In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Living, Sensing, Learning: Next-Generation Bioinspired Building Materials

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Author: Jenny E. Sabin

According to the World Green Building Council (WGBC 2017), building and construction account for 39 percent of annual global carbon emissions. The heating, lighting, and cooling of buildings accounts for 28 percent of this total and the remaining 11 percent comes from what is known as embodied emissions or “upfront” carbon associated with materials, construction, and building processes throughout the building lifecycle. The energy intensity per square meter of the global buildings sector must improve on average by 30 percent by 2030 to meet international climate ambitions set in the Paris Agreement[1] (WGBC 2017).

The covid-19 crisis is forcing a reconsideration of workspaces, residences, and other occupied structures. Radical new models are needed for design research and collaboration across disciplines. One approach entails the hybridization of labs and studios to fuse innovations across science and design to generate next-generation building materials and structures that are adaptive, efficient, smart, and resilient.

This essay describes three ongoing projects in my lab at Cornell University that integrate bioinspired design processes and the dynamics of light and energy to innovate responsive nonstandard photovoltaic building skins, biobricks and tiles, and sentient spaces.

Transdisciplinary Collaboration to Innovate Design and Function

We couple architectural designers with engineers and scientists in a research-based laboratory-studio to develop new ways of thinking, seeing, and working in each of our fields (Sabin and Jones 2017). These trans-­disciplinary collaborations are working to develop adaptive materials that are not just elements and things in buildings: they will generate immersive spaces, both acting on and responding to inhabitants and dynamic conditions in the built environment (Sabin 2015).

Like the cells in human bodies, sensors and ­materials 50 years hence will learn and adapt, making buildings not only smart but also healthy, aware, and ­sensate. To evolve buildings and their materials to reduce their ­carbon emissions and better serve people and the planet, the anthropocentric paradigm of resource consumption must shift to resource renewal, circular economies, adaptive reuse, and resiliency (Armstrong 2012; Sabin 2015).

Most contemporary sustainable approaches to reduce CO2 emissions offer various technological solutions through sanctioned rating systems. These measures address resource consumption in buildings, but not the systemic ecology of the built environment over the long term.

Sustainable building practices should move beyond energy conservation and technical performance to new models that inspire sociocultural change and innovation across disciplines (Sabin 2015). Such a transformation will require transdisciplinary collaborations that explore how adaptive processes in nature can be leveraged and applied, through the integration of emerging technologies and design, in the development of new materials and healthy building products. In addition, aesthetics play a role in exciting the public about the importance of using sustainable building materials and practices in private and public domains.

Heliotropic Solar Panels

One such collaboration grew out of a conversation at the NAE’s 2017 US Frontiers of Engineering ­Symposium, where I met Mariana Bertoni, associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University. We talked about the role of design and aesthetics in the context of sustainable architecture, high-performance engineering systems, and the potential for widespread adoption of alternative energy—especially, active power systems such as solar panels in residential and industrial sectors.

Heliotropic mechanisms
in sunflowers and
light-scattering structures in lithops plants
inform nonconventional configurations of
solar panels.

We have collaboratively innovated the design and engineering of building-integrated photo­voltaics through computational design and 3D printing for highly customized nonstandard filters and panels that result in site-specific nonmechanical tracking solar collection systems. Beginning with biological adaptations such as heliotropic mechanisms in sunflowers and the light-scattering structures in lithops plants, we investigate nonconventional configurations of solar panels as a means of integrating aesthetics while maximizing energy conversion efficiency.

Sabin figure 1.gif

Our prototype structure  (figure 1) demonstrates an adaptable system with extremely low greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to PV systems that have not considered the temperature dependence of cell performance and solar tracking structures (Leccisi et al. 2016). This project innovates the design and engineering of PV cells through advances in computation and 3D printing, for highly customized bioinspired filters and panel assemblies that leverage the phenomena, beauty, and performance of light absorption for energy generation.

The PolyBrick: A DNA-Steered Building Material

In a collaboration of the Sabin and Luo labs at ­Cornell we are exploring the potential of designing with light and energy through living programmable ­matter or DNA-steered materials. Our PolyBrick research investigates the possibilities of living building tiles and bricks through the integration of DNA and programmable materials (Rosenwasser et al. 2018), building on 11 years of design research on 3D-printed nonstandard clay components and digitally designed ceramic bricks and assemblies.

PolyBrick 3.0 explores programmable biofunctionalities in constructed architectural environments through the development of advanced ceramic biotiles. These tiles use cutting-edge 3D-printed pattern­ing techniques and novel bioengineered hydrogel materials to tune surface conditions and effects at the micro- and macroscales.

