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Adaptive Architecture: From One-Size-Fits-All to Responsive Gradations

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

‍Image: R. Butler | Flickr

Along with many other innovations that are surfacing today, the Responsive Environments Group at MIT is working on a prototype that, if successful, may make the light switch a thing of the past. (1)

Their new lighting technology will be responsive by being able to adjust both lighting intensity and color balance to the specific activities that are going on within an architectural space — it would work by being able to monitor the light reading wherever a user happens to put the sensors. So for example, if you place the light sensor within the space where you usually only need task lighting, then the light will adjust accordingly, making sure that you have enough light either from natural daylight, the responsive lighting solution or some combined ratio both. (1)

While this responsive lighting innovation may sound somewhat simple in principle, it does take an interesting step toward providing a tool for greater adaptive design approaches. There are so many parts within buildings today that are static, being made to function in almost binary terms, with only “on” or “off” choices — beyond lighting, think of how static building surfaces often are: including wall surface materials, window configurations and even floor and ceiling installations.

The Power of Transience within Your Design

I think that we are in an age where the onset of new adaptive design technologies will help spaces evolve to include more dynamic and fluid behaviors — which will help to make architecture more malleable, versatile and responsive to occupant needs. The key is to move beyond only having a technology radiate stimuli the way a song might sound on a piano if only played with one note.

Instead, architectural technology should be a tool with which, you as an architect, use “responsive gradation” — making the stimuli which your building occupants perceive sound like a beautiful song played on a piano using the full range of notes played at different times, for different lengths, for different intensities and in different combinations — to be most appreciated by your building occupants within the areas that they carry out their most sensitive activities.

So, as an architect, pay attention to where your occupants carry out their activities, look at the way in which they behave and the characteristics of their environment that impact them through their senses in meaningful ways. Then think about how gradation can step in, to give them more than choice, to additionally give them a freedom by which they can enjoy their environments in their entirety, adjusting to their personal preferences and needs — whether they be one thing on a Monday and something entirely different by Friday.

The beauty of pushing toward “responsive gradations” within an architectural environment, is the lessening dependency upon a typical “default” way of thinking, and thus, designing. The advantage is the move from a one-size-fits-all (throw in some lighting) approach to a more thoughtful and strategic spectral arrangement where environments become more attuned to the things that are going on within them.


(1) Intelligent, Adaptive Lights Reduce Energy Use by 90 Percent. Good. November 19, 2010.


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 an award-winning 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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