Student Develops An Ingenious Building Material That Shapeshifts In Response To Rain

Chao Chen, a product design student at RCA, created a water-reacting laminate that can open when it’s sunny and close when it rains.

When Chao Chen had to conduct a materials study during his second term at the Royal College of Art, he found inspiration while walking through London’s Hyde Park on a rainy day. Picking up a pine cone, he noticed that it reacted to water by closing its outer shell. Now, he has developed a building material, based on the pine cone’s anatomy, that can shapeshift in response to weather.


Chen knew that pine cones open and close as a survival mechanism to protect and release their seeds, but what interested him was how. So that day, in Hyde Park, he grabbed a few pine cones, took them home, and sliced them in half. “Each pine cone has two layers,” Chen says in a phone interview. “When it gets wet, the outer layer elongates more than the inner layer and closes in on itself. As a designer, this was very important for me.”

Chen, who is getting his masters in product design at the RCA, used that information to create a laminate–made from fabric, a thin film and veneer–that reacts to water the same way. When the veneer takes in water, the fibers expand perpendicular to the grain, elongating and curving the material just like the shell of a pine cone.

For his first year final project, Water Reaction, Chen applies this new material in three fascinating ways. In the first, Chen developed a Water-Reacting Shelter covered in laminated tiles that open up on sunny days, but stack on top of each other to provide shelter when it starts to rain. Imagine such a shelter being used in the middle of a park or other public space. “Users will feel like they’re standing under some sort of tree, enjoying the sunshine, but not very strong sunshine,” Chen said. “When it rains all the tiles will be closed to cover the whole surface of the shelter.”

In the second application he developed a “color-revealing” architectural surface that reacts to water by curling inward into various geometric shapes, revealing a colored surface underneath. A whole building covered in this shapeshifting material would subtly transform into a brightly patterned facade on rainy days. The third object Chen created for his project is simpler and smaller in scale, but just as ingenious. By taking a strip of the material and making one side red and the other blue, Chen created a “water detector” that senses moisture in the soil of your house plants. When the material is limp and showing the blue side, you’re in the clear, but when it stiffens to reveal the red, it’s time to water your plant.

Unfortunately, it might be a while until we see Chen’s designs on the market, or changing shapes on the streets. “These three products are still in the stage of working prototypes,” Chen says. “The material needs to be more durable. I need to test how many times it can get wet, how it can deal with heavy winds.” But Chen works fast: this entire project was developed during one term. You can check in on this project and view his other work here.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.