Hot to Trot

A dance floor that harnesses people power, and other engineering innovations in action

Tensegrity Model

Tristan d''Estree Sterk

Tension and integrity are more than just what you might encounter in a day at the office. According to physics-centric artist Kenneth Snelson, the characteristics combine to form tensegrity, a principle based on strength and adaptability. Snelson uses it in reference to materials, but that mix can also come in handy in the workplace, especially in today's economy.

You're not the only one adjusting to leaner times in this sharp downturn: buildings are also feeling the weight of the cash crunch. But, thanks to an inventive crop of architects and engineers, there may be a silver lining, in the form of human-powered entertainment venues, environmentally sensitive walls, and unusual takes on traditional construction materials.

The lack of monetary green highlights the need for green-centric solutions to saving energy in new construction. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is gaining ground, but today's engineers are thinking beyond basic standards.

An exhibition at New York's Center for Architecture, called "Make It Work. Engineering Possibilities," looks at high-tech, common-sense inventions that jibe with the earth, wind and heat of the sun -- and make buildings hum. Here are a few futuristic constructions already making their mark:

Fancy Footing
Harnessing human energy doesn't have to be hard work. A sustainable dance floor at Club WATT in Rotterdam, the Netherlands makes boogieing down synonymous with powering up. Dancers strut their stuff on a sustainable dance floor made of electronics with embedded software components, which move up to a centimeter as feet fall on them. An electric motor converts these movements into electric power. The energy generated lights up the dancing surface, indicating just how "hot" the night is. The technology is available for rentals in the United States.

Walls That Listen
The Philadelphia architectural firm KieranTimberlake developed SmartWrap to slenderize traditional walls without sacrificing function. The thin sandwich of polyester polymers packs an energy-efficient punch. It combines phase-change materials, which regulate temperatures as they change from liquid to solid states, with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology which displays readouts on temperature and environmental conditions.

Translucent Concrete

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Kinder, Stronger Concrete
It's not just opaque anymore. Glass fibers can be added to the mix, for fortification and translucency. That's just one of the innovations in the cement-mortar marriage. Another one is Ductal concrete, designed to be 6 to 8 times more resistant to abrasion, pollution and scratching than its conventional cousin. How do engineers do it? Ductal concrete contains metal fibers that make it ductile, or transformable. Those fibers give the tough stuff more give, making it flexible and stronger. Its manufacturer, Lafarge, says Ductal concrete (also known as ultra-high performance, fiber-reinforced concrete) can stand up to bending and breaking far better than traditional concrete because it has 5 to 10 times the compressive strength of conventional concrete, without any added weight.

There's no need to wait to see it in action. Ductal concrete has been used in a footbridge in Calgary, Canada; detail work at Pavillon de l'Arsenal Museum in Paris; and in the parking garage at nearby Orly Airport. Vive la difference.