Adventures in Smartsurfaces

Just another weblog

Sustainability for pleasure? October 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 7:39 pm

Yes, sustainability for PLEASURE. Sustainability without sacrifice, that is what our team has been working to develop. We want our final project to make people feel good, to catalyze relationships between people and objects, and to encourage emotional attachments, especially positive ones.

Here are some images I came across that describe the kind of relationship between humand technology that we are trying to achieve:






So hopefully that gives you all an idea of what we are after. Tonight we are meeting to do a modeling brainstorming session to start to visualize our 2D ideas. More on that later, but I think we are off to a fantastic start.


Some links and pictures… October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 11:26 am

I thought I’d post some of the things I came across while doing research for our final project.

We were talking about trying to get away from the solar panel because it is a rigid, and perhaps limiting thing. I began researching photovoltaic fabrics, films, mini-panels and other things that we could use without them having too much influence over the form of our final product. Solar fabrics are unfortunately not available for purchase yet, as far as I know, but the principles could be applied using films or smaller solar cells. The fabric idea is very interesting to me because applications for the technology have not been explored much beyond ties, tents, and umbrellas, though the tent I have linked above is pretty interesting. It gathers energy throughout the day and provides these charging pocket-like things to charge your camera, phone, etc. At night, you can find your tent by sending it an SMS to make it glow. Pretty neat, but maybe not exactly where we’ve been going with this project. Another picture above is of a sculpture-like solar energy collector that uses flexible photovoltaic materials. Maybe this is closer to our ideal?
I also started looking at the history of heliotropism, which is where I came across the drawing above by Kircher. He imagined a clock controlled by the natural heliotropism of a sunflower. I found a blog that talks about heliotropism in art, which I found really interesting: In many classical paintings, the subject looks toward the sun, and in La Metamorphose de Clytie by Jean-Francois de Troy, the story of Clytie’s obsession with the sun god Apollo takes heliotropism to an extreme. She finds that Apollo is with someone else, so Clytie tells the girl’s father, who in turn kills his daughter and buries her out of Apollo’s sight. Although Apollo detests Clytie after this, she continues to follow his every move across the sky. Creepy!
I also found out, perhaps late in the game, that there is a flower called a heliotrope. Go figure, I wonder what is does?

And back to our last project…

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 10:51 am

Tada! Here is our finished model in action. Well, in as much action as a photo allows, sorry I don’t have video.


We constructed the wall in such a way as to allow all of our strings and pulling mechanisms to move freely. The base is an acrylic sheet drilled with about a million holes for fishing line that was strung through each panel on the facade. Six servos pulled the strings to peel the finger panels away from the building facade. Servos are not terribly strong, however, so we had to pick and choose an assortment of panel units to move while others remained stationary.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this model is the fact that the model does not actually represent the way we envisioned that our project would perform in ‘real life’. Our model was fiction, so to speak, which played along nicely with last week’s theme of mashing together science fact and science fiction into one practice. This concept, a sort of brainchild of Julian Bleecker, our guest speaker and author of an essay titled ‘Design Fiction’, allows one to imagine stories of possible ‘near futures’ and the technology that might be used in them, or perhaps to imagine a story to go along with a proposed product design so as to test its viability in context. In ‘real life’ we envisioned a facade absent of mechanical components such as servos. Instead, we saw the  movement of the panels as natural, organic, and completely dependent on the sun and the amount of light by using a material that bended or curved in response to light or heat conditions. We looked into bi-metals and other materials that could be layered in such a way to produce our desired effect.

In addition to our constructed model, we brainstormed other ways in which the basic concept could be applied.

blindsIn the example above, the panels are attached to the facade at both ends and bend only in the middle. The effect is similar to when your neighbor peeks through the blinds to see what you are up to. When an entire facade is covered in this way, the building takes on an ethereal character as some areas are opaque and fade into transparency. We imagined the movement of the slats to be dependent on the sun of course, so as to employ heliotropism, but there is an existing building that uses a similar mechanical device by architects Herzog and De Meuron:



We also thought about creating an undulating surface with panels. I had some difficulty using the Digital Project software and the power copy function, so I hope you can get the idea from these images:



With gaps in between the rows of panels and the entire facade covered, the aesthetic affect would be both interesting and beautiful. Another idea would be to combine the curving motion of the Herzog and De Meuron building with this motif so that the panels would move in and out and angle to direct sunlight in a particular way.

All in all, a successful project, and it really got us thinking about the ‘why’. We have already been applying our experience from this project to our final project, about which I will blog soon. I promise!


I’m going to go a little out of order… October 21, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 4:44 am

And say that our final group seems to be working really well together. We have lain the foundation for a really interesting project I think, and have established a method of working that I think will get us far.

