Buildings Built By Energy And Light Create A New Type Of Architecture

Architect Sean Lally sees building materials beyond just wood, concrete, and glass.

When most architects think about energy, they’re thinking about how to use less of it. But Chicago-based architect Sean Lally sees energy in a fundamentally different way–as a building material. Lally envisions a future where buildings can be made without walls, and spaces are formed from energy itself.


A streetlight, Lally says, can be seen as a simple example of how space can be formed with energy–the circle cast by the light makes a “room” outside. His designs show how more complex spaces could be built using the same principle.

“When you have a streetlight, you have a boundary, and an interior that gives you safety, or the ability to have recreation or a conversation,” he says. “Architecture can use other energy systems–whether acoustic, electrical, or thermal–to make similar micro-climates outside that can rewrite how we use space.”

The new “buildings” could be used in places like city parks, especially as urban populations grow and there’s more need for shared spaces. A thermal building, for example, might make a park usable in the winter.

“The energy environments can actually disappear as quickly as they can reappear,” Lally says. “Like a street light, you can turn them off or on. When you start thinking about architecture as this nimble product that can create a space, allow people to use it, and then disappear, you have new opportunities for what we think about architecture.”

The architect sees energy as a new type of building material. “I think about it the same way we think about concrete, glass, and steel,” Lally says. “These were materials that didn’t simply reproduce a previous architecture. They gave us new typologies, new ways of merging with social issues, new ways of using space. And energy I think should be seen not as a fuel, which I think is primarily the way it is today, but as something we can actually build with.”

Of course, it’s not exactly efficient to blast something like heat into an open space. But Lally is convinced that new technology will fix that over time. “I think it’s important to trade the inefficiency of these designs to get people excited about what can happen in the future,” he says. Battery life will become more efficient, he believes, as well as how we harness and store energy and how we deploy it.


He also sees his project as a way to inspire people to see energy in a different way. “The idea really is to try to think how energy can move to the forefront of the discussion and get people excited about it, as opposed to only being a moral or ethical dilemma,” he says. “Eventually it could lead to more investment in renewable energy.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.