Hair-Raising Thoughts on Thermal Regulation

Charles Lee is using nature to inspire his designs even as he marches into digital territory. The 2008 Next Generation runner up will be presenting his paper “ The Thermal Organism and Architecture” at the Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture’s (ADACIA) conference, Silicon + Skin: Biological Processes and Computation (October 16–19).

Lee is focused on the notion that buildings are an extension of the human body, and that biomimicry offers a treasure trove of inspiration for sustainable building. Shapes and functions based in biology are integral to Lee’s Next Generation project, the Pacific Coast Interpretive Center for Ocean Health, and wield their forces again in his upcoming presentation on thermal regulation. Humans are endothermic, creating heat from within, and buildings operate similarly to keep us in a comfortable thermal zone. “To maintain [temperature] in our own body we consume a huge amount of energy compared to a lot of life on earth. And so do our buildings.” Therefore, Lee is looking to human processes as a model for architectural innovation. In this case, he’s looking at hair.

In mammals, follicles will cause hair to be erect in response to cooler temperatures, allowing solar radiation in, and to be flat in warmer situations to block the sun’s rays. Among Lee’s biomimetic proposals for heating and ventilation, sun shading can work on the same mechanism. While architectural precedent for this notion exists in certain louver systems on sustainable buildings today, Lee is pushing it forward by proposing the use of shape memory alloy (SMA) as the mechanism to control the hinges.

The allure of shape shifting metal screens is futuristic but not so crazy. Martina Decker proposed a similar idea in her 2007 SmartScreenproposal. As of yet SMAs are manufactured mainly for biomedical uses and those in production are not large enough for architecture, but with enough demand it could be the next big thing. (If you’ve never seen SMAs in action, check out this artistic application on YouTube.)

Lee’s invitation to present his paper at ACADIA is part and parcel of his recent successes. He also recently won an award from Hatchfest for a beautiful photobioreactor that produces algae for bio-remediation and biodiesel. And he just started a new job at HOK in San Francisco. Perhaps coincidentally, HOK just announced that the firm has joined the Biomimicry Guild.

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