Making Greener Building Skins Humanlike

We all know how important perspiration is to human thermoregulation. But there are subtle cellular responses, too, that help us adjust when the temperature rises (or falls). It’s that dynamic process that University of Pennsylvania researchers are interested in, and are hoping to one day translate into materials for next-generation buildings with increased energy efficiency. The National Science Foundation has handed over $2 million to see what they can come up with.

“Through analyzing several of the body’s functions—how human pulmonary artery vascular smooth muscle cells contract or relax, for example—we will attempt to transfer this fine-scale design ecology to the macro-scale design of adaptive building skins,” Penn scientist Shu Yang says in a university press release. “Our hope is that buildings may one day respond to environmental factors like heat, humidity and light and respond to them most efficiently.”

image via University of Pennsylvania

How novel is this branch of green-buildings research? Well, consider that the collaboration will involve scientists from Penn’s School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine; the School of Design; the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering.

While the primary goal of the four-year study is to gain insight into the physical and chemical means by which cells alter their surroundings, there’s also a bit of a PR aspect to it. The grant includes funding to get out word about the research—through, for example, websites like Sabin+Jones LabStudio—in the hope of exciting the public and other scientists and inspiring further exploration like it.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.