Kinetic Solar Envelope

Shape Memory Alloy-based design of autoreactive facade systems



Kinetic responsive systems are gaining attention in architectural applications, to reduce the building’s energy consumption and environmental impact, while improving the indoor comfort conditions. The paper explores the potentials of Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) for the design of autoreactive facade systems without using additional energy. The exploration is conducted and assessed through the design of a facade concept for the city of Athens, aiming to both improve the indoor environment and reduce the negative impact towards the outdoor environment, by means of a kinetic autoreactive system, with a focus on the building’s impact on the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. The methodology follows a feedback-loop logic informed by environmental and energy performance evaluation studies in Grasshopper to optimize the geometry and movement of the shading component. The proposed system features a dynamic seasonal response with a dual function. During the cooling-dominated periods, the aim is to reduce the cooling demands by increasing the reflective surfaces directing the incoming solar radiation to the atmosphere, while also increasing the shading and self-shading effect through undulated geometries. On the contrary, during the heating-dominated periods, the system works as an independent exterior skin with loosely closed multiple-cavity zones for heat amplification, with a higher solar absorption and sun exposure.

The system’s mechanism, composed of two SMA wires, operates in coordination with a pivot axle and rotating mechanism, in combination with elastic steel threads and membranes that can accommodate the dynamic deformations. The SMAs are automatically activated when the outside temperature changes outside of a defined range, causing their linear deformation which initiates the linear and rotational movement of the components involved, in a cause-effect internal system, while also controlling the cavity aperture. The design aims to minimize the need for actuators and mechanical parts with no additional energy, while the study evaluates in parallel the energy and environmental performance in the urban microclimate. Through the development and assessment of the facade concept, the objective is to explore the potentials and limitations for the application of autoreactive envelopes in the facade design and development.


Photo of Christina Koukelli

Christina Koukelli

Facade Engineer


Alejandro Prieto


School of Architecture, Diego Portales University

Serdar Asut

Academic, Architect

TU Delft


Introduction and Background

Rapid urbanization during the last decades has had several environmental, economic and social consequences. Among these, an issue of great concern has been the development of the so-called Urban Heat Island (UHI) phenomenon, characterized by higher temperatures in the density of built areas than the ones of the rural surroundings [Santamouris, 2007]. In the European context, this phenomenon is especially intense in the Mediterranean basin, with a fast growth of energy consumption in the last years due to the widespread use of air conditioning systems and the increase of cooling demand. This situation gets even more worrisome in the face of global warming and the significant rise of Heat Waves (HW) [Salvati et al., 2017].

Especially in Athens, Greece, UHI has been present already since the 1980s. Many research studies have shown that there has been an increase of the energy building demands, thermal risk and vulnerability of urban population and it has been reported that during the HWs, there is even an intensification of the average UHI magnitude by up to 3.5oC. The heat that is dissipated from the buildings to the external environment increases the UHI phenomenon, and therefore, has a strong indirect impact. More specifically, in Athens an average increase of the cooling load of about 13% is estimated, with an annual global energy penalty for unit of city surface and degree of UHI intensity of 0.74 kWh m-2 K-1 [Santamouris et al., 2001].

The UHI is a complex phenomenon and is directly and indirectly related to serious energy, environmental, health, and economic problems [Golden et. al., 2004] [Phelan et. al., 2015]. When it comes to the influence of buildings, it has been established that there is both a direct and an indirect impact of the building’s energy performance on the increase of the UHI in the cooling-dominated areas, such as Athens [Phelan et. al., 2015]. More specifically, the direct impact relates to the reflected solar radiation originating from the building’s surface towards the urban microclimate, whereas the indirect one concerns the released heat which is generated from the building’s cooling systems and is then accumulated in the urban environment. An improvement of the building envelope and the energy efficiency might, therefore, reduce the ambient temperature and building’s impact and, consequently, decrease the amplitude of the phenomenon.

In this direction, a certain level of climatic responsiveness and adaptiveness to extreme heat changes in an energy efficient way can arise as a promising strategy, in order to reduce the building’s energy consumption. This gives way to the broad development of responsive technologies, such as passive dynamic adaptive facade systems. Thanks to their adaptive mechanisms and the ability to implement smart technologies and autoreactive materials, they are favored due to the real-time responsiveness to the also dynamic and unpredictable environmental changes, acting as the threshold between building and exterior environment. The above-mentioned framework, composed by problem and promising mitigation strategy, is the direction that was followed in the current research study. This was further explored and developed with a focus on the incorporation of smart and shape-changing materials, such as Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs), by means of a case study in Athens, Greece, and design concept to evaluate their potentials for facade application.

In short, Shape Memory Materials (SMMs) belong to the energy-exchanging smart materials and are one of the major elements of intelligent composites because of their unusual properties, such as the Shape Memory Effect (SME), autoreactivity, large recoverable stroke (strain) and adaptive properties, which are due to the reversible phase transitions in the materials. More specifically, thermo-responsive SMMs, and SMAs belonging to the same category, can sense thermal stimulus and exhibit actuation or some predetermined response, making it possible to tune some technical parameters such as shape, position, strain, stiffness and other static and dynamical characteristics [Wei et al., 1998]. An input of thermal energy alters the microstructure through a crystalline phase change, which enables multiple shapes in relationship to the environmental stimuli, making them promising materials for the integration in passive responsive facade applications [Addington, 2012].

