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A No-Tech Ventilation System That Changes With Humidity

Steffen Reichert and Achim Menges manipulate wood to open and close with humidity levels.

We spend billions of dollars a year making our homes and offices climate responsive, with details as simple as ceiling fans and as complex as motorized sun shades. Architects Steffen Reichert, Achim Menges, and Boyan Mihaylov think there’s a more intelligent way. “Nature suggests a fundamentally different, no-tech strategy,” explains Reichert. “In many biological systems the responsive capacity is quite literally ingrained in the material itself.”

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It’s a simple enough concept: Organic materials are capable of adapting to climate change, and if we could harness these properties in a controlled way, we could make smarter, cheaper, lighter buildings. In practice, of course, such a theory is a kind of holy grail. But on May 2nd at the Pompidou Center, the trio unveiled proof positive of their ideas about reactive materials, in the form of an installation called HygroScope: Meteorosensitive Morphology.

Reichert spent five years developing the technology at play in HygroScope, working with a team at Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design to exert control over the reaction between wood and moisture. Commissioned by the Pompidou to build a demonstration, the team spent three months designing and fabricating a fragile wood framework of 4,000 modules that form apertures, opening and closing in response to humidity levels.

In the Pompidou’s carefully climate-controlled galleries, the twisting system is installed in a glass box, above a humidifier programmed to mimic the weather conditions outside the Museum’s walls. When it’s humid, the machine injects water molecules into the case, which bind to the fibers of the wood and cause them to expand, creating curling openings in the maple veneer surface. When it’s drier, the holes close up. The humidifier also reacts to the number of people in the gallery, releasing humidity equivalent to what is being released by human bodies occupying the space.

HygroScope is half test case and half art installation–it’s a beautiful morphological way to demonstrate a technology that could change how we build buildings. Of course, this “technology” is older than humans, based on a simple chemical interaction between two materials. “[These are] climate-responsive architectural systems that do not require any sensory equipment, motor functions or even energy,” writes Reichert. “The material structure itself is the machine.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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