Advances in materials science and computer technology have had a huge impact on wall design. And there’s much more to come.

The American Heritage College Dictionary defines a wall as “an upright structure serving to enclose, divide, or protect an area, esp. a vertical construction forming an interior partition or exterior siding of a building.”

Looking back in time, we can see that the design of this upright structure has been limited by technology. Building materials were constrained by what was available in the local area, and construction techniques were constrained by the capability of the mechanic. This is evident in different construction types. From stone to plaster to shoji screen, wall assembly design has been limited to material availability as well as our understanding of functional capabilities and installation options.

Technology can be seen as a wall itself: It enclosed our thinking of this “upright structure” and served as a divide keeping us from perceiving what could be a wall’s ultimate integrated functional potential. Historically, interior walls were flat vertical planes because technology limited design to rectilinear concepts. From masonry to open framing, the elements themselves came in linear form.

Exponential advances in materials science, modeling, and analysis have allowed design teams to think through potential solutions in different ways. This change is true in the way building product manufacturers approach new product development and the way a design team formulates the next plan and executes construction. New technologies have transformed structural design far beyond post and beam, allowing architects and designers to create buildings such as the Swiss Re in London and the Mode Gakuen Spiral Towers in Nagoya-Shi, Japan.

Recently, we heard a presentation from Cary Johnson, senior associate from the Chicago office of Gensler. “It is not an orthogonal world,” he said, and provided examples of many current projects where the building is not a traditional rectangular structure. If, as demonstrated by new Shanghai Center, the exteriors of buildings are evolving, then why shouldn’t interior spaces reflect a curvilinear structure?

Rafael Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects says that good design provides a natural look. Evidence of the origin of the materials should be expressed, with a natural randomness to pattern. There would seem to be a paradox in this concept, for we train craftspeople to create the perfect flat plane — one without blemish. Where is the natural randomness? This concept clearly challenges the traditional flat plane, monolithic vertical surface.

Materials science, in a sense, has come of age. Lars Lerup, dean emeritus of Rice University’s School of Architecture, once said, “Material science may very well hold the key to meet tomorrow’s needs.” The application of nanotechnology into building materials has created the opportunity for greater weight-to-strength ratios in materials. This allows designers to use traditional materials such as steel, concrete, and even gypsum in more unique applications. Longer spans and thinner shells are examples.  Nanotechnology is already being employed to produce exceptionally high strength-to-weight ratio wall panels. We can just imagine what additional functionality might be enabled at the nano scale.

The dictionary notes that a wall protects an area, which brings to mind security. Will materials science allow us to develop designs in which physical security is transparent? We recently discussed blast resistance as it relates to biomimicry with Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Guild. Benyus noted that in nature there are species that in their normal state have soft, pliable bodies which harden into impenetrable fortresses when threatened. Is it possible for us to duplicate that concept using polymer technology in construction?

Again harkening to biomimicry, as a snake sheds its skin, so may the wall of the future remove unwanted substances from its surface. Technology already exists for self-cleaning materials. A natural extension is to take the concept to a wall membrane.

Nature can provide direction and inspiration for the future. Consider the chameleon and its ability to change color. In the next generation of wall technology, color — or rather ease of color change — will be significant. Imagine a wall that can be black one second and white the next. Imagine having any color wall at the touch of a button. We have this choice now on our computer desktops. Why can’t we have it for every wall in a living or a non-residential space such as health care and office environments?

Current wall designs cover the specific attributes of life safety, acoustics, and thermal and moisture resistance passively. Fire resistance and sound attenuation characteristics are inherent in the materials that make up the wall and the way the materials are assembled. Open-frame wall construction is often used to provide space for utilities within the wall cavity. That is, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing conduits are hidden in the cavity of the open-frame partition. This functionality is considered more active.

Consider the wall as a lighting element. On one hand, it can provide luminosity to channel natural light well within the floor plate. On the other, it can serve as task lighting, providing focused light anywhere along the wall area. Imagine the need for task lighting has changed; it’s required in a different location in the space. The light is transferred to the new location. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer University is combining solid state and light-emitting diode (LED) technologies and exploring new ways of illuminating space. Heating and cooling can be facilitated along the surface area. Trombe walls have been in existence for many years, and they have the ability to re-radiate solar energy as heat. However, that is passive; what if the wall sensed temperature shifts and focuses heat at specific locations and time.

