Hydroformed Shading

A Calibrated Approach to Solar Control



Photo of Michelle Siu-Ching Lee

Michelle Siu-Ching Lee


Behnish Architekten


Photo of Robert Matthew Noblett

Robert Matthew Noblett


Behnish Architekten


Photo of Roman Schieber

Roman Schieber

Associate Director

Knippers Helbig GmbH




New approaches to lightweight metal forming have the potential to advance architectural fabrication, particularly in the design and engineering of high-performance building envelopes. For the Harvard Science and Engineering Complex outside Boston, Behnisch Architekten, together with Knippers Helbig, applied a novel application of metal shaped by water in the world’s first hydroformed tensile facade system.

Hydroforming is an industrial cold forming process in which a metal blank is driven into a single mold with hydraulic pressure to form extremely thin parts with exceptional structural stiffness. It has been developed and advanced primarily by the automotive and aerospace industries—where weight to strength ratio has a compound effect on production cost, safety, performance, and energy consumption. Despite parallel considerations, it has not been widely used in architectural applications.

The Harvard screen facade was developed through a rigorous research process to apply hydroforming in a sun shading system that leverages the advantages of this technology, namely lower tooling costs, precise geometric definition, and superior structural properties. Calibrated to the extreme seasonal variations of the New England climate, the system is optimized to temper solar heat gain in the summer while maximizing daylight and solar energy in the winter. The screen is comprised of a series of 12,800 hydroformed panels of 1.5 mm thick (16 gauge) stainless steel, measuring 2.5 x 2.5 ft, each weighing under 10 pounds. The panels are supported by an ultra-lightweight tensile structure with a cross sectional area of just 0.35 in2. Despite its delicate appearance, the shading screen is a crucial component in the comprehensive energy strategy of the new academic building, which opens in 2020.


At 535,000 sf, the Harvard Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) unifies and expands multiple science and engineering disciplines in a new centralized location in Allston, Massachusetts. As the primary home

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The sun shading system for the Harvard SEC emerges from the synthesis of three topics that have been widely researched employed in architecture, engineering and manufacturing but rarely combined simultaneously

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Methods and Data

Screen Performance Testing

Because of the uniqueness of the design, several specialized full-scale tests were conducted to validate assumptions and test unknowns.

Dynamic Test

During design and engineering of the external screen, the

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Construction and Maintenance

The screen panels and the tensile components are engineered and fabricated in Germany, and shipped to the site and installed by Permasteelisa North America under Turner Construction. The off-cuts from

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The sun shading screen of Harvard University’s Science and Engineering Complex demonstrates the unique potential of hydroforming technology to create high performance, lightweight, and structurally stiff components. The ability of

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Behnisch Architekten: Stefan Behnisch, Michael Cook, Magdalena Czolnowska, Daniel Mazur

Knippers Helbig: Nicola Haberbosch

Josef Gartner: Klaus Reuschle, Reiner Haselmeier, Günter Muller

Edelstahl Mechanik: Philipp Eisele

Transsolar: Linda Lam, Erik Olsen

Turner Construction: James Riley, Tiago Pimentel

Harvard University: Alyssa Hubbard, Joe O'Farrell

Rights and Permissions


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Photos by Janis Roykalns, Roman Schieber, and Christopher Karlson.