Student Invents Shapeshifting Pinecone-Inspired Building Material

Let the sun shine in, and keep the rain out
Shapeshifting Material
A new material changes shape when wet, a property that has numerous uses in design and around the house. Chao Chen

This might be one of the cooler student projects we’ve ever seen — and it all started with a walk in the park.

Chao Chen, a Master’s student in design at London’s Royal College of Art, was inspired by an ordinary pinecone he saw in Hyde Park. Pinecones close when wet, and Chen decided to see if he could mimic the movement for a class project.

He discovered that by layering a veneer, fabric, and a thin layer of film together he could make a material that reacted just like the pinecone to water: opening on sunny days, and curling in the presence of water.

The material is still very much in the prototype phase, Chen told Co.Design. “The material needs to be more durable. I need to test how many times it can get wet, how it can deal with heavy winds.”

But he does have some ideas for what it could be in the future. In his Water Reactions project, Chen developed three ideas:

  1. Perfect for a Picnic A shelter that would let sunlight in on sunny days, and close if it started to rain.
  2. Rainy Days A surface that would curl up in the rain to show a brightly colored surface underneath, potentially brightening an otherwise dreary day. (See the video below)
  3. Plant Rescue A strip of the material with colors on each side that can tell you if your plant needs water. If it’s curved, the plant is happy. If it’s straight, the plant needs water now.

Watch the material in action: