High-tech wall that’s a wrap

James Timberlake GAr’77 calls building materials with only one function “dumb.” Materials that contain embedded technology and have multiple functions are therefore “smart.” A “smart” wall, for example, can contain electronic data while screening the light, or it can block wind and simultaneously give an accurate temperature reading.

Now everyone interested in a building material that can multitask can see SmartWrap up close, in an Institute of Contemporary Art installation running through April 4. SmartWrap, a very thin polymer-based building material embedded with technology that captures and stores energy, will be displayed in the lobby, with the “smart” working panel on display in the main window. “We’ve tried to make it as artful as we possibly can for them,” said Timberlake. “They’re used to displaying information and art and this crosses over into technology as well.”

Timberlake and Steven Kieran GAr’76, principal partners in the award-winning architecture film KieranTimberlake Associates, are hardly strangers to innovative design. In their book, “refabricating ARCHITECTURE” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), they argue that the time is ripe for a reevaluation of traditional design and construction methods.

Material of the future?

The evolution of their alternative building material, SmartWrap, began about five years ago, when they were conducting a master’s research laboratory in the School of Design.

But is it really possible that the future may lie in the very same plastic film used to make soda bottles?

We think this is the building material of the future,” said Timberlake. “Ultimately, we think that this has the potential of replacing nearly every kind of building material.” The team knows already that SmartWrap, when wrapped around a metal scaffolding and left outside, has the capability of withstanding a Category 3 hurricane, as it did during the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum installation last summer.

As they have created it, OLEDs, or organic light-emitting displays, thin film batteries and wiring are actually printed on the plastic as green, yellow and black squares. Timberlake explained that printing the technology on the plastic is not unlike the process on a desktop printer. “It’s virtually the same thing. The difference is the scalability,” he said. “What we have is a material that might be on a roll, that’s moving not through one printing process, but anywhere from three to five.” The roll of plastic, complete with embedded technology, can itself be rolled and easily transported to a building site.

Timberlake said SmartWrap is appropriate for any structure, from small homes to high-rise office buildings. While marketing the futuristic building material may be five or six years away, Timberlake noted that so far, the interest has been great. “I think people are interested how it might be appropriate beyond an installation at an art museum,” he said.

For more information on the installation, visit the ICA’s web site, www.icaphila.org.