One design issue today is moisture migration through the exterior envelope. The determination of the need for and placement of vapor retarders can be challenging. Vapor drives can change with the seasons in certain climates, which can change the ideal location for the vapor retarder. What if the wall could sense vapor drive direction and determine the appropriate location for the film. This technology could be used primarily in exterior walls, but there are interior applications as well.

The wall of the future will be fully integrated, combining active and passive characteristics to provide a medium that will support all the needs within the space.

Construction techniques are changing now and will change even more in the future. We recently interviewed Jens Mammen, a principal with SmithGroup of Chicago. He foresees a time soon when buildings will be assembled rather than erected. The performance requirements placed on our inhabited interior space are reaching higher levels of complexity. This is a natural evolution based on the ever increasing knowledge we gain of the interior environment. The level of complexity is inversely proportional to the time demands placed on design and installation. That will drive us to a plug-and-play process for finishing interior space. Prefabrication is not a new concept, but it soon could be reality with finished fully integrated interior walls.

Flexibility of walls is a growing trend and need. Architects and facility managers constantly comment on the need for more flexibility within spaces. The wall is no longer an obstruction or a barrier. It becomes an integrated portion of usable space. Soon, structures will be built with walls that transform. The idea of movable walls within a space is nothing new. What is new is the technology to make walls transform: The classroom during the day transforms to a community center at night. Small motors can create the torque required to allow materials once considered rigid and grounded to move. What does this mean? Two rooms could be combined at the touch of a button. A room that serves one purpose could be transformed for another. The creation of this duality gives another dimension to an otherwise flat surface known as the wall.
Sustainability practices have altered the design process for walls. It has made us think of new ways of constructing and even deconstructing walls. Material selection will no longer be a commodity. Why should we deplete resources that are not renewable? Most structures have a shelf life, and only recently have we begun to explore what this means. Our reliance on unsustainable practices will come to an abrupt end when we run out of raw materials. W. Cecil Steward, president of the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, has voiced the need for the development of wall assemblies that are deconstructible. Walls of the future will have to be deconstructed as easy as they are built; reusability will be a key design component.

Consider how, during the concept and design stages, walls have been drawn and redrawn. Walls were drawn by hand, and changes required an eraser. Walls are now drawn by computer programs. When a change is needed, edits happen with a few keystrokes or mouse movements. And with building information modeling, not just the lines that represent a wall but all data about it can be updated instantly. Is it too far-fetched to think that software will exist that can read a designer’s thoughts about how a wall is to be assembled? Perhaps it will even create a three-dimensional model of the wall that contains every attribute and relates to the building as a whole. Futuristic? Yes, but why not? Soon our technology will not dictate how the wall is designed and drawn.

Why can’t a wall be a window and a window a wall? Part of the answer used to be because of the efficiency differences. As technology, materials, and test methods improve, we are asking ourselves the question again. If midday southern sun is unwanted, we used to close the blinds. Now we can make the window opaque and block the rays. An entire façade can be designed without regard for environmental conditions such as thermal gain and natural light sourcing. The wall can monitor conditions and modify itself to optimize performance.

If these walls could talk, they would say Bring me to life. I am not an inanimate object anymore. I am a living, integral part of this space. Move me and change my properties. Alter my applications. Expect more of me.

Robert Grupe is director of architectural services as USG. He joined USG in 1972 and has had roles in research, marketing, and technical support. He provides vision to and manages the USG Design Studio and monitors major trends in the industry. Grupe is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and sits on the DFC Executive Board. He earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Ryan Kirsch is a staff researcher as USG’s Corporate Innovation Center. He joined USG in 2002 and has had roles in marketing and architectural services. He develops architectural systems incorporating acoustic, structural, and fire performance attributes. Kirsch holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies, a Master of Architecture, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.