Jenny Sabin has applied concepts to design that can change the way we think about construction, buildings, and the role of the architect.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter


Sabin reasons that if buildings were like cells—able to respond to their environments—and we could interact with them, this adaptive architecture could be more versatile, resilient, energy-efficient, and beautiful.
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter


Asking what if she could manipulate and program matter so that energy-intensive, malfunctioning mechanicals are not required, Sabin created eSkin, a material that interacts with its environment.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter


“When you walk by or pass a hand by it, sensors detect a shift in light intensity and then…changes the material patterning, and we see a shift in color or transparency.”
Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin


For a Cooper Hewitt commission, Sabin installed a cellular architecture-inspired pavilion—digitally knit with seamless three-dimensional cones of high-tech photoluminescent, solar-active yarns that respond to changes in light from day to night.
Matt Flynn © 2016 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Matt Flynn © 2016 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Designing Buildings to Mimic Human Cells

by Caitlin Hayes

Radical innovation often requires the bringing together of disparate ideas—but biology and architecture? Cells and buildings? Jenny E. Sabin, Architecture, has achieved it, forging a symbiotic relationship across disciplines.

“An immediate bridge that we identified was that we were able to model and simulate what the scientists were looking at,” says Sabin. “We’re seeing this a lot—that design is becoming increasingly more relevant in the sciences because of an interest in modeling behavior and biological processes—identifying trends, sifting, filtering, and making sense of large data sets.”

From the sciences Sabin has taken concepts that, in applying them to design, have the potential to change the way we think about construction, buildings, and the role of the architect. Early on, a molecular biologist at University of Pennsylvania, Peter Lloyd Jones, introduced her to concepts in matrix biology. “The big idea within matrix biology is that half the secret of life resides outside of the cell,” says Sabin. “You have DNA, the code, but that code is acted upon by protein events within this dynamic extracellular matrix. I was really interested in beginning to model and simulate that reciprocity between environment and form.”

In other words, what if buildings were more like cells, able to respond to their environments? What if we were able to interact with them? Sabin argues that this type of architecture—a new form of adaptive architecture and thinking in design—could be more versatile, resilient, energy-efficient, and beautiful.

Adaptive Materials and eSkins

Existing examples of adaptive architecture—a building with shifting panels to let light in, for instance—are often mechanical and require a mainframe. They also use a lot of energy and frequently break down. Sabin has something else in mind. “We’re asking, what if we start to manipulate the matter itself and program it, so that these mechanisms are not required?” she says.

The development of eSkin, funded by a National Science Foundation Grant, was one such project, and of all Sabin’s ventures, is the closest to commercial reality. Working with materials scientist, Shu Yang (University of Pennsylvania), Sabin and her lab, along with Andrew Lucia, now at the University of Minnesota, led the architectural intent that impacted the design of an organic polymer that they then plated with human cells. “We aren’t proposing putting human cells on buildings,” Sabin says, “but they were our muse, our protagonists. We changed the geometry or patterning of the material and observed how that affected the cells.”

These observations, in turn, helped Sabin and her collaborators develop sensors and imagers that could adapt to environmental cues with very little energy coming into the system. The result is a material prototype, which interacts with its environment. “When you walk by or pass a hand by it, the sensors detect a shift in light intensity and then in turn a very small voltage is passed regionally, which then changes the material patterning, and we see a shift in color or transparency. This all happens without the use of pigments, which is called structural color,” Sabin says.

Future applications of this eSkin could include a building façade that responds to shifts in light or the ability to create a window anywhere you’d like in a wall of otherwise opaque glass. “We have a strong interest in the notion of personalized architecture—how we might begin to tune and adapt our own spaces,” Sabin says.

And the project, like many in Sabin’s lab and studio, comes full circle. “My vision is that everything will be inextricably linked,” Sabin says. “The projects begin with the human body as a point of departure, and then there’s a looping back to how one interacts with the form that the human body inspired.”

Architect as Maker

Buildings aren’t the only things changing in Sabin’s new vision. Her focus on making materials—from eSkin to nonstandard bricks to digitally knit cones—allows the architect back into the construction zone. In other words, while the traditional process has architects submitting designs and builders building, Sabin wants to expand the architect’s role and integrate processes.

“Technologies are helping us develop more complex things,” she says. “But what is really shifting things is the way the architect is being repositioned as a maker again. Some theoreticians and historians are saying that hasn’t happened since the medieval period, when the architect was working and designing a lot more on-site with crafts people.”

“We aren’t proposing putting human cells on buildings, but they were our muse, our protagonists. We changed the geometry or patterning of the material and observed how that affected the cells.”

Now, technologies such as three-dimensional printing give Sabin the tools to design and manufacture her own nonstandard materials. “For example, we can think about the brick, which has pretty much stayed the same for hundreds of years, and that’s precisely because of how they’re made,” Sabin says. “They’re extruded from pug mills and fired. Now, with three-dimensional printing, we can work with all kinds of geometries.” An ongoing project in Sabin’s lab is working with and designing Polybrick, nonstandard-sized bricks that require no mortar, locking together with dovetail joinery to form a wall.

For another project, commissioned by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York for their triennial on Beauty, Sabin installed a pavilion inspired by cellular architecture, digitally knit with seamless, three-dimensional cones held in tension one to the next, within a flexible fiberglass armature. The cones are made with high-tech photoluminescent, solar-active yarns that respond to changes in light from day to night. The cones were designed digitally and then made with advanced, whole-garment knitting machines.

The new tools Sabin uses to create materials also allow for a more fluid process, from creating and adapting tools to conceptualization, prototyping, and application. Sabin’s vision can evolve at every phase. “Every project I start, I never know what the final form will be,” Sabin says. “It emerges through a process that is productively contaminated with the stuff of architecture and the constraints of making.”

Collaboration, Easier Said than Done

“There’s a lot of buzz around collaboration, but when it comes down to it, it’s really really hard,” Sabin says. When Sabin and Peter Lloyd Jones first began collaborating to create LabStudio, a first-of-its-kind joint biology and architecture lab at the University of Pennsylvania, a lot of groundwork had to be laid. “There are just radically different structures in place for how we do things—how we teach, assess, budget, and how we publish. It’s all different.”

Sabin and Jones spent a year, she says, just learning how to communicate. They attended each other’s lectures, debated terms, and developed a friendship. “Now that I look back, I think it was one of the most important investments of time,” Sabin says. “And the most important deliverable to date is the development and co-production of this shared space that’s truly collaborative across disciplines.”

In 2011, the lab moved its headquarters to Cornell’s Department of Architecture and has attracted experts in design, mathematics, material science, and cell biology from Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, and universities around the world. Sabin is now working to finalize a new masters degree program in Architectural Science, with a concentration in Matter-Design Computation. “After 11 years of dedicated collaborative work, it’s now really formalizing in a way that I’m super excited about,” Sabin says.

“It’s taken a lot of energy, rigor, productive failures, and the work of developing long-standing collaborative relationships,” she adds. “You have to really love what you do.”