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News > Advancing Architecture and Design > Exploring the Frontiers of Materials and Structures at Penn

Exploring the Frontiers of Materials and Structures at Penn

Photo Eric Sucar.
Photo Eric Sucar.

As architects are increasingly expected to deliver net-zero or carbon-neutral buildings, faculty and graduate student researchers at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn are reimagining the tools and techniques that shape the built environment at every conceivable scale, from the molecular to the planetary. Their innovations stand to revolutionize not just design and construction, but also the documentation and interpretation of architecture.

The platform for much of this activity is Weitzman’s Advanced Research & Innovation Lab, directed by Miller Professor and Chair of Architecture Winka Dubbeldam. Dubbeldam is founding principal at Archi-Tectonics, the New York-based firm responsible for the design of the 19th Asian Games eco-park in Hangzhou, China, and she has been a longtime champion of design-research, much of which is captured in Pressing Matters, the annual publication of the Department of Architecture. In addition to Pressing Matters, Weitzman’s annual Year End Show combines a temporary in-person exhition with a virtual gallery to documents studio-based research.

Led by William Braham, prrofessor of architecture, the Center for Environmental Building and Design (CEBD) is the longstanding hub at Penn for research dedicated to improving the environmental future of contemporary buildings and cities. The CEBD’s intersiciplinary teams are working on building products and components, such as responsive building skins, advanced glass; building performance and design, including energy, daylighting and air flow analysis; management strategies for large collections of buildings; Urban and Regional assessment, land use strategies, resource allocation, and decision making for resilient development; and more. The CEBD is responsible for the accounting dimension of Penn’s Cliamte and Sustainability Action Plans, and Braham also directs the Master in Environmental Building Design program.

In the realm of materials and structures, Rob Stuart-Smith, assistant professor of architecture and director of the Master of Science in Design: Robotics and Autonomous Systems program, is combining robotics, computation, sensor and computer vision technologies. He and his team at the Autonomous Manufacturing Lab have developed a system that allows swarms of flying drones to print geometric structures. Called aerial additive manufacturing, the system could dramatically increase the efficiency of construction for post-disaster relief, tall buildings, or infrastructure. Stuart-Smith’s team is also using robotic technology to prototype a modular dwelling whose components are made of precast concrete, so they can be assembled on site. The environmental impact to the site would be minimized, and the components could be disassembled and re-assembled, eliminating concrete waste.

The application of robotics, integrated with interaction and embedded intelligence, to both design and fabrication takes a different form in the work of Associate Professor of Architecture Simon Kim at his team at Immersive Kinematics. Among the devices and experiences his team has produced are stage designs, nonhuman performers, and interactive instruments for theatrical events. Kim is among several Weitzman faculty working with researchers at Penn Engineering, particularly the GRASP Lab.

Masoud Akbarzadeh and Dorit Aviv, both assistant professors of architecture, and their collaborators are developing a method that would turn buildings into carbon sinks. With support from the US Department of Energy, they’re working to combine an innovative structural system with a carbon-absorbing concrete. Their approach would not only reduce the amount of material required in buildings’ construction and reduce the energy needs of buildings, it would enable carbon-negative architecture. Two other strands of Akbarzadeh’s research to optimize resources and materials are focused on high-performance glass and multi-filament 3D printing. Meanwhile, Aviv and her team have also developed a novel design for buildings in desert climates that combines a roof aperture and an oculus. During the day, the aperture acts as an adaptive windcatcher, trapping the hot, dry air. At night, pockets of enclosed hydrogel encapsulated in the roof’s frame are exposed to radiative cooling from the night sky and act as thermal storage. 

Akbarzadeh’s work is undertaken at the Polyhedral Structures Lab, which is based at the Pennovation Center, and Aviv’s at the Thermal Architecture Lab. PSL sits at the intersection of architecture, structural and mechanical engineering, computer science, mathematics, and material science, and aims to bridge the gap between design and engineering by advancing structural geometry and reconciling function, form, technology, and energy. Similarly, TAL focuses on the intersection of thermodynamics, architectural design, and material science

Also in the realm of materials innovation, Laia Mogas-Soldevila, assistant professor of architecture, is translating innovations in medicine using bio-based and bio-degradable materials to the design and construction of buildings. She and her team at DumoLab are developing materials to passively identify threats in indoor air and correct their toxicity with aroma-active molecule release. For Sensbiom, they’ve successfully prototyped 3D printed aroma-infused lattices of two types: biopolymer blends aiming to replace fossil fuel plastics, and water-based biocomposites.

Faculty researchers are also engaged in learning lessons from historic structures and the architectural canon. Through his Baroque Topologies initiative, Associate Professor of Architecture Andrew Saunders explores how technologies such as high-resolution 3D digital scanning and printing provide unprecedented access to Baroque architecture’s formal complexities, intricate detail, and deep topological structure.

Parallel to Weitzman’s innovations in materials and structures, faculty and students also have a robust research agenda in architectural history and theory. This work is largely under the umbrella of the Graduate Group in Architcture, chaired by Associate Professor of Architecture Franca Trubiano. Trubiano’s latest book, Building Theories: Architecture as the Art of Building, offers a close reading of texts from antiquity, the Renaissance, and the 19th century to the 1960s, to suggest how the interdependence of design and construction might be more carefully considered in contemporary architecture theory.

The scope of innovation in architecture at Weitzman continues to expand with the appointment of new faculty members. Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen, a specialist in computational design who is the founder and head of the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy, joined the faculty in the Department of Architecture in 2022, and has led studios focused on novel resources, or novel resource streams, and how they change the way we think about how architecture performs. Also joining the faculty in 2022 was Assistant Professor of Architecture Daniela Fabricius, a historian and theorist whose work takes an interdisciplinary approach to the political, intellectual, and aesthetic histories of 20th-century architecture and urbanism. She is working on a book entitled The Ethics of Calculation: Architecture and Rationalism in Postwar Germany, which examines the implications and contradictions of rationalism in the context of postwar West German culture and politics, and an edited volume of the work of the feminist architectural theorist Jennifer Bloomer.


Triskeles Bridge, a conceptual design for a funicular spatial bridge that spans over three support locations in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland by the Polyhedral Structures Lab.

Sensbiom, a prototyped design for 3D printed aroma-infused lattices by DumoLab Research. (Photo Adam Sakovy)

The Robotics Lab at Penn.




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