I promise I will update on the last project soon. I just wanted to put this out there 😀


Trial, Error, and Constant Reworking October 15, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 4:13 pm

Our final short-term project is well underway, but not without struggles! Good struggles, however, because I think we are really getting to the root of our problem. We have constantly been asking ‘why’, and I think this is reflected in our final idea. We have managed to consider almost every aspect of the design (we hope), and I believe the result will be elegant and functionally appropriate.

Last week we worked on assembling a motor shield for our Arduino in order to protect it when burdened with large loads, such as a stepper motor. We had a really hard time getting the code and the circuit set up for the motor, but after a lengthy battle we figured out that ONE WIRE was in the hole next to the one it needed to be in. ARG! I find myself saying arg a lot in this class, and it always seems to be the simple things that put us behind or out of our wits.

Here we are tweaking the code and the circuit to no avail:

Is it the arduino? Is the code wrong? WHAT IS IT!?


Well, we figured it out in the end. Here is our working motor (not the step motor):

Soldering was also a challenge, also partly due to silly mistakes. We are a tired team! It has been difficult to arrange meetings as well because of exams, weddings, Chicago trips, and what-have-you. We did make a lot of headway the past few days, however, and now that the work has been delegated and our concept is strong we can plow ahead and finish with plenty of time (that’s the idea at least :P).

Last night we really pushed forward with our construction plan and smoothed out a lot of the wrinkles in our concept.


We put together a quick mock-up of our building scheme in order to see it in action.

From there, we discussed how the panels would move and how exactly we wanted to manipulate the sunlight.

In the discussion that followed, we went through many options, all of which seemed viable. What was most difficult was nailing down our purpose. Why exactly were we making this thing? What are we trying to do? We narrowed it down to some key goals, with maintaining consistent daylighting throughout the day as one of the most important.


After we decided on a goal, we began playing with some of the prototypes that we already had. Now that we had a direction, figuring out how the panels should move was more straightforward. In the end, we decided that the panels should provide shade when the sun is at its peak and natural light levels are the highest, and they should open up  to let in a maximum amount of light when light levels are low. In between both extremes, the panels would curl in to allow for smooth transitioning and even light levels throughout the day.



Laying out how the panels should fit on a structure was our next task. We considered having panels that covered the entire facade, but decided to compartmentalize the concept by floors and bays for a more surface-like effect. When light levels change, each unit will respond differently, creating an ocean of light-responsive fingers. The system could also be overridden to customize the facade.


After all of that decision-making work, we began planning how our prototype would be constructed. And for those details, you will have to wait for next time 😉


Sweet Parking Lot… October 12, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 4:08 am

This was one of my favorite concepts from the veg.itecture blog I posted earlier. The solar ‘trees’ in this parking lot are covered with solar panels on the top and follow the movement of the sun in order to maximize the amount of energy the can harness. They provide shade for the parked cars as well as power for electric vehicles, which can plug into the trunks of charged trees. I think it is a clever and elegant concept, and a good way to greenify parking lots and the roofs of parking structures.


Here is the paper I promised

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 3:56 am

Biomimicry: Why it is Important to Learn from Nature

We have entered an age of awareness: awareness of the environmental damage the earth has suffered throughout the years of human existence. The severity of this damage is becoming more and more apparent through the recognition of certain changes in natural systems. Global warming, rising sea levels, desertification, extinction of species, and numerous other environmental problems have, to at least some degree, been attributed to humans and their systems, which in many cases compromise or sacrifice the functions of natural systems in order to work. Natural systems are innately sustainable, sometimes indefinitely, and it is this inherent characteristic of sustainability that scientists, designers, and many other professionals, have been looking to in recent years for solutions to today’s human-made environmental problems. This type of cross-disciplinary study is known as biomimicry. Those who work with concepts of biomimicry look to nature and its systems for inspiration on how to improve human-made systems and products. The goal of these designers is a world in which humans and their systems are part of the larger ecosystem and work with, rather than against, the natural environment. Through research on the subject of biomimicry, interviews, and visits to ‘green’ buildings, I have collected information that has allowed me to create a prototype of a sustainable housing project that incorporates principles of biomimicry and can be mass produced for accessibility and effectiveness.

Severe damage is being wrought on earth faster than we can prevent it or recognize it. The study of biomimicry and the application of its principles into the way we function as a species will help us to stabilize our negative effect on the planet and allow us, and the rest of the world’s inhabitants, to survive in a sustainable way. For example, current agricultural methods treat the farm as a food factory. Application of biomimicry principles would alter this wasteful system and turn it into a naturally sustainable and low maintenance system. By observing the functions of a wild prairie in Iowa, biomimics have developed a model of a sustainable farm that employs a mix of native plant types for a highly productive, but amazingly hands-off, venture. Biomimics call for the use of perennial plants (like those found in the Iowa prairies) for food production, rather than the labor-intensive annuals that are currently used. The roots of perennial plants prevent erosion and eliminate fallow periods, and seeds would not need to be replanted every year, thereby reducing the embedded energy of foods and products made with the crop in question. Agricultural biomimics see the importance of learning “soil husbandry” and viewing soil as a living resource in order to produce sustainable harvests for years to come (Lang). They also are aware that many of the problems associated with agriculture (i.e. irrigations issues) are products of our current system, whereas a changeover from a factory to a natural system with natural solutions would eliminate such issues.

