ZHA’s smart work on fabrics

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Research collaboration unveils tools to create fabrics that make sounds and light and react using sensors

A Zaha Hadid-backed research project has developed tools for architects to design and produce ‘smart fabrics’ that combine graphics with active electronics like touch sensors, sound and lighting.

Funded under the EU’s Seventh Framework  programme, the five-year Creatif research project brought together a number of technical research and creative partners to develop and test smart fabric printers and related software. A key aim was to simplify the methods of creating smart fabrics, and reduce the complexity of the process and skills required.

Germany’s Institute of Textile Technology and the University of Southampton worked with printer manufacturer Ardeje to develop two smart fabric printers which lay down smart ink in layers, like 3D printers.

Smart inks include electroluminescent materials that light up when a voltage is applied, thermochromic materials that change colour or become transparent when the layer below is heated, and a printed speaker that emits sound through vibration of the fabric. In addition, touch/proximity sensors can be printed onto fabric to activate the light, colour or sound.

Zaha Hadid Architects was one of three creative partners on the project, alongside tensile fabric structures manufacturer Base Structures and design company Diffus Design, which provided feedback as a prospective end user of printers and software.

Melodie Leung, project associate at ZHA told RIBAJ: ‘We requested an illustrator add-on to make it more viable to plug smart fabric design into our workflow, and also provided feedback as the technology was being developed on how to improve usability, increase options for designers, and generally steer it in a direction that could be useful for us in the future.’

Bulgaria-based Grafixoft developed driver software for the printer and the Illustrator software, which includes simple enable-drag-and-drop design functionality so designers don’t need knowledge of printing or electronics technology.

As part of the project, ZHA designed and produced a 3m wide smart fabric poster, the largest ever printed, embedded with proximity sensors that control the intensity of sound and light emitted from an adjacent cube. The prototype is on display at the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery, in Clerkenwell, throughout the London Festival of Architecture, until 30 June.

Smart fabrics have huge potential to transform the built environment, adds Leung: ‘We can dream as big as the technology can take us. If all the parameters come together strongly enough there are possibilities for designers to specify bespoke shaped fabrics with graphics, integrated specialty lighting or signage and wayfinding. There are all sorts of options, from fashion to furnishings to large scale interiors.’

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