Jenny Sabin's Greenhouse at the American Philosophical Society

Jenny Sabin’s Greenhouse at the American Philosophical Society

The Greenhouse Projects installation at the American Philosophical Society Museum, designed by architect and 2010 Pew Fellow Jenny Sabin. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society Museum.

Jenny Sabin is a 2010 Pew Fellow and the designer of a “Greenhouse for the Future,” part of the American Philosophical Society’s (APS) Greenhouse Projects, presented in the fall of 2011 in conjunction with their exhibition Of Elephants and Roses: Encounters with French Natural History. The project was funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2011. We asked Sabin to write a short post about her experience working with APS. Following her post is a recent essay by Sabin and her colleagues, the eSkin Team, which describes her design interests, research, and philosophy.

As an emerging architectural designer with an experimental architecture practice in Philadelphia, it’s not often that I am able to materialize and build my digitally generated designs. My commission with the American Philosophical Society Museum enabled me to do this and more. The APS Museum has been a dream client, allowing me to explore and reinterpret the thematic issues present in the exhibition, while engaging highly experimental design strategies to realize a greenhouse of the future. From start to finish, Sue Ann Prince and Merrill Mason not only directed and envisioned an incredible exhibition and associated events, but also inspired each of the artists involved in The Greenhouse Projects to stretch our creative bounds in ways that could not have been imagined previously. They encouraged us to collaborate amongst each other and to consider how our diverse approaches may become hybridized at specific moments while also influencing the trajectories of our individual projects. My collaboration with composer Kyle Bartlett was particularly engaging as we learned early on that we share similar interests in generative processes and compositional complexity, but through entirely different mediums. This enabled us to generate a cohesive strategy for how the spatial qualities present in Kyle’s piece would seamlessly interact and amplify those present in the greenhouse. I learned a lot from Kyle and in the future I would like to consider sound as a key parameter in the generative design strategies that I deploy.

This is by far the most rewarding and important built project that I have undertaken to date. Jenni Drozdek, Julianna Struck, and their team of volunteers were invaluable in their help with the installation, maintenance and overall management of the project. The greenhouse installation, from the initial few days, to the planting of the cold frames to the final dismantling, could not have been done without their team. A number of graduate architecture students from PennDesign also benefitted from the project. For the first time, all four of my interns learned how to design, fabricate and build a structure. This doesn’t happen very often. The APS Museum is a unique institution that not only sits at the nexus of the history of science, technology, society and the arts, but also constantly questions these historical contexts through the lens of contemporary art, design and discourse. The Greenhouse Projects took on this important role and blew it out of the stratosphere. It took an incredible team of great people and collaborators to do this.

The Greenhouse Projects installation at the American Philosophical Society Museum, designed by architect and 2010 Pew Fellow Jenny Sabin. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society Museum.

Materiality Matters

eSkin Team
Jenny E. Sabin & Andrew Lucia, Cornell University
Shu Yang, Nader Engheta, Jan Van der Spiegel, Kaori Ihida-Stansbury, Peter Lloyd Jones, University of Pennsylvania

Material intensities operate at multiple length scales, over time and across disciplinary boundaries. An inspiring quote by protagonist, Buckminster Fuller, describes this particular scenario. He states, “About 1917, I decided that nature did not have separate, independently operating departments of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, ethics, etc. Nature did not call a department heads’ meeting when I threw a green apple into the pond, with the department heads having to make a decision about how to handle this biological encounter with chemistry’s water and the unauthorized use of the physics department’s waves … nature probably had only one department and only one coordinate, omnirational, mensuration system.” It is not possible to discuss material intensity outside of geometry and energy. Energy, simulation and the environment are topics not regulated to building performance alone because materiality is both scientific and architectural. In addressing material intensities, the problem of sustainability inevitably surfaces and ultimately demands a systemic approach to the design of materials and their affects. This requires trans-disciplinary collaboration and a commitment to design as research and design as process.

For the past six years, I have engaged in work that sits at the forefront of a new direction for 21st-century architectural research practice—one that investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and computation to the design of material structures. This blog post will discuss my latest research project in collaboration with a number of scientists and designers.

Since the official public launch in the fall of 2010 of our National Science Foundation (NSF) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) Science in Energy and Environmental Design (SEED) project titled, Energy Minimization via Multi-Scalar Architectures: From Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins, Jenny E. Sabin (Co-PI) along with Andrew Lucia (Senior Personnel) have led a team of architects, graduate architecture students and researchers in the investigation of biologically-informed design through the visualization of complex data sets, digital fabrication and the production of experimental material systems for prototype speculations of adaptive building skins, designated eSkin, at the macro-building scale. The full team, led by Dr. Shu Yang (PI), is actively engaged in rigorous scientific research at the core of ecological building materials and design. We are exploring materiality from nano- to macroscales based upon understanding of non-linear, dynamic human cell behaviors on geometrically defined substrates. The insights as to how cells can modify their immediate extracellular matrix (ECM) microenvironment with minimal energy and maximal effect have led to initial prototypes that incorporate biomimetic design and engineering of highly aesthetic, passive materials, and sensors and imagers that will eventually be integrated into responsive building skins at the architectural scale.