Engineers in the plastics industry and other manufacturing pursuits have been looking to biomimicry for solutions to their own problems with energy use and sustainability. Current efforts have focused on the functions of photosynthesis and plants’ ability to produce ATP energy with sunlight and carbon dioxide. Inspired by the plant model of self-sustained energy, scientists are now looking for molecules that, when combined or separated with a catalyst, create their own energy with up to 100% yields from material inputs (Benyus). With further refinement in this area, efficiency in manufacturing would rise, and possibly in other areas as well, without creating a larger ecological footprint or depleting non-renewable resources such as coal.

Biomimics have also been concentrating on the study of the so-called “lower animals” in recent years (Benyus). Janine Benyus, a major spokesperson and scholar of biomimicry and its principles, has cited that ‘intelligence’ and being ‘well adapted’ are two entirely different things, and that being well adapted is often a much more sustainable route (Lang). One lower animal that has undergone intense scrutiny by biomimics is the abalone, which has an incredibly strong shell. Scientists have been studying the structure, chemical makeup, and self-healing properties of the abalone’s shell in order to improve ceramics, manufacturing machinery, and computers (Passino). Mussels have also been used in scientific research, but instead of shell properties, their strong bonding threads have served as inspiration for the manufacture of adhesives and other bonding agents. Biomimics have discovered naturally sustainable, low energy technologies in these two lower animals that have yet to be recreated with current human innovations. This shows that we are a long way off from understanding nature and can benefit a great deal by studying its successes.

The international carpet manufacturer Interface™ serves as an example of the application of biomimicry principles and the many rewards they offer to corporations and businesses of all sizes world wide. Interface’s founder and president Ray Anderson saw the value of sustainable practices early on when the company’s customers began asking what Interface was doing for the environment. Proactive environmental procedures and changes in protocol and manufacturing technologies gave Interface a clean reputation and world renown as a ‘green’ industry. Because Interface is the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, its methods serve as a model for the rest of the manufacturing industry and spread the word about the environmental and also monetary benefits of sustainable practices (Business in the Community). One of Interface’s chief designers, Georgia-based interior designer David Oakey, has integrated biomimicry into his visual designs for modular carpet tiles. An avid reader of Janine Benyus’ literature on biomimicry, Oakey has learned to recognize the importance of diversity and organized chaos in the sustainability of natural systems (email to Rachel Boswell) and has centered many of his designs on these principles. Like Interface, Oakey’s own design studio recycles all materials and operates on renewable energy sources like sunlight, making it a completely sustainable design business.

The Dana building on the campus of the University of Michigan is another example of a sustainable ‘green’ building that also in some ways integrates principles of biomimicry into its functions. The building sports composting toilets that can be likened to the functions of earthworms, and uses photovoltaic panels to convert the sun’s energy into a useable form. Sustainable structures such as the Dana building have prompted me to design a modular residential structure based on the formation and function of trees. Wallace Branches, as the structure might be called in its final form, takes on the physical function of a tree so as to minimize the amount of land and vegetation displaced for construction. Residential units perch on the end of ‘branches’ and are powered by photovoltaic roofs, like the leaves on a tree. At the apex of the structure, a community garden and park replaces the vegetation lost by the placement of the trunk, and also provides a local food source for the residents. Drains and piping in each residential unit and the community garden space collect rainwater, which is then recycled for use by the residents. The structure itself is made of local renewable materials, such as straw bales, with high ratings for interior climate maintenance to reduce energy losses. Further refinements for complete self-sustainability would of course be necessary and plausible with further research and expertise into the practice of green architecture.

Through the study of biomimicry and its myriad available applications in the world, we are steadily approaching a period of understanding and partnership with natural systems. Currently, human-made systems are “at war” with nature and often “extract to create wealth” as the expense of natural systems (Lang), but this route may change with more comprehensive and intuitive knowledge of the damage humans have wrought on earth. As Janine Benyus says in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, human ignorance is correctible and we have the power to adapt and learn from nature for a sustainable future. Sustainability will catch on as a responsible way to live and work with the help of leading corporations such as Interface and designers such as David Oakey paving the way. Perhaps when my formal training is done, Wallace Branches, or some version of it, will become reality and change the way we think about housing and our effects on the planet. Teamwork is the ultimate goal: we must work with nature to protect and rehabilitate our habitat, and biomimicry will help us to better understand our partner.


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