On Wilhelmsburg Island in Hamburg’s River Elbe, a three-story building seems alive to the elements—shot through with sunlight and sporting a sail-like canopy on its roof. This paradoxically named Soft House, tough enough to withstand the harshest elements and to last for a century, was awarded first prize in the International BauAustellung (IBA) design competition for sustainable urban development and was commissioned by a prestigious European building exhibition.
For one of its principle creators, Sheila Kennedy, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Architecture, the Soft House embodies pathbreaking design ideas she has been researching that mesh resilience, flexibility, and consonance with the natural world. “Our cities need to become more resilient and durable— in essence, softer,” she says.
Kennedy and other architects had long sought ways of freeing our built environment from fossil fuel dependence. “Technology alone won’t help accelerate the culture shift necessary to make this transition… Architects are well positioned to create new ideas that will help people take up the infrastructure transition in their daily lives.”
A decade ago, the introduction of photovoltaics, LEDs, and other energy-efficient components gave Kennedy a powerful insight: These new technologies were in fact, material—and could be integrated into building materials, advancing the infrastructure transition. After renovating an old Boston bottling plant, Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) set up prototyping workshops, “a digital design and fabrication facility and a skunk works for electronics,” says Kennedy. In this laboratory for new, disruptive ideas, KVA “abolished the disciplinary categorization between technology and architecture, creating a new model of practice,” Kennedy says.
In this incubator, KVA cooked up designs to disrupt and upend architectural convention, generating viable building components by taking traditional building materials and integrating “smart” features into them. KVA takes the position that “architecture can be enduring and simple, and that infrastructure should be more mobile and networked, enabling it to be updated regularly.” From this principle flowed the notion that there should be “more physical engagement with infrastructure in architectural design,” says Kennedy, so people “interact with the new infrastructure in design elements they find pleasurable and compelling.”
The Soft House neatly captures this strategy: A dynamic canopy made of textile strips embedded with photovoltaic cells tracks the sun like a flower to maximize solar energy harvest and admit light and shade into the house. Residents can adjust this canopy to change the view. Inside, moveable curtains integrate LEDs for lighting, and partition living spaces according to residents’ daily needs. Powered by the solar canopy, curtains also reflect heat in cold weather to create local climate zones. The house, made of solid, sustainably harvested soft wood, incorporates environmental sensors and wireless Internet connectivity. When bad weather approaches, its canopy pulls in automatically, like a boat with sails. “Instead of the HVAC unit on the roof,” says Kennedy, “we have a house that connects people with wild, urban nature.”
Kennedy is excited about extending resilient and adaptive design principles to bigger projects—mid-height buildings, for instance. New ventures may incorporate low-carbon, inexpensive biomaterials, such as seaweed insulation, courtesy of MIT researchers. The infrastructure transition won’t happen instantly, but, says Kennedy, “We live in a time that when something material is made, it speaks to others. Objects and buildings are powerful, and they will be copied, which is good.”