The Greenhouse Projects installation at the American Philosophical Society Museum, designed by architect and 2010 Pew Fellow Jenny Sabin. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society Museum.

Our architectural research with the scientific team operates within a multi-year and multi-phase research plan. Currently, the project is broken down into three phases including: (1) The production of catalogs of visualization and simulation tools that are then used to discover new behaviors in geometry and matter; (2) an exploration of the material and ecological potentials of these tools through the production of experimental structures and material systems, and (3) generation of scientifically-based, design-oriented applications in contemporary architecture practice for adaptive building skins.

Our project represents a unique, avant-garde model for sustainable design via the fusion of the architectural design studio with laboratory-based scientific research. In turn, this benefits a diverse range of scientific applications and technologies, including the construction of energy efficient and aesthetic building skins and materials. The synergistic, bottom-up approach across diverse disciplines, including cell-matrix biology, materials science & engineering, electrical & systems engineering, and architecture brings about a new paradigm to construct intelligent and sustainable building skins that engage users at an aesthetic level with minimal energy consumption. Our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with pre-designed geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects. This project harnesses these tools and modes of design thinking, and applies them towards the design and engineering of passively responsive materials, and sensors and imagers.

It is well known that buildings in the U.S. alone account for nearly 40% of the total national energy consumption. Therefore, the design and production of new energy efficient technologies is crucial to successfully meet goals such as the Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) put forward by the U.S. DOE, which aims to achieve zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. This will also require a radical departure from traditional research and design models in architecture and science with a move towards hybrid, trans-disciplinary concepts and ways of collaborating.

The Greenhouse Projects installation at the American Philosophical Society Museum, designed by architect and 2010 Pew Fellow Jenny Sabin. Photo courtesy of the American Philosophical Society Museum.

eSkin, a “second skin.” Comprised of a field of low cost sensors, eSkin is generic and homogenously structured upon installation (i.e. laden with the full potential) but readily adaptable to local heterogeneous spatiotemporal conditions, thereby reducing the overall functioning demands upon it and ultimately lowering overall energy consumption. In this regard a “learning” and adaptive second skin forgoes the need for lengthy, costly, and one-time site analysis relegating ever-changing environmental analysis and response of the local and global spatiotemporal environments to its own internal/local functionality. This manner of operation not only maximizes immediate performative efficiency, but also allows for ongoing contextual adaptation, which is not possible by glass fritting alone—an established architectural treatment for passive solar control in the building industry—unless mechanical control in the form of movement is added. We envision that eSkin will have at least two applications: (1) one that may be featured in new building façade construction, housed within glazing features and/or exterior wall construction, and (2) one that will work with existing construction as an external second skin retrofitted to any glazing and exterior wall configuration, as well as to any size or shape from fragment or component to panel or wrap.

We posit that sustainable building practice should not simply be a technical endeavor, but one that also includes the transformation of existing built fabric into sustainable models that inspire both positive socio-cultural change and innovation in science, technology and the material arts. Indeed, material intensities become a vehicle for this change. Professor and architect Michael Hensel, at a recent symposium hosted by the Department of Architecture at Cornell University titled Sustaining Sustainability, recently underscored this notion (see full review by Sabin in The Architectural Review, issue #1381, March 2012). The symposium featured lectures by a diverse group of researchers and practitioners spanning multiple disciplines from biology to architecture who share a common concern for what Hensel has labeled “sustainability fatigue.” This symposium was not centered upon exhausted issues including energy, optimization and performance, which tend to dominate most conferences on sustainability in architecture today, but was instead focused on re-thinking the entire conceptual foundation for the project, one which fundamentally examines our relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with humans. Important to this shift, is a move away from purely technical solutions to environmental sustainability and a move towards an understanding that our built and natural environments are equally becoming the contexts for thriving hybrid ecosystems. In the context of the eSkin project, we hope that the transformation of existing buildings within post-industrial cities with the application of adaptive building skins will not only address the dire need of greener building practices, but will also generate necessary equivalent effects that may foster and inspire urban ecosystems, beauty, collective levity and playfulness at the scale of the city.

Overall, our project addresses energy minimization at multiple scales of architecture by working towards challenging goals such as those put forward by the U.S. DOE. We hope that our interdisciplinary work not only redefines definitions of research and design, but will also address pressing topics in each of our fields concerning key social, environmental and technological issues that ultimately impact building design and the built environment in the context of fluctuating material intensities in biological, material, and architectural paradigms.

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