Adventures in Smartsurfaces

Just another weblog

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.


Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: William

Morrow & Co, 1997.

“Biomimicry: An Interview with David Oakey”. Interface Sustainability. Interface

Inc. 19 September 2007

Biomimicry: Learning from Nature. Part 1. Dir. Paul Lang. Videocassette. Bullfrog

Films, 2002.

Biomimicry: Learning from Nature. Part 2. Dir. Paul Lang. Videocassette. Bullfrog

Films, 2002.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

:Viking Penguin Group, 2004.

“Entire InterfaceFLOR® Modular Product Line Qualifies for USGBC’s LEED®

“Innovation in Design” Credit”.  Interface Inc. 16 August 2007. CSRwire.

19 September 2007

Goldberg, Stephanie B. “Bringing Nature Indoors”. Business Week 6 Nov. 2000.

“InterfaceFLOR – Sustainability in 2020”. Business in the Community 2006.

Business in the Community. 19 September 2007

Oakey, David. 19 September 2007

Oakey, David. “Re: I Know You’re Probably a Very Busy Designer…” Email to

Rachel Boswell. 20 November, 2007.

Oakey, David. “R Power.” Interior Design 1 Nov. 2001: 216-217.

Passino, Kevin M. Biomimicry for Optimization, Control, and Automation. London:

Springer-Verlag, 2005.

Schwartz, Bonnie. “Landscape of the Interior.” Fast Company 44 Feb. 2001: 72.


Yeah I suck at blogging

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 3:54 am

Ok, so I need more stuff on here. I have historically never been good at writing basically anything. Not because I’m not a good writer, but because I hate it. Sorry for the brutal honesty! But I’m trying, I swear!

So here goes nothing, again. I’m going to try to put some more interesting stuff on here, like things that inspire me, because reflecting on our project work just wears me out and is frankly quite dismal (especially after a hard week and team drama!).

So, yay interesting inspiring things!

Our current group project involves applying a heliotropic smart-surface in a real-world environment. We were encouraged to consider cultural meaning in our product, and make something relevant that answered a specific ‘why’ question. What we have been struggling with most is linking together our surface with our why, so that in the middle of the second and final week of project work we are still tweaking the form and purpose of our product. ARG! The problem is we have so many pretty good ideas and smart people working together which makes it difficult to reach a consensus as to what it is we actually want to do. We are getting close however 😀

Our project is based on directing and/or controlling sunlight in buildings and interior spaces. We threw around the idea of combining this with urban gardening, but we decided to focus more on controlling the amount of light within a building throughout the day. We are trying at this point to soften light during the brightest periods of the day and harness during dimmer times through the use of peeling and curving panels on the surface of a building, thereby maintaining a constant level of light throughout the day (we hope).

While doing research in the early stages of this project, I came across an interesting blog by landscape architect Jason King. Here is the link:

I was very inspired by the many ways that vegetation has been used in architecture, either as surface cover or form itself. I was reminded of a project a did a couple years ago about biomimicry, or mimicking natural phenomena in manmade design for improved efficiency, durability, etc. Our project is about heliotropism, a natural method of energy harvesting employed by plants for chlorophyl production. What we are doing IS biomimicry, duh! And so our form began to reflect the natural movement of plants, and we started to think about heliotropic or heat-responsive materials that would eliminate mechanical necessity in our real-world concept (but unfortunately not our classroom model, which will use servos and step-motors for movement).

I find biomimicry to be SUPER interesting, and I think we should focus more on what it exactly entails, with regards to research and construction, etc, in the classroom so that we may be better prepared to create elegant forms with natural movements and highly efficient results. When I was doing research on biomimicry in 2007, I read a very important book on the subject by Janine M. Benyus called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, written in 1997. Benyus is called one of the pioneers in this field of research, and her stuff is worth checking out.

Also worth checking out is the work of David Oakey, a designer who uses principles of biomimicry in is work. This is his company website:

There are also some videos on the subject in the AAE library under the title Biomimicry: Learning from Nature, directed by Paul Lang in 2002, if you prefer to watch rather than read (perfect when you are too tired to follow the lines on the pages in your book :P).

You know what? I’ll just post my paper on biomimicry in my next post and the bibliography, just for fun 🙂


It’s coming together… September 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 6:37 pm

Project three is well underway, and in theory our design is solid. The assignment was to design a heliotropic field that follows the movement of the sun, which would be beneficial for energy collection for example. Using Digital Project (awesome!), we will create a simulation of the working field in motion, and using our arduino kits and electronic knowledge we will construct a few prototype cells.

Our design may be pushing a little past the requirements of the assignment, which I think is a good thing. We have decided to use mirrors to reflect solar light to a solar cell (perhaps, this is still in the works a bit) in order to concentrate the power. Each cell in our field consists of three mirrors in a row that can angle on one axis and are mounted on a rectangular box platform. This platform in turn rotates on the horizontal over top a stationary cylindrical box on the bottom. When the field moves in unison, the rotating rectangles create changing shapes and patterns throughout the day for visual appeal.

So far, the code has been written and we will be laser cutting the structure out of foamcore today (black for added chic-ness). Since we have detailed drawings already, assembly should be a breeze. All that remains to be worked out is the Digital Project simulation (fun stuff! if you ask me), and troubleshooting of course, which could make or break us.

Pictures of work in progress and the finished model to come. Aren’t you excited?


A Giant Leap Forward September 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — rachelboswell @ 5:28 pm

Since the successful blinking light assignment, we have learned loads more about arduino, electronics, and now digital design.

Our second group project required us to incorporate LDR photo sensors into our codes and circuits in order to track a moving light on at least two axes. It took a lot of trial and error, but in the end our device worked! Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the final project, but I promise to document our next project much more effectively.

With the LDR project we encountered MANY issues, most of each were, unbeknownst to us, easy to fix of course :S, and caused us much craziness. We learned that the USB ports of our laptops don’t have enough juice to power more than very simple circuits. When we added servo motors and cross read different components, it was too much for the computer to handle. In the end, we had two arduinos hooked up to two external power sources and two laptops (which were used more for information processing than for power). Needless to say, our device was not exactly energy efficient, but now we know what our mistakes were and what we need to do differently next time.

This week, we are adding another design variable into the equation: Digital Project, which is a 3D parametric design program from the makers of Catia. The possibilities of this program seen endless, and I can’t wait to use them to design a field of sensors that follows the path of the sun.

More to come later when we’ve started working through the task!