Royal College of Art design student Chao Chen has developed a revolutionary new building material that responds to the presence of water. After observing the hydro-sensitive behavior of pine cones, which open and close depending upon their exposure to water, Chen has developed a wood laminate material that similarly bends and flexes in response to atmospheric humidity, soil moisture or rain. Applications for the technology include shelters that seal up when it rains and building cladding that opens to let in more light on a dull, drizzly day but closes to block out heat when the weather is hot and dry.
Chen’s inspiration for the Water Reaction Project grew from his past observations of pine cones: the cones are open when they are dry, but close up in the presence of water to prevent their seeds from rotting. As Chen explained to Fast Co Design, “Each pine cone has two layers. When it gets wet, the outer layer elongates more than the inner layer and closes in on itself.” This led to the development of the laminate product, which features sandwiched layers of fabric, thin film and wood veneer. The veneer absorbs water, expands across the grain and curves or flattens depending on the production technique. “Utilizing inherent properties, this bio-mimetic material detects humidity and changes its shape automatically without mechanical structures or electrical elements,” states Chen.
So how could this product be used? Chen has developed three prototypes for starters. The first is a shelter covered in tiles made of the laminate. The tiles curl and open in dry weather to let in light and breezes, but when wet they flatten to shut out the rain and protect occupants. Conversely, the Water Reacting Architectural Surface is flat when it is dry and sunny, useful for keeping interiors cool in hot weather. When the laminate is exposed to moisture, however, it curls, opening up the surface to let in light. Chen has also adapted this design to reveal a brightly painted surface underneath the laminate, which creates a cheerful and colorful exterior treatment for drizzle-prone cities, such as London or Vancouver. The third application is delightfully simple: a splice of laminate serves as a moisture detector for plants, standing upright and showing a red indicator when the plant needs watering, and bending and showing a blue surface when water levels are optimal.
Chen is still studying for his Masters in Product Design at RCA and concedes there’s more work to be done on the designs before they can go into production. “These three products are still in the stage of working prototypes. 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,” he notes.
Photos via Chao Chen