Sep 7th 2023

Bringing Biomaterials to Buildings: Curtains First Step to Eco-Friendly Future

When IIT College of Architecture Assistant Professor Ryan Roark stepped into the realm of architecture, she didn’t think that her post-doctorate degree in biology would bring her to a workshop mixing crushed shellfish and bodybuilding supplements in search of a perfect mix to make curtains—her first steps in researching biomaterials that might be appropriate for interior architecture.

Roark, along with her assistant Gemma Brizzolara (B.ARCH 4th Year), had a broad goal for the summer research project: to find how biomaterials from waste products, such as fish scales and cellulose, can be used in architecture and design. The first plan—based on early successes tweaking recipes mined from open-source information banks curated primarily by product designers—was to create a concrete or brick material. As the research evolved, the idea shifted to fast-setting curtains with a simple goal: using the aesthetically pleasing material to stop migrating birds from striking transparent glass windows. “Chicago is a city of glass, from the 1890s to late Modernism to today. Nationwide, a billion birds die colliding into glass every year,” Roark says.

Eggshells, agar (derived from seaweed), mussel shells, and other biological waste materials were tried in mixtures in Roark’s temporary lab. Her current best recipe includes material derived from fish skin that produces a strong, tensile material similar to the plastic-based, corrosion resistant ETFE material found on the exterior of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship on Illinois Institute of Technology’s Mies Campus.

Bio-curtains can replace current window dressing, offering protection for birds while bringing a unique element to a building. The space where Roark and Brizzolara made the curtains is akin to a biology lab—dozens of sample mixes were neatly labeled along the walls of a summer workshop. The small test sheets ranged from leathery, jerky-like material to film that was so thin that a needle would pierce them like a balloon. Add eco-friendly dyes to bring color, and an aesthetic material could bring a new dynamic to interior spaces.

With a viable mix decided, S. R. Crown Hall hosted a one-day exhibition—which has extended through the fall semester after great feedback from faculty—where sheets lined the south-facing windows. To make the sheets, eight wooden forms held the material as it dried with the help of industrial fans. Roark and Brizzolara painstakingly perfected each sheet, using a needle to pop any bubbles or impurities. A sewing device, which could easily be mistaken for an industrial pizza cutter with a heat gun, “melted” sheets together, though a needle and thread could work just as well, to make sure the curtains covered the entire window.

The material isn’t permanent, but it will last for months indoors. It’s water-resistant, though if placed outdoors, rain and humidity can slowly eat away at the material. But that all feeds into keeping the environment safe. Bird safety is the first step, but Roark plans to test UV protection could turn the curtains into a viable replacement for traditional cloth curtains or other window treatments.