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In an article published in the cyber
journal Technoetic Arts last year, British architect-academics Stephen A. Gage and
Will Thorne describe a hypothetical fleet of small robots
they call edge monkeys. Their function would be
to patrol building facades, regulating energy usage and indoor
conditions. Basic duties include closing unattended windows,
checking thermostats, and adjusting blinds. But the machines
would also gesture meaningfully to internal occupants
when building users are clearly wasting energy,
and they are described as intrinsically delightful and
funny. The authors liken the relationship between edge
monkey and human to that of P.G. Wodehouses Jeeves and
Wooster characters. Jeevess aim is always to modify
Woosters behavior so that it is more sensible,
they write. And we need all the persuasion we can get
to modify our behavior before the planet is severely compromised.
Practicalities of microrobotics aside,
this sci-fi-sounding scheme crystallizes the widespread concern
informing many recent architectural projects. Increasingly,
architects would like to automate their building envelopes
rather than leave energy-efficient operation to chance (or
harried maintenance engineers). As a result, the critical
interface between the interior and the elements is getting
more attentionand more animated.
Thanks largely to innovators from Europe,
buildings are wearing more smarts and moving parts. The lions
share use double-skin construction as well, in which inner
and outer glass walls are separated by a ventilated cavity
that often contains solar shading. Hundreds of double-glass
or interactive envelopes appeared in Germany and Austria in
the 1990s. In the United States, such projects are novelties,
despite the existence here of an early example that debuted
during the early 1980s oil crisis: Cannons Occidental
Chemical Center in Buffalo, New York, introduced a double-wall
facade containing automated operable louvers.
are robots that would close windows, check
thermostats, adjust blinds, and gesture
meaningfully to internal occupants when
they are clearly wasting energy.
Photography: Courtesy Stephen GGage and Will
Back then, the idea was an anomaly. Today,
activating the skin is in vogue, note critics and proponents
alike. From the robotecture labs at top architecture
schools to interactive art installations like James Carpenters
Podium Light Wall for New Yorks 7 World Trade Center,
aesthetics and technology are converging in unlikely places.
Nonetheless, the mainstream drivers for interactive envelopes
are sustainability and stringent energy codes. Another is
heightened interest in Woosterthe end user.
The costs cant be justified strictly on the basis
of energy savings, points out Eleanor S. Lee, a scientist
and architect in the Building Technologies Program at Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Berkeley, California.
But these systems will be used increasingly for occupant
satisfaction, including thermal comfort, acoustical performance,
and access to fresh air.
While fashionable and possibly advantageous,
the adoption of high-tech envelopes has been slow. Skeptical
architects worry that operable components are magnets for
value-engineering. Or they foresee them being unplugged and
later stripped off their buildings due to poor performance
or deficient maintenance. Other firms cite client interests,
noting such high-profile failures as the broken actuators
on the sun-control diaphragms cladding Jean Nouvels
1988 Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris. Culturally,
we have little confidence in what were doing, and in
systems integration for these hybrids, says Volker Hartkopf,
director of the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics
at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Yes, these
things can break, but so can fans, dampers, thermostats, and
so many other things we take for granted.