SMMs have been broadly used in a wide range of fields, with a large interest in aerospace, automobile industry and biomedicine, with applications that include hinges, trusses and morphing skins. In architecture and engineering, the application of SMMs is still in an initial stage, however, there are already developments and interest in this direction as well. Most common examples are self-healing systems, actuators, sensors and vibration control systems, as well as smart and solar morphing envelopes to enhance the building’s thermal comfort and energy performance and saving, which is the research scope that the current study focused on [Li et al., 2018]. More specifically on the facade applications, most realized projects concern kinetic shading systems, whereas solar morphing shading skins are not broadly explored. Where an actuator is required, this is completely embedded into the device or strategically located to trigger a specific action [Dakheel et al., 2017].

Examples of the above principles applied in facade systems in practice can be found in the actuation systems developed in the Solar Kinetic, Air Flow(er) and Piraeus Tower projects, to name a few. All of them present one or two degrees of freedom in the desired movement, varying between two extreme positions, open and closed modes, with continuous transition between the two. Where movement is three-dimensional, as in the first two examples, a constrained swivel motion produced by bending and buckling of elastic materials characterizes the rotation. An exception is the case of the Air Flow(er) project, in which hinges are used to rotate stiff wings. Most of those performing three-dimensional movements have also been developed either at component or subcomponent scale, due to the discrete sizes and capabilities of the smart materials as actuators. Figure 1 illustrates diagrammatic schemes with the principles of the operational movements, using SMAs as actuators. In the Solar Kinetic and Air Flow(er) cases, the stimulus originates from a heat source provided through electrical current, whereas in the Piraeus Tower project, the system is activated by the changes in solar radiation [Suralkar, 2011] [Payne et al., 2013] [Doumpioti et al., 2010].

Figure 1: Scheme of operation and example of facade’s integration (closed and open configuration). Projects: a) Solar Kinetic, b) Air Flow(er), c) Piraeus Tower [Suralkar, 2011, Payne et al., 2013, Doumpioti et al., 2010]

Research Questions and Methods

Based on the above objective, the aim was to address the following main research question and sub-question, concerning the performance and feasibility evaluation, as well as the design integration, respectively:

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Conceptual Design

The goal of the facade design was to propose a low-energy and low-tech facade system capable of predictably changing in shape in response to temperature changes through the ingrained properties

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.


UHI direct impact evaluation

Sun ray trace analysis studies - Component and facade level

The first explorations of the initial geometry concept were based on the proportions of the component

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.


As a summary from the above evaluation studies on the direct impact of the facade design on the UHI effect, it can be concluded that the proposed geometry showed a

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.


In conclusion, the proposed design was based on the development of a facade shading system, which featured a double function during the summer and winter. This was enabled through a

Access Restricted

Members get unlimited access to all of our resources. Join now for the best value.

Rights and Permissions

- Addington, M. (2012). Smart Materials and Technologies in Architecture. doi:10.4324/9780080480954.

- Dakheel, J. A., Aoul, K. T. (2017). Building Applications, Opportunities and Challenges of Active Shading Systems: A State-of-the-Art Review. Energies, 10(10), 1672. doi:10.3390/en10101672.

- Doumpioti, C., Greenberg, E.L., Karatzas, K. (2010). Embedded intelligence: Material responsiveness in façade systems. New York. p. 258-62.

- Golden, J.S. (2004). The Built Environment Induced Urban Heat Island Effect in Rapidly Urbanizing Arid Regions - A Sustainable Urban Engineering Complexity. Environ. Sci., 1, 321–349.

- Koukelli, C., Prieto, A., Asut, S. (2022). Kinetic Solar Envelope: Performance Assessment of a Shape Memory Alloy-Based Autoreactive Façade System for Urban Heat Island Mitigation in Athens, Greece. Appl. Sci., 12, 82.

- Li, J., Duan, Q., Zhang, E., Wang, J. (2018). Applications of Shape Memory Polymers in Kinetic Buildings. Advances in Materials Science and Engineering. vol. 2018. Article ID 7453698.

- Payne, A.O., Johnson, J.K. (2013). Firefly: Interactive prototypes for architectural design. Architectural Design. doi: 83:144-7.

- Phelan, P.E., Kaloush, K., Miner, M., Golden, J., Phelan, B., Silva, H., Taylor, R.A. (2015). Urban Heat Island: Mechanisms, Implications, and Possible Remedies. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour., 40, 285–307.

- Salvati, A., Roura, H. C., Cecere, C. (2017). Assessing the urban heat island and its energy impact on residential buildings in Mediterranean climate: Barcelona case study. Energy and Buildings, 146, 38-54.

- Santamouris, M. (2007). Heat Island Research in Europe: The State of the Art, Adv. Build. Energy Res. 1 123–150. doi:10.1080 /17512549.2007.9687272.

- Santamouris, M., Papanikolaou, N., Livada, I., Koronakis, I., Georgakis, C., Argiriou, A., Assimakopoulos, D.N. (2001). On the impact of urban climate on the energy consumption of building, Solar Energy 70 (3) 201–216.

- Suralkar, R. (2011). Solar Responsive Kinetic Facade Shading Systems inspired by plant movements in nature. People and Buildings. London (UK).

- Wei, Z.G., Sandstroröm, R., Miyazaki, S. (1998). Shape-memory materials and hybrid composites for smart systems: Part I Shape-memory materials. Journal of Materials Science 33, 3743–3762.