Using DNA as building blocks, varieties of structures have been designed and constructed from nano- to ­macroscale, including efforts to mimic and recreate structural components seen in architecture and mechanical engineering (Rosenwasser et al. 2018). Synthetically designed with advanced bioengineering, the first phase of this research uses DNA to design with light so that unique signatures fluoresce in the ­PolyBrick clay body. Imagine if the walls in your immediate surroundings glowed to alert you to contaminants in the air! The second phase will focus on adaptations to the local environment, including proteins and particulate matter, with the aim of cleaning the surrounding air and reducing pollution.

DNA nanotechnology will open up new possibilities for creating nano- to macroscale materials and architectural elements that can dynamically react to environmental cues and interact with bio­chemical reactions. With our unique DNA stamps and glaze, we explore the possibility of living matter and dynamic ­surface techniques for new forms of adaptive architecture.

Personalized Architecture

In conjunction with this work, we are exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) can personalize rooms and buildings—the spaces and environments that people inhabit influence how they feel (and act). Ada[2] is the first architectural pavilion project to incorporate AI. Through the integration of responsive materials and emerging technologies, it has the capacity to promote and increase wellbeing and healthy environments through people’s direct engagement with the architecture.

The lightweight pavilion is composed of responsive and data-driven tubular and cellular components held in continuous tension via a 3D-printed semirigid exoskeleton. The lighting system and materials of the cyberphysical architecture respond to human participation as individual and collective facial pattern data are collected through a network of cameras, processed by AI algorithms, and transmitted as sentiment through light and color.

“An important aim of the project [is] to expand and inspire [architectural] engagement with humans. While artificial intelligence powers the project through the precise narrowing and statistical averaging of data collected from individual and collective facial patterns and voice tones, the architecture of Ada augments emotion through aesthetic experience, thereby opening the range of possible human emotional engagement” (Sabin et al. 2020, p. 246).

For example, personalized architecture may sense subtle changes in human emotion through sensors and interfaces that detect changes in facial patterns and voice tones (McDuff et al. 2019), and respond in ways that increase wellbeing and promote healthier environments. Such architectural responses might include adaptations to building temperature and windows that respond to daylight and UV energy by shifting from transparent to opaque.


Through the integration of biological adaptations, DNA-steered materials, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the future will bring building tiles that emit light, rooms that sense and respond to the wellbeing of their occupants, and cellular building skins that collect and store energy.

In my lab we are leveraging the context-driven processes of biological systems with AI and other advanced technologies to design and fabricate material and spatial structures that don’t simply mimic nature but integrate the dynamics and specificity of material with environmental feedback. This approach enhances both technical and conceptual understanding of nature’s inner workings for the design and fabrication of bio­inspired material systems and a new model for adaptive architecture.

Using the resulting knowledge, design, and materials, buildings of the future will actively reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the health of both their occupants and the planet.


Armstrong R. 2012. Lawless sustainability. Architecture ­Norway, Dec 5.

Leccisi E, Raugei M, Fthenakis V. 2016. The energy and environmental performance of ground-mounted photovoltaic systems—A timely update. Energies 9(8):622–13.

McDuff D, Rowan K, Choudhury P, Wolk J, Pham TV, ­Czerwinski M. 2019. A multimodal emotion sensing platform for building emotion-aware applications. arXiv:1903.12133v1.

Rosenwasser D, Hamada S, Luo D, Sabin J. 2018. Polybrick 3.0: Live signatures through DNA hydrogels and digital ceramics. International Journal of Rapid Manufacturing 7(2,3):205–18.

Sabin J. 2015. Transformative research practice: Architectural affordances and crisis. Journal of Architectural Education 69(1):63–71.

Sabin J, Jones PL. 2017. LabStudio: Design Research Between Architecture and Biology. London & New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

Sabin JE, Hilla J, Pranger D, Binkley C, Bilotti J. 2020. Embedded architecture: Ada, driven by humans, powered by AI. In: Fabricate 2020: Making Resilient Architecture, eds Burry J, Sabin JE, Sheil B, Skavara M. London: UCL Press.

WGBC [World Green Building Council]. 2017. New report: The building and construction sector can reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. London.

[1] the-paris-agreement

[2]  Ada was a project by Jenny Sabin Studio for the Artists in ­Residence Program at Microsoft Research, 2018–19.

About the Author:Jenny Sabin is the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture and associate dean for design initiatives at Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and principal of Jenny Sabin Studio. Photo by Jesse Winter.