Chuck Hoberman’s Buildings Adapt to the Environment

Design guru Chuck Hoberman’s latest venture: buildings that can adapt to the environment

You could reasonably argue that in Chuck Hoberman’s book of virtues, flexibility would be number one. The latest mission for the transformable-design
guru — who has created everything from huge collapsible domes to a giant expandable video screen for U2 — is the Adaptive Building Initiative (ABI), an effort to equip big buildings everywhere with skins that move. “If a building can change, it can respond to the environment and self-optimize,” he says. His ABI cofounders at the engineering firm Buro Happold estimate that the facade of a building can account for more than half its energy use, depending on how it deals with heat and light. The ABI’s new computer-controlled shading systems and glass sheaths with expandable frit patterns can boost a facade’s energy efficiency by up to 20%.


To make their concept easy to implement — and buy — Hoberman and Buro Happold are focused on mass-producing preassembled units that can be plugged into existing buildings or added to new designs. “The potential scale is enormous,” Hoberman says. “It’s hundreds of thousands of millions of square feet, if you get it right. And the dollars follow from that.” Here’s a look at three early adopters.

City of Justice
Madrid (2011 completion)

ABI is installing 27,000 square feet of Adaptive shading in two glass-roofed Foster + Partners buildings on Madrid’s City of Justice campus, the new home for Spain’s Supreme Court.

As the sun moves overhead, a computer system continually adjusts the shades. Light is allowed to filter into the atrium, but the technology deploys enough shades to prevent offices from overheating.


The hexagonal shading units, made of steel and aluminum, fold flat and vanish into the roof’s structure when closed. A servomotor built into each unit needs only minimal power to extend or retract the shade.

POLA Building
Tokyo (completed October 2009)

ABI’s first finished project, this tower by Nikken Sekkei and Yasuda Atelier, features automated polycarbonate shutters sandwiched between two glass layers. During the day, light sensors adjust the shutters to keep out heat and light; at night, the facade lights up, and the moving shutters put on an LED show.

Aldar Central Market
Abu Dhabi (2011 completion)

In this open-air market, also designed by Foster + Partners, a grid-based system of sliding steel shutters will automatically control not only light but also ventilation, while creating a movable coffered roof overhead.


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.