Shape-Shifting Buildings to the Rescue

Event: Adaptive Building Initiative
Location: The Cooper Union, 10.28.09
Speakers: Chuck Hoberman — Hoberman Associates & Adaptive Building Initiative; Craig Schwitter, PE — Buro Happold Consulting Engineers & Adaptive Building Initiative
Organizers: The Architectural League of New York


Adaptive Building Initiative designed an automated shading system, shown in open and closed positions, for Foster + Partners’ Aldar Central Market in Abu Dhabi.

Foster + Partners

When energy (in the form of light and heat) enters and exits a building in an uncontrolled fashion, unwelcome fluctuations in the internal environment result: spaces become too hot or cold, too bright or dark. Typically, fossil fuel-guzzling mechanical systems are used to counter these effects, making the building sector as a whole one of America’s biggest energy drains. However, if a building’s outer envelope could prevent unwanted energy transfers from occurring in the first place, mechanical workarounds would be unnecessary and energy consumption would drop dramatically.

This is the challenge that the Adaptive Building Initiative (ABI), a joint venture established in 2008 by Buro Happold and Hoberman Associates, has set for itself. As its name indicates, the firm designs building envelopes that can respond intelligently to environmental cues by changing shape or size. Projects include several shading systems for Foster + Partners projects, each consisting of a series of geometrical panels programmed to adjust for the amount of sunlight as needed.

ABI principals Chuck Hoberman and Craig Schwitter, PE, view their firms as part of an emerging movement that will fundamentally change building design as environmental concerns grow. “It’s a space that’s very undefined, I think: this concept of how energy can affect architecture,” said Schwitter. “The parameters are changing under our feet.”