A Look at the Future of Kinetic Architecture

By Jordan Scott

A moving element on a building has the potential to captivate a crowd, building occupants or even passersby, turning that building into a memorable experience. Kinetic façades, moving parts of an edifice that don’t reduce a building’s overall structural integrity, come in several forms. From operable walls and retractable roofs to wind-driven panels, they create constantly changing appearances. These architectural features are being included increasingly in architects’ designs, but will they remain a fixture of architects’ imaginations?

The Wow Factor

Adding movement to a project can enhance an occupant’s experience—a major benefit of including kinetics in a design, according John Lanari, general manager of Enclos kinetics, in Eagan, Minn. Leaving a stadium’s retractable roof open on a mild day, for example, allows for natural temperature regulation, but it could also be closed on a hot day to air condition the stadium for occupant comfort. This can lower the need for active heating and cooling, which can contribute to the LEED certification of a building.

Kevin Smith, director of product application and development at Pitts-burgh-based Extech Inc., says kinetic features make a building memorable.

“I think it gives the designers a completely new tool for developing a façade. And for the owners of the buildings, it can gather a lot of notoriety just be-cause of the unusual nature of a kinetic façade and the ever-changing aesthetic that a kinetic façade presents,” he says.

David Bois, principal at architecture firm Arrowstreet in Boston, designed the kinetic wall for a parking garage at Boston Logan International Airport.

“We studied a lot of different options when we did [the installation] … we realized any place where you have people who spend a fair amount of time, people are going to get a view of this for more than just a few moments,” he says. “We felt that providing something more active with the ability to change actually was much more interesting than providing a static [view], regardless of how beautiful we could make some-thing. With something static, once you see it you understand it. With a kinetic façade, as it changes it really becomes interesting and stays interesting.”

For the Anthem Technology Center, currently under construction in Atlanta, architect Thomas Hardy with Atlanta-based John Portman & Associates intends to feature a kinetic façade within the parking level of the tower.

“The benefit of it is that it makes a visual screen you can’t see through, but it’s porous so the air moves through it. It helps us in terms of fresh air in the parking deck. It becomes a feature rather than something we’re trying to minimize.”

At What Cost?

The experience provided by kinetic façades can come at a cost.

“The cost of a kinetic feature is going to be a much higher percentage than any other part of that building because it re-ally is non repeatable. Nobody is going to build the exact same kinetic feature in another building,” Lanari says. “You have special engineering costs, you have mechanical engineering costs, you have electrical and control engineering costs and it’s significant. There’s a lot of hours in each one of those disciplines that really adds to the cost of the project. That’s what makes it most difficult for an architect or an owner to put a kinetic feature into a building.”

Smith adds, “All wind-driven kinetic façades are panelized and shipped to the site as panels. That’s because we can control the fabrication in the shop, but the panels protect all those elements during transport and installation,” he says. “They generally had a higher price point than some static façades would … and I’m comparing it to rainscreen type façades … but we have developed some recent systems that dramatically reduce the labor intensiveness of the system which reduces their price point. This makes it on par and equal to a lot of static façades that are considered for these types of buildings.”

Design Considerations

Construction and operating tolerances must be taken into account when designing a kinetic feature.

“Typically, if there is an operable element, the construction of that area and of those pieces really require tighter tolerances than a typical building,” says Lanari. “… Also, in the course of the design, there’s the challenge of accommodating those tolerances and making sure that in all situations the equipment still functions.”

Lanari says that openness is a major trend in kinetic architecture as it is in architecture overall. Operable kinetic applications are being designed with more glass and less steel. He anticipates seeing an increasing number of large kinetic elements in buildings going forward.

All parties involved want the kinetic element to last the life of the building, so material selection is critical in the design and implementation, according to Smith.

He says the materials most often used for durability are aluminum, stainless steel and UV-resistant resins.

“The flappers themselves on a wind-driven façade are very often aluminum but we also look at using kynar films or acrylic polycarbonate,” says Smith. “It really depends on the application and what they’re trying to do.”

It’s also important to consider how to replace parts of the façade if necessary.

“A kinetic façade with a few dam-aged elements on it, I’ve always said is similar to a smile with a missing tooth,” says Smith. “It’s very obvious when you … disrupt that grid with some missing or damaged elements. It becomes very disruptive to the whole façade.”

Lasting Impressions

Kinetic façades seem to be growing in popularity, and architects expect that trend to continue.

“We had studied whether or not we could actually harvest energy from the individual movements,” Bois says. “Unfortunately, the systems haven’t quite caught up to us yet so one of our goals is to try to actually create an installation where, in addition to designing an attractive and beautiful façade that’s interesting, it’s actually harvesting energy and acting as an energy source as well.”

Hardy finds kinetic façades to be a fascinating way to show the passive systems surrounding a building.

“Kinetic façades pick up on the passive systems in the air. Any sort of passive forces is not going away. It’s free energy and free movement … any way of capturing the passive forces in a way that is interesting and dynamic is a bonus,” he says. “Those forces are a part of architecture and will always be a part of architecture. The more we can play with those the more we’ll start to see it.”

Lanari also believes that operable applications are here to stay.

“I think it’s a lasting design element. For example, every time a new stadium is built there always seems to be some type of big operable element on it,” says Lanari. Some of those elements include operable end zone walls and retractable roofs.

Smith says the kinetic façades are ever-changing, bringing a unique dynamic to the building aesthetic.

“As more innovative materials come to the marketplace, it also gives us an opportunity to be more creative and designers to be more creative in what we’re able to produce,” he adds.

Lanari adds, “As long as buildings are being built I think that architects really like to push the envelope of what has been done and what can be done … I don’t think a deteriorating economy would hinder that,” he says.

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