Conventional building materials are just that, materials or elements that go into a construction project and are used for various purposes, from walls and floors to joists, supports, and ceilings. Even the fixtures, fasteners, and minor materials, like glue, nails, or finish, all fall into the same categories. But, for the most part, that’s where they stop doing anything extraordinary. They form the final project, and hopefully, remain for years and years.
As we look toward the future, there is an increasing focus on sustainable and intelligent buildings. One key aspect of these buildings is the use of smart surfaces — built using smart materials — which can adapt to changing conditions and improve the overall functionality and efficiency of a building. With sustainability on everyone’s mind and eco-conscious practices, we’re now collectively looking for smarter and better materials. There’s more to it, of course, but materials that can offer quite a few additional benefits are the true goal, and when used appropriately they create smart surfaces for smarter buildings overall.
What Are Smart Surfaces?
Smart surfaces are essentially surfaces that can react to their environment in some way. This can include things like changing their shape or color or responding to changes in temperature, light, or humidity. Some smart surfaces can even generate energy or clean the air.
Think of self-healing concrete that repairs itself over time, or piezoelectric materials that can generate an electric field responsive to mechanical forces. Even solar panels are composed of smart materials allowing them to generate energy from the sun’s UV rays. It doesn’t have to be complex either, smart surfaces can be as simple as a top-finish coating applied to say, a roof, to cut down on heat absorption and reduce cooling costs.
Knowing this, here are some classifications of smart surfaces, many of which you can use for your next building project:
Offering incredible convenience to residents and tenants alike, self-cleaning surfaces can repel dirt and dust, keeping them clean with minimal maintenance. This can be achieved through the use of special coatings or materials that are able to resist the adhesion of dirt and other contaminants. While the technology is relatively young, we’re starting to see it used more and more for modern projects, namely in smart windows, and outdoor materials used to protect the walls or roof.
Although somewhat related, hydrophobic coatings are another great example that helps to keep moisture and similarly fluid-based contaminants away from the materials or surfaces in question. A common application for this you might encounter in your daily life is on modern smartphones to add a higher degree of water resistance. Commercially, the technology can be used to repel a great deal of moisture from rain or water buildup on surfaces or around areas of a property.
Not necessarily a standout in terms of the individual benefits offered, opportunistic smart surfaces are meant to enhance the project itself. They’re often tailored to the scope and specifications of the job. A fantastic example of this is when building a playground or play area for small children. Choosing surfaces for the ground cover is a very contentious process. You want it to be supportive but not so hard it might cause injury, so concrete, pavers, and other stone materials are largely out. You also don’t want it to be too slippery, abrasive, or even to build up heat over the course of the day — like when the sun beats down on asphalt.
The best options for a playground are unitary surfacing materials, which offer a more fixed form of ground covering that’s poured in place. Poured rubber granules, rubber tiles, nuggets, and engineered wood fiber surfacing are all great options to consider. The takeaway is that the smart surface is chosen pertaining to the job in question and creates a surface conducive to the primary users or residents, in this case, children playing.
An odd name to be sure, but thermochromic surfaces change color in response to changes in temperature. For example, a thermochromic window might turn darker to reduce the amount of sunlight entering a room on a hot day, and then turn back to a lighter color when the temperature cools down.
The same can be achieved with certain types of paint or finishes to help keep a property cool during hot days, thereby reducing the need for cooling and lowering costs. This has the bonus of being better for the environment by reducing energy consumption — when a climate control system is used less, power consumption decreases.
Considered an offset by some, and similar to thermochromic surfaces, electrochromic surfaces can change color but in response to an electrical current. This could be used to adjust the amount of light entering a room or to create privacy by making a window opaque by activating a low-yield current.
Also referred to as “smart glass” electrochromic materials can be applied in many ways, from windows and smart displays to more efficient wearables like sunglasses. This technology has sweeping implications for large buildings with lots of glass, like skyscrapers. But it can also be used to improve indoor comfort and offer a degree of privacy in various situations, like turning the glass or materials surrounding a cubicle opaque.
Back to sustainability and efficiency, both critical to reducing climate change, another type of smart surface being explored in construction is one that generates energy naturally. These surfaces can generate electricity from sources like sunlight or vibrations. For example, some smart tiles are able to convert the kinetic energy of footsteps into electricity.
It sounds wild or far-fetched but this technology does exist. South Korean engineers have created a cement-based composite that can generate and store electricity. Similarly, bricks and mortar-based components, wood, and other natural materials have shown promise in helping to generate energy.
6. Filtering (Air)
A common concern with indoor environments is the poor air quality and pollution that can build up inside over time. It begs the need to install air purifiers or other systems that can filter out and clean contaminants. But did you know that certain materials have the ability to remove pollutants from the air, just as certain materials can do the opposite — asbestos is a dangerous example.
Built as smart filtering surfaces, this could include things like furniture, carpets, or even walls coated in special materials that can absorb and break down pollutants. The surface filters out the harmful toxins, odors, and contaminants leaving the rest of the space fresh.
Self-repairing materials are pretty self-explanatory, with one of the more obvious forms being self-healing concrete. Over time, due to environmental conditions, ground movement, temperature changes, and other factors, materials can break down or weaken. This might come in the form of a crack or weakened seam.
Self-repairing materials often contain other elements that can help repair damage that appears, like limestone used in concrete — which the ancient Romans used centuries ago. Besides concrete, other self-repairing materials might include steel, structural polymers, biological systems, and beyond. They allow the structures and properties to remain standing indefinitely, with minor maintenance or repairs necessary.
Building A Smarter Future
Overall, the use of smart surfaces in future building projects has the potential to greatly improve the efficiency and functionality of buildings, while also reducing their environmental impact. By incorporating these surfaces into the design of buildings, architects and builders can create structures that are more sustainable, intelligent, and adaptable to changing conditions.
They can also be used to eke out additional benefits from properties and structures that wouldn’t normally provide as such. Some examples include natural energy generation, self-healing properties, air quality and filtering support, and so on. Building a smarter future starts with the materials used, which then enhance or alter the surfaces we come into contact with, regardless of their location, ceiling, walls, floor, or otherwise.