The Stratus Project, Geoff Thün and Kathy Velikov
The Stratus Project develops a kinetic interior envelope, seemingly alive with sensors and intelligence, set into motion based on sensory input to affect the atmosphere that it surrounds, and in continual information exchange and dialogue with breather and environment. The fully realized system will develop a series of immersive layers, from a sensing, breathing and energy scavenging ground plane to a deep enveloping soffit, considering the material design of both that which is sensed – surfaces, atmospheres, thermal gradients and light – and that which lies beyond our sensory capabilities – aerosols, energies, transmission and radiation waves.
The first prototype is comprised of a thickly arrayed suspended textile consisting of a tensegrity-based structural weave, diffusing membranes and breathing cells. Physical presence of the breather, as well as environmental conditions such as temperature, light, carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants, are measured through a distributed network of sensors that communicate with actuators to trigger fans supplying or extracting air, and lights illuminating the occupied space.
Environmental Design, Serial Fabrication, Responsive Systems, New Material Assemblies and Interactive Media.
The Stratus Project and its surrounding research aims to attune our attention to our immediate air-based environment and to the physical conditions that produce it. One of the project’s primary goals is to make apparent the conditions of interior air, as well as the agency of the occupant on those conditions. The work considers a relationship in which the atmosphere responds to and communicates with the breather, in real-time material and information exchange. The project is also interested in exploring how soft systems might interact spatially and aesthetically with their hard, or mechanical counterparts and what might be the material and spatial possibilities if, the mechanical apparatus, is not entirely sublimated – shrouded, blurred or buried – or, presenced merely as a matter of fact assemblage of machine parts.
From the perspective of building science, the project is concerned with mediating indoor air quality and occupant comfort, and on providing live air quality information to the occupant in both analog and haptic ways. Through the gross movement of the ceiling, the volume of conditioned space is altered in response to occupation. Microfans respond to increases in temperature altering perceptions of comfort and reducing the duration of cooling demand. LED lighting arrays respond and pair illumination with the presence of the body. A distributed approach to the provision of the air proposes to adjust in real time mechanical response to situational need.
The first phase of the Stratus Project has been installed at the Architecture Gallery in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. While the compressed period of project development relative to construction of the first prototype would typically consist of longer periods of R&D relative to the construction of an entire system, the premise of research through making reveals a range of tectonic, logistical and performance refinements that would not necessarily reveal themselves were the work pursued through design and simulation alone. The first phase of work involved the primary structural weave, the expanded matrix of actuated breathing cells, simple sensors, actuators, lights and fans. Future research will include experimentation with the controlling script that drives the system’s response so that it could learn over time, as well as developing further ways to affect the ‘design’ of gaseous agents. The first prototype cells have been constructed in translucent material, in order to test simple light diffusion, actuation and airflow. The next iteration will consider these cells as more complex membranes, able to register information, either biologically or electronically, and will involve feedback from fluid dynamic testing to refine their form. Liquid applied phase change materials will be incorporated in the fabric light diffusing skins in order to mitigate temperature extremes. The sensor network will ultimately be self-powered and wireless to avoid cumbersome connections to data and power grids. Low-level energy harvesting from the surroundings will also be investigated.
As a seed project, the development of a fully operational prototype has been of great value to the overall work. It provides a construct that can be dynamically evaluated in terms of proposed performance, raises a range of critical questions around physical and digital interactions and conflicts between project components, and forms a locus for discussion and evaluation with collaborating peers.
Construction Methods, Materials Used, Research
Construction methods: Digital design and fabrication tools including use of Grasshopper (a Rhino plug-in), Laser Cutters, CNC Mill, Die Cutting, Arduino Microcontrollers, Servo Motors, Processing software
Materials used: Simi-rigid vinyl film, acrylic, wood, steel, lycra, mechanical and electronic equipment
Disciplinary Research: Research in the culture and design history of air and atmosphere, responsiveness and cybernetics in architecture as well as tensegrity structures and weaves.
RVTR: Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov [leads] Zain AbuSeir, Mary O’Malley Matt Peddie, Colin Ripley [design research collaborators] F. Parke MacDowell [fabrication + animation] James Christian, Christopher Parker, Jason Prasad [programming + actuation] Sara Dean, Jessica Mattson, Dan McTavish, Christopher Niswander, Lisa Sauve, Adam Smith [assembly]
Funding: University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Research Through Making Grant – Dean Monica Ponce de Leon; University of Michigan Office of the Vice President for Research Small Projects Grant