We shine a light on some of the strange technologies that may soon be affecting the way we design buildings
LEDs and OLEDs
LEDs - light-emitting diodes - are advancing rapidly. LEDs are more robust, efficient and durable than bulbs, but for many years no one succeeded in producing white light with them.
However, technical advances have made it possible to produce blue, and therefore white (by adding yellow to blue) light from LEDs. Zumtobel Staff 's Phaos LED tiles can shift through the entire light spectrum.
But white LEDs are only the beginning: a DuPont venture called Olight, among others, has developed OLEDs - organic LEDs - which are not only super-efficient and long-lasting, but also flexible. An OLED is a tiny electronic device, usually less than 500nm (0.5-thousandths of a millimetre), made by placing organic thin films between two conductors and applying an electrical current to them.
OLEDs emit very bright light through a process called electrophosphorescence. At the moment they are being used on a very small scale to create ultra-thin, and sometimes curved, self-luminous displays for laptops or mobile phones that require no backlighting. Such displays have a viewing angle of up to 160° and consume less than 10V.
OLEDs are light, bright and durable, particularly good for video playback and operate at a range of temperatures. Eventually, perhaps, they may be used for larger-scale effects such as curvaceous interior video walls, making plasma screens look 'so last century'.
Nanotechnology, or the design and manufacture of extremely small electronic circuits and mechanical devices built at the molecular level of matter and having a size of only a few nanometres (one-billionth of a meter), may be used, for instance, to build semiconductors one molecule at a time. But nanotech may also have architectural uses.
US-based firm Atomic-Scale Design has developed a product with monitoring applications called Quasam, a 'self-organised carbon-carbon nano-composite metamaterial'- that is to say, a stabilised graphite-like or diamond-like composite.
Quasam is stable up to 600°C and creates a uniform, pore-free coating at 2nm. It will bond with almost any material, including Teflon, and is envisaged, among other applications, as a smart skin applied to an airplane wing or other structures to sense stress.
Dr Bill Price, principal architect at the University of Houston's College of Architecture, has spent some years developing translucent concrete.
He aims to make buildings appear to glow from within.'Within the matrix of ingredients, ' says Price, ' we looked to see where transparency could happen.
'We broke down the traditional mix into four primary categories - reinforcement, aggregate, binder and form - and on each one of those we started research efforts with different groups of people, seeing how that specific point in the matrix could be manipulated to become a carrier or transporter of light.
From that, numerous prototypes were developed.'
Price is reluctant to discuss his exact recipe lest anyone become 'too insightful', but the aggregate consists of lumps of plastic or glass, and the concrete may possibly be reinforced with clear plastic rods.
'We continued to evolve prototypes to address specific questions outside the design parameter of light coming through opaque material, such as structurally related issues, how it behaves under tension or compression, torsion, fire ratings, etc, ' he adds.
Price's initial research demonstrated that translucent concrete is as structurally sound as the opaque variety. But it is expensive to make.
Price and a European partner firm will launch the first precast pieces of translucent concrete this autumn. But, he adds: 'We want to be competitive with existing concrete products and I don't think that's unrealistic.'
Precast means that solutions must be fairly generic, because any modifications push the price up.
Smart as a brick
At the University of Illinois' Micro and Nanotechnology Lab, Professor Chang Liu and his colleagues have developed a smart brick.
The brick monitors a building's condition - temperature, vibrations, movement - and reports this to a computer using a 802.11-esque wireless solution. Liu surmises the bricks will be used, for instance, in earthquake or subsidence zones.
Liu and his team are currently using an inductive-coil rechargeable battery which, like an electric toothbrush battery, recharges simply through proximity to a base and requires no wires.
Anyone who has owned an electric toothbrush, though, will realise these batteries wear out eventually, so Liu and his team are also tackling battery power by two other means.
'We are working to reduce the power consumption of the circuit, using more energyefficient algorithms for communication.
'We are also trying to increase the power we can store in a battery, looking at things ranging from long-lasting new battery technologies to solar cells on one side of the brick. Another really crazy idea is miniaturised nuclear batteries, which is actually doable.'
Professor Liu has set up a small company to realise this product and expects smart bricks to be commercially available within a year. 'The market is ready, ' he says. 'There is a lot of need. The market may not be fully accustomed to the use of this, but a lot of people are going to look at the technology and be willing to at least try.'
Sofa so good
As computing evolves further, furniture may provide another way to make buildings smarter.A team at Trinity College Dublin has developed a smart couch that can identify the person sitting on it and react to that person individually.
The sofa has industrial load cells below each of its four legs, which very accurately sense the weight of the person sitting on it.These link into a computer at the lab that has stored the weight of each person, and can thus identify the sitter by their weight.
But the sofa's creators envisage more sophisticated uses than a glorified speakyour-weight machine.By inputting personal preferences, 'the couch can tell other devices in your living room (or office) who is in the room', says Haahr.'This information allows other technologies to change their behaviour.For instance, your TV might give you a subtle hint that there's something you'd probably be really interested in on Channel 4 in 10 minutes.'
The sofa could theoretically adjust lighting, music, even air conditioning to your own tastes. In an office environment, adds Haahr, smart chairs could tell the room's computer who's there and it could display relevant documents or websites.
Swedish firm Parans has developed a system called Daylight.Using fibre-optic cables, almost like a hose, you can 'spray' real sunlight inside your house, filling rooms with natural light even if they don't face the sun.
'If you compare this with a skylight, the light you would receive indoors from a panel 60cm square is equivalent to that from a 30cm square skylight, ' says CEO Marcus Fransson.
A semi-transparent surface material sits as an outer layer on roofs or facades and collects the sunlight.'The material is made from prismatic elements, plastic and glass, and will let through indirect light while collecting direct light, ' says Fransson.These panels feed sunlight into fibre-optic cables.They have a maximum length of 20 metres.
Daylight is currently available to a few pilot customers, but Parans plans on increased production capacity within a year.
Finnish firm Tambest produces curved glass.The firm does conical, elliptical, spherical and parabolic bending and can also produce S-shapes, semicircles and variable radius shapes.
Tambest works in float, insulating, heatstrengthened and safety glass, laminated or unlaminated.
Using gravity to bend the glass, flat glass is set on a bending mould made to suit the required bending radius.The mould goes into a bending furnace that gradually heats to the required temperature of about 600°C. When it reaches its 'softening range', gravity makes the glass adjust to the mould, thus bending to the correct radius.
The glass is then cooled using a variety of methods, depending on the sort of glass being bent.
Not all shapes are available because some coatings cannot stand the heat.
Their most exciting product is parabolic glass, such as the glass lens on top of the Swiss Re 'gherkin' in the City of London.Usually parabolic glass has been reserved for use as silvered concentrators or optical systems such as search lights; concentrating light intensely onto, or from, a central location.
Other buildings using Tambest's curved glass include Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany; the Hotel Sofitel, La Défence, Paris; and the Dome Piccadilly in London.
Daylight, panels and fibre-optic cable Parans AB www. parans. com +46 31 20 15 90 Translucent concrete University of Houston College of Architecture www. arch. uh. edu
LEDs and OLEDs Zumtobel Staff Phaos www. zumtobelstaff. com Smart bricks Micro and Nanotechnology Lab University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign www. micro. uiuc. edu +1 217 333 3097 DuPont Olight www. olight. com
Parabolic glass Tambest Oy www. tambest. fi +358 3 31 323 500
Foster and Partners www. fosterandpartners. com
Nanotechnology Quasam Atomic Scale Design www. atomicscale. net
Intelligent sofas Trinity College Dublin Distributed Systems Group Department of Computer Science www. dsg. cs. tcd. ie