Architecture’s new frontier: Buildings that mimic nature

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Architecture's new frontier: Buildings that mimic nature
This is a rendering of a ‘phase-change’ glass wall that’s proposed for a new environmental center to be built in Frick Park

Clifford is a leading researcher into what might be called “bio-simulant architecture,” or architecture that simulates biological processes.

We’re talking about things like the facade of a building outfitted with panels that, just like leaves on a plant, react to the sun. These “solar petals” would move automatically with the sun to provide optimum glare reduction and shade, or maybe, someday, even be used to “curl up” to open the sides of a building for ventilation.

They could then go flat, closing the sides of a building when the sun goes down, and it gets cold.

Or, how about thin glass-block windows that absorb heat during the day and release it at night — and change in transparency, as well, being clear during the heat of the day but gradually turning opaque as the temperature drops.

All this fascinating work by the assistant professor of architecture at CMU is illustrated by the models of every sort — most of them representing potential building components — that neatly line the shelves and cover the big table that together make up Clifford’s office.

The intent of Clifford’s futuristic work is to find more ways to make buildings environmentally efficient and self-sustaining, reducing their need, as they operate daily, for expensive resources such as utility-supplied gas, electricity and water. Making buildings “green” has become common in recent years, but this next step — simulating nature in the design of a building — is a new frontier.