As climate change starts to make dangerous, and sometimes terrifying, weather catastrophes like hurricanes, blizzards, and heat waves more frequent, it is important that we, as a society, improve our infrastructure so that the environment's caprices can have less of an effect on us. Likewise, it is important to reduce human impact on the Earth, as that may be a reason for climate change. Sustainability is a trend cropping up in farming, produce shopping, and now, infrastructure.

Changes in building technology will be foremost in improving and reducing human impact on the Earth. The National Science Foundation's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation office is encouraging teams to research building technologies that will regulate themselves, instead of relying on humans to do so. The focus is on developing self-regulated and multifunctional building additions that act as "living walls, materials and systems."

Various teams seem to have a firm grasp of the sorts of technologies and functions that sustainable buildings ought to have.

A University of Colorado team has established heat regulation by use of "living walls." The researchers suggest that buildings have vascularized walls, much in the way that our bodies have vessels and arteries through which liquid flows. The vascularization of walls is achieved by networks of temperature-sensitive polymers that can respond to outside temperatures. If it is warm outside, the polymers will release heat and thereby cool the building, while the opposite happens when it is cold outside. A building's ability to absorb and release heat is important, as the costs of forcing the building to heat up or cool down will eventually become obsolete.

A team at the University of Pennsylvania has established a coating for the house to ensure it absorbs and uses solar energy. The technology is called eSkin, and will coat the entire building, instead of having a few solar panels on the roof. The skin is embedded with sensors and other imaging devices to absorb and use solar energy to generate electricity. This is a huge step, as no other technologies allow for buildings to become completely independent of their citiy's power grid system, while the eSkin can offer such independence.

Researchers hope to reduce waste by reusing water. While using the refuse water from a bath or shower is an unpleasant concept, another team has found a way to use it for temperature regulation. A team at University of California-Berkeley has found a way to disinfect the water and run it through piping in the vascularized walls to aid with heating and cooling. Disinfection of the water will not lead to some sort of antibiotic resistance, as the researchers have established the use of titanium dioxide particles, a harmless metal that — when activated by the sunlight offered by the eSkin — renders even the most deleterious disease-causing organisms innocuous. The use of a metal is innovative and important, as it can target any and all bacteria present because it is not as specific as an antibiotic treatment to the water.

These new features connect waste treatment with water supply and energy generation, with the goal of "zero energy, zero emissions and zero waste" sustainability. Sustainability is an important goal, as it allows the building to rely solely on itself for utilities and does not fall victim to power outages or a lack of resources for heating and cooling. This is an important aim, as climate change continues and weather events become unpredictable. The usage of water, solar energy, and waste is a good paradigm, as it becomes cyclic, and the resources are always present and do not need to be pumped, shipped in, or even purchased from elsewhere like current sources of energy, such as oil or coal, do.

The National Science Foundation's Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation understands the need for sustainability and hopes to encourage efforts to make buildings that cover cities evenly and more sustainably so that the environment will continue to support us, instead of being robbed by us.

Source: Guiterrez MP, Lee LP. Multiscale Design and Integration of Sustainable Building Functions. Science. 2013.