The Smart Home

Little Plastic Houses for You and Me

by John MacNeill

John MacNeill

The next time you close your eyes and imagine your house of the future, picture a bunch of soda bottles. That´s essentially what Philadelphia architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake have been working with in their quest to identify materials, technologies and mass-manufacturing techniques that they expect will reinvent their profession. Their research has led to several design awards and, most recently, to an innovation they call SmartWrap.

Designed as an exterior skin that would be stretched taut over an aluminum frame, like nylon over tent poles, SmartWrap consists of two layers of a polyester film called PET--the same clear plastic used in soda bottles. The idea is to use the thin, flexible film as a substrate onto which micro-components for lighting, heating, energy storage and even information display can be printed, like ink on paper. The result will be electronic walls that are inexpensive and infinitely customizable both at the manufacturing stage and at home, so that you could, for instance, program one side of the living room to be a built-in movie screen or turn an entire side of the house into a window at the flick of a switch.

SmartWrap is structured as a PET sandwich with a two-inch-thick space between the layers. The inside layer of PET will be quilted with pillows of aerogel, a highly porous silica (it´s 99.8 percent air) that was developed by NASA as insulation for the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover. The two-inch barrier has the same insulation factor as a 17-inch-thick concrete-and-brick wall filled with polystyrene insulation (the pink fluffy stuff). The PET is coated with a clear resin containing micro-capsules of phase-change materials, which absorb ambient heat during the day and release it when the temperature drops at night, turning the walls themselves into a heating element (although you´ll still need a heating and cooling system).

Organic photovoltaic solar cells, or OPVs, would be printed on exterior sun-facing surfaces to harvest energy and to power the OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays and lighting patterns on the inside. These solar cells work on roughly the same principle as the silicon solar cells you´re familiar with, but they´re far less expensive. Instead of being manufactured at 572