Durability and efficiency have been the key factors to assess a ‘good design.’ While we consider the internal, structural, and external factors that determine the life of a building, one can not neglect the core of its realization. Without material, one can not translate their imagination into reality. The conversion of intangible to tangible requires ‘matter’ to construct the future. Thus, the smart materials working on a passive, active, and hybrid system builds a response on the architectural, structural, and climatic system to create an efficient building system.

The modern lifestyle is dependent on smartphones, artificial intelligence (AI), and smart technology, and now comes the need for smart materials. The climate and environment have been majorly affected by critical global issues like the CoVid-19 pandemic, depletion of resources, crippling economy, and global warming. In such circumstances, the future demands an environment that is sensitively designed to meet the human comfort level while keeping the atmosphere positive and healthy. Smart materials, as described by NASA, are such that they remember configuration to respond to its context when given certain stimuli. 

If we peek into the benefits that the smart materials contribute to society, we see its self-diagnostic ability to resist extreme environmental hazards and heal itself. Its life-cycle cost efficiency helps in efficient installation and construction methods. Its benefit is not restricted to physical and mechanical features only but expands further into the domain of aesthetics. 

Based on its characteristics, we can classify it into two types of classes. The first class incorporates the materials that undergo chemical, mechanical, thermal, magnetic, and electrical changes. Such materials are mechanochromics, thermochromic, phototrophic, shape-changing, phase-changing, and adhesion-changing materials, etc. They allow the material to change the microstructure based on the context’s energy input to respond to the relative issue. 

Whereas, the second class comprises piezoelectrics, photovoltaics, light-emitting materials, shape memory alloys, LEDs, etc. which help in the transformation of energy from one form to the other according to the input.

Smart materials progress into the field of architecture as superheroes of tomorrow. They contribute to the well-being and stability of society and the environment, ranging from smart brick, concrete, glass, green roof, sensory structures, and base isolation system, etc. They have been utilized in many renowned projects of the 21st century as described below: 

Italy Pavilion – Milan Expo 2015

Location: Milano, Italy
Architect: Nemesi
Year: 2015

The project takes advantage of the use of sustainable technology and materials. The use of photovoltaic glass in the roof and photocatalytic concrete in the façade put forth the idea of flexibility in a creative and technical design. 

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The Pavilion ©archdaily.com

The ‘i.active BIODYNAMIC concrete’ provides three times greater fluidity than usual to design complex geometries and to resist high-strength compression and flexion. The active component of the material acts as a catalyst in sunlight to trap air pollutants and convert them into inert salts to prevent smog. The building enveloped in more than 700 panels of this ‘smart concrete’ in years gives back to the environment more than it has consumed in the construction.

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The ‘i.active BIODYNAMIC concrete’ façade ©archdaily.com 

Bike path of Eindhoven

Location: Eindhoven, Netherlands
Artist: Daan Roosegaarde
Year: 2014

The artist paid tribute to the famous artist and resident of the town, Vincent Van Gogh. Inspired by his classic painting ‘The Starry Night,’ Roosegaarde designed a bike path stimulated by solar panels. This project of a smart urbanscape introduces the idea of ‘light-generating concrete.’ 

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Bike commuter path in Eindhoven ©Cortesía de El Excelsior 

The smart concrete developed by Rubio Ávalos can be used in highways, parking lots, pedestrian paths, kitchens, bathrooms, etc. to create a sustainable guiding system. It is recyclable and could last a hundred years. The only source of recharging would be natural light, making it suitable for spaces and areas where there is no electrical distribution.

The other list of smart materials goes by as follows:

1. Hydroceramic

A smart material developed by the students of IAAC under the supervision of senior faculty, suggests the combination of hydrogel’s evaporative property with thermal mass, and the ceramic clay and fabric’s property of humidity control. This material proved to be effective in reducing the internal temperature of the room by 5-degrees. 

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Hydroceramic prototype ©iaac.net

2. Hydromembrane

Hydromembrane is a passive, self-regulating composite material operating on the principles of biomimetic ventilation and cooling systems. Unlike the conventional cooling and ventilation systems, this one is highly energy-efficient. Its shape-memory actuation adapts to the environment while regulating the interior’s temperature, airflow, and humidity. Hydromorph being permanently durable becomes cost-effective in the long term. It can be used on a micro and macro scale as a textile and building skin, respectively.

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Hydromembrane as a building skin ©iaacblog.com

3. Water-driven Breathing Skin

The material is a semi-passive system that works best in water-deficient areas. The tensile form functions as an urban breather for outdoor spaces that are climatically hot. The evaporative cooling and ventilation system makes it sustainable and environmentally friendly.

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The urban breather ©iaacblog.com

4. Cellulose Nanofibres 

The activation of electrical charge by adding chemically treated nanofibers of wood pulp with the untreated ones can charge batteries and power the lighting system. The team creates floor panels that give an aesthetic appeal to the interior while creating electrical energy by footsteps. This smart material invented by Chunhua Yao and Xudong Wang at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claims to be next-in-line to the solar power system.

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Floor panels ©Chris Tubbs 

5. Breathe Brick

This smart material outstands its fellow competitors by functioning on a cyclone filtration system. It works as a vacuum that filters heavy pollutants from the air and deposits them at the end of the wall into a ‘removable hopper.’ The brick acts as a geothermal labyrinth and a passive solar chimney to achieve the human comfort level. The inside layer insulates the interior and enhances ventilation by stimulating the stack effect.

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Functional diagram ©Carmin Trudell & Natacha Schnider 
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Breathe brick as a passive solar chimney ©Carmin Trudell 

Breathe brick has proven to filter out 100% coarse particles (such as dust) and 30% of heavy pollutants from the air. This material could prove to be the most sustainable solution to ensure good health in interior spaces during and after the pandemic effect.

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Breathe brick prototype ©Natacha Schnider



With an ambitious spirit to explore the world, Neha has embarked upon building her professional journey beginning from UAE, to Egypt, to what future holds next; to uncover the “extraordinary” in the places we see as ordinary keeping one eye ahead of the time and deeper into how architecture influences socio-culture, norms and behavior.

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