When Chao Chen had to conduct a materials study during hissecond term at the Royal College of Art, hefound inspiration while walking through London’s Hyde Park on arainy day. Picking up a pine cone, he noticed that it reacted towater by closing its outer shell. Now, he has developed a buildingmaterial, based on the pine cone’s anatomy, that can shapeshift inresponse to weather.
Chen knew that pine cones open and close as a survival mechanismto protect and release their seeds, but what interested him washow. So that day, in Hyde Park, he grabbed a few pine cones, tookthem home, and sliced them in half. “Each pine cone has twolayers,” Chen says in a phone interview. “When it gets wet, theouter layer elongates more than the inner layer and closes in onitself. As a designer, this was very important for me.”
Chen, who is getting his masters in product design at the RCA,used that information to create a laminate—made from fabric, a thinfilm and veneer—that reacts to water the same way. When the veneertakes in water, the fibers expand perpendicular to the grain,elongating and curving the material just like the shell of a pinecone.
For his first year final project, WaterReaction, Chen applies this new material in threefascinating ways. In the first, Chen developed a Water-ReactingShelter covered in laminated tiles that open up on sunny days, butstack on top of each other to provide shelter when it starts torain. Imagine such a shelter being used in the middle of a park orother public space. “Users will feel like they』re standing undersome sort of tree, enjoying the sunshine, but not very strongsunshine,” Chen said. “When it rains all the tiles will be closedto cover the whole surface of the shelter.”
In the second application he developed a “color-revealing”architectural surface that reacts to water by curling inward intovarious geometric shapes, revealing a colored surface underneath. Awhole building covered in this shapeshifting material would subtlytransform into a brightly patterned facade on rainy days. The thirdobject Chen created for his project is simpler and smaller inscale, but just as ingenious. By taking a strip of the material andmaking one side red and the other blue, Chen created a “waterdetector” that senses moisture in the soil of your house plants.When the material is limp and showing the blue side, you’re in theclear, but when it stiffens to reveal the red, it’s time to wateryour plant.
Unfortunately, it might be a while until we see Chen’s designson the market, or changing shapes on the streets. “These threeproducts are still in the stage of working prototypes,” Chen says.”The material needs to be more durable. I need to test how manytimes it can get wet, how it can deal with heavy winds.” But Chenworks fast: this entire project was developed during one term. Youcan check in on this project and view his other work here.