Evolving the Building Skin

December 07, 2016

If we are to advance a sustainable future, buildings must become more proactive organisms than reactive machines. Human comfort increasingly relies on technological interactions, raising expectations for responsive building performance. At the same time, the well-documented depletion of natural resources and the environmental impact of making and operating buildings are degrading the natural ecosystem. Day-to-day climate conditions and extreme occurrences are increasingly variable. For architects and engineers, the combination of these phenomena has increased unpredictability, requiring us to respond to ever-expanding performance criteria that are neither constant nor predictable. Building skins that are designed to physically last thirty or fifty years can become obsolete in ten or less as unforeseen needs surpass their capabilities. We need a better practical solution, and EYP is leading the way in reimagining the very process of design and how we approach it.

The Status Quo

Architectural design has traditionally resulted in singular and limited solutions to the built environment. The resulting objects are static and inflexible from inception throughout their lifetime, lacking a means to reassess and respond to changing needs, criteria, or environmental conditions. These types of immutable solutions, which preclude any modifications to the architecture to ensure design currency and relevance, inevitably lead to obsolescence.

As designers, we tend to develop solutions that most effectively respond to current and near-future challenges… and hope for permanence. Given the rapidly accelerated pace of technological advances and their associated sociological and environmental effects, the near-future has become compressed, making it increasingly difficult to predict variabilities and plan accordingly.

Re-balancing Act

We need to reach a better equilibrium of the social, built, and natural ecosystems. Integrated design must therefore become an evolutionary process not limited to criteria contemporary with project completion. Buildings are no longer just machines for living, nor do they only provide simple protective barriers for their inhabitants. To be effective, built solutions now require an ongoing evaluation of needs and a constant rebalancing of responses to current conditions as they change. Effectively meeting these emerging needs requires a fundamental redefinition of building skins as complex, self-aware organisms capable of responding to multiple internal and external stimuli; and adapting effectively and efficiently to their environments.

Responsive Design

To remain effective and relevant in the face of unpredictability, the building skin must automatically act to:

  1. Generate resources by harvesting and recycling available natural resources
  2. Evolve and adapt to new, ongoing and unpredictable inputs
  3. Interface with and learn from a continuous dialogue with the individual to assure comfort


This level of active performance represents a paradigm shift in the definition of the building skin as an organism that learns and reacts accordingly in order to survive and thrive.

Purposeful Design

Re-evaluating our design focus is the first step towards transforming buildings to meet these critical challenges. We place too much emphasis on patterning the massing simply to sheath the internal workings of a building. Creating a top-down methodology and more holistic approach will enable purposeful design - an approach rooted in rigorous multi-modal analysis. In focusing on purpose, experience, and the ongoing resolution of needs and requirements, we could minimize arbitrary interpretations primarily focused on geometric exercises solely as a means to shaping the building exterior. We must first and foremost address the well-being of the individual. Purposeful design can inform the optimal balance between maximizing building performance and enhancing the human experience.