Buildings may one day “breathe,” and they might be able to function in their own environment with the help a type of “smart skin” developed by a team of Texas A&M University researchers.

The project, which includes College of Architecture researchers Zofia Rybkowski, associate professor of construction science, and Ergun Akleman, professor of visualization, is supported by an approximately $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the research, the researchers said, is to make a building that is attractive and functional, but also more energy efficient.

Using what they call a “shape-memory polymer,” the team has developed building skins that could allow a building to breathe on its own, much like a living system.

“When it’s hot, we want the building skin to be open to absorb air, and when it’s cold, we want it closed, without using external mechanical devices or electrical devices,” said Ph.D. architecture student Maryam Mansoori, one of more than 60 Texas A&M students who are also heavily involved in the project.

The researchers are using materials including alloys and stimuli-responsive polymers to enable a building that has a “smart skin” applied to it to function almost as a living thing in its own environment.

“We started to think, can we create a system that is self-regulated based on the inherent properties of the materials themselves?” Rybkowski said. Builders and designers may be able to use heat or light to get the desired effect they want. The polymers are designed to draw fresh air into the building, which allows it to actually breathe on its own.

Another team member, Negar Kalantar, assistant professor of interior design at the California College of the Arts, is using high-tech 3D printers to aid in the design and construction of the polymers.

Rybkowski said there are “lots of materials that are currently used that are responsive to environmental cues,” and the team hopes to identify these and more to use as smart skin building layers.

The key focus area of the project is sustainability, Rybkowski added.

“Can we use what already exists in our own environment and incorporate that into the anatomy of our buildings? That is the big picture here,” she said.

With more research, the team believes it can go farther and use materials that help self-regulate not only building temperature, but air quality and water conservation.

“Imagine buildings with smart skins that can perform the tasks of today’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems,” said Rybkowski. “This is a futuristic proposition, but a new generation of smart materials that can interact with the environment is starting to make this kind of vision feasible.”

The research team also includes Texas A&M’s Tahir Cagin, professor of materials science and engineering, and Terry Creasy, associate professor of materials science and engineering.

For more information, contact rnira@arch.tamu.edu or doswald@tamu.edu.