How can ever evolving digital technologies, which typically become outdated or obsolete within a matter of years or even months, be integrated effectively into architecture, a discipline known for its permanence and longevity? The architecture firm Kierantimberlake addressed just this issue in the development of their Smartwrap envelop system. Smartwrap is a transparent building envelop that incorporates energy harvesting, lighting, climate control, and informational display technologies within a thin PET surface. Originally developed for a 2003 exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and develop further in the 2007 Cellophane house at the Museum of Modern Art, this Smartwrap system was designed to incorporate the latest technologies available with the understanding that evolving technologies would allow for a great level of performance in the future.
The first layer in the Smartwrap system is a thin PET plastic weather envelop that also acts as the substrate for all other layers. The second layer harvests solar energy using printed photo-voltaic film, film batteries, and conductive ink circuitry. The stored energy is used to power the third layer of organic LEDs which illuminate the building at night and is capable of functioning as an architecturally scaled digital display. OLED technology uses organic molecules that emit light when exposed to an electrical current and is a technology currently being used in laptop, cellular phone, and TV displays. The fourth layer acts as climate control and consists of micro-capsules of phase-change materials embedded in resin and extruded into a film . Phase-change materials such as paraffin, fatty acids, and salty hydrates, are capable of storing higher amounts of energy than typical thermal masses such as stone, masonry, or water. This is achieved by taking advantage of the large amount of energy required to change liquids to solids. As heat from the sun hits the phase-change film, the sensible temperature of the film rises until it reaches its melting temperature, at which point it continues to absorb large amounts of energy without a sensible temperature change until the phase change is complete.
Because these technologies are currently still being developed and are economically impractical on an architectural scale, Smartwrap remains a largely aspirational product that will become more feasible with time. Architecture is inherently one of the slowest to change because of the massive inertia that comes with the material and construction industries. Yet it’s no longer difficult to imagine how our ever smaller yet ever more powerful digital technologies will inevitably alter the way our buildings interact with their environments and the tech-savy population that will inhabit them.