Responsive Architecture

Architecture that is capable of responding to changing conditions is not a new concept.  Responsive architecture, a term dating back more than 40 years, has its roots in the writings of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab.  Beginning with The Architecture Machine (1970), Negroponte proposed “that responsive architecture is the natural product of the integration of computing power into built spaces and structures” (Sterk 2003).  Noting that Negroponte’s work came about long before developments such as robotics and artificial intelligence became mainstream, Sterk develops a model for responsive architecture that investigates how buildings can respond to the needs and wants of related stakeholders to connect “user needs to actual building components and their responsive behaviours” (2003).

The concept of responsive architecture is related to our thesis to the degree that it concerns the relationship of form to time and the forces at forces that are at play in a given context.  Sterk and his firm ORAMBRA (The Office of Robotic Architectural Media & Bureau for Responsive Architecture) seem to be primarily concerned with developing responsive kinetic structures in order to respond to environmental factors with the goal of improving efficiency and reducing carbon footprint.  While this is an important topic, environmental forces are just one class of forces that have an impact on form.  Needs and wants of users, in the programmatic sense, are another.  We hope to consider how form can respond to a multiplicity of forces over time as well as the nature of the impact that such a responsive form has on authorship.

Nevertheless, there are a number of projects that could be labeled responsive architecture that are of interest to us.

Prairie House by ORAMBRA 

Prairie House by ORAMBRA

Prairie House by ORAMBRA

This house in Northfield, IL implements an actuated tensegrity structural system that allows the envelope of the building to expand during hotter seasons and contract during colder seasons in order to reduce cooling and heating loads.  The website for the project highlights the house’s performance.  “That the shape of a building is intimately tied to its performance has been known since people started to build, what has not been known is that we can use this principle to drive a fundamentally different type of architecture.”

The form of this house is shaped primarily by the forms that its type of tensegrity structure can assume.  In other words, contextual forces impacting form are being ordered by the environmental forces that require the implementation of this specific form.  A hierarchy of values results in a prioritization of concerns and responses.

Pneumatic Envelope by RAD

Students at the University of Toronto’s Responsive Architecture at Daniels program have developed a group of projects that were featured in a published volume titled the living, breathing, thinking, responsive buildings of the future (el-Khoury, Marcopoulos and Moukheiber 2012).  One of these, called Pneumatic Envelope, combines a series of translucent plastic membrane cells with differing levels of opacity that can be inflated individually to modulate light and provide varying thermal characteristics.  These can be assembled as a wall or a window or both.

While a focus on environmental responsiveness is no longer a part of our thesis work, this project is interesting in its use of embedded technology to control the individuated responses of the wall/window elements.  With the low cost of such components we will likely be using similar technology in our own investigations over the next few months.


Sterk, T. (2003). Building upon negroponte: A hybridized model of control suitable for responsive architecture. Digital Design [21th eCAADe Conference Proceedings / ISBN 0-9541183-1-6], pp. 407-414