more prominent part of architectural endeavors, especially with the rise of smart building- and smart city technologies.

In the MDL, the design decision making process is greatly influenced by a scientific approach that incorporates this data analysis. In the pursuit of knowledge, it is equally valuable to discover if something works well or if it does not work at all.

Indoor green wall system.
Credit: Philip Molino | Martina Decker, Material Dynamics Lab. Indoor green wall system.

How can interested architects engage in design research endeavors in the same spirit as the MDL?
One way to engage in design research endeavors that pursue invention and innovation through emergent materials is to collaborate with the STEM fields. Rather than trying to become a STEM researcher myself, I found it more beneficial to engage in interdisciplinary enterprises with research partners from university labs and the industry.

The involvement of architects and designers in early research stages offers the opportunity to not only accelerate the development of new technologies, but it can also be beneficial in reaching market acceptance in a timely manner. After all, architects and designers will be instrumental in specifiying novel products and technologies in the constructed environment for consumers and clients.

This post has been edited since its original publication. Decker's former firm did not synthesize nanotubes. ARCHITECT regrets the error.