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How 4D Printing Technology Can Change Design Thinking


Maria Lorena Lehman


Founder — Sensing Architecture ® Academy

‍Image Credit: © chialinart | Fotolia

Unlocking 4D Printing Technology Techniques

An exciting new development is underway by a team of scientists at Harvard University. By using 4D printing technology, they are now able to create forms that shapeshift once immersed in water. This is an interesting technique that has far-reaching applications — particularly for the discipline of architectural design thinking.

This newly realized 4D printing technique works by using a “hydrogel composite ink” that behaves like wood that splits along the grain. (1) This hydrogel is emitted during the 4D printing process to form geometries, that when submerged in water react by engaging in shapeshifting dynamic behaviors. (1) You can see this process in action in the following video demonstration:


Designing Patterns for Behavior Changes

Once you watch the video, I think you will agree that this new 4D printing technology technique is quite impressive. And if you begin to think about how the technique’s process actually works, you can extract critical principles that can help with the evolution of architectural design thinking.

First, there is a “reverse-engineering” approach to creating the form that will be submerged in water. Similarly, with adaptive architectural design, it is becoming evermore important to reverse-engineer what sensory stimuli are needed in an environment to achieve a desired environmental effect, occupant behavior, or nature integration.

As architecture becomes more dynamic, architectural design thinking will need to evolve towards the reverse-engineering of its design outcomes. After all, design results and their impact upon occupant behavior can be more deeply understood as findings in fields like neuroscience, biomimicry, and nanotechnology continue to surface. Thus, just as the 4D printing technology ink lays a pattern of geometric form for later shapeshifting, architects must evolve their own architectural design thinking to create patterns that allow for later adaptive dynamic behaviors. Such behaviors will engage building occupants, and impact them at many levels.

Design Thinking for Catalytic Behavior Change

It is also excting to think about what may happen as different architectural materials interact with one another. Just as the ink that shapeshifts when immersed in water, architectural materials may also be created to change behaviors when put into contact with other building materials or natural elements. Such catalytic changes create opportunities for architectural designs to engage in a wider array of behaviors. As interactions between elements create new behavioral languages, architectural design thinking will need to evolve with probability/prediction methods.

By understanding how materials will react when in contact with one another, architectural designers can create environments that shift and behave to help meet occupant real-time needs, and long-term goals. Again, this all begins with understanding how to reverse-engineer patterns.


(1) McAlpine, Kat J. (2016) Novel 4D Printing Method Blossoms from Botanical Inspiration. News: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. [Accessed on January 31, 2016] from:


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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