Dynamic photovoltaic building envelopes for adaptive energy and comfort management

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 22 July 2019

This article has been updated


Current efforts to improve building envelopes mostly focus on reducing energy demand by static measures such as insulation, selective glazing and shading. The resulting envelopes are limited in adapting to weather conditions or occupants’ needs and leave vast potentials for energy savings, onsite energy generation and improvement of occupant comfort untapped. In this work, we report on a dynamic building envelope that utilizes lightweight modules based on a hybrid hard/soft-material actuator to actively modulate solar radiation for local energy generation, passive heating, shading and daylight penetration. We describe two envelope prototypes and demonstrate autonomous solar tracking in real weather conditions. The dynamic photovoltaic envelope achieves an increase of up to 50% in electricity gains as compared to a static photovoltaic envelope. We assess energy savings potentials for three locations, six construction periods and two building use types. The envelope is most effective in temperate and arid climates, in which, for the cases analyzed, it can provide up to 115% of the net energy demand of an office room.

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Fig. 1: Working principle and use cases of the soft-robotic-driven adaptive building envelope.
Fig. 2: Working principle and characterization of a two-axis hybrid, soft/hard-material pneumatic actuator.
Fig. 3: Orientation feedback control of the envelope.
Fig. 4: Solar tracking experiments for a clear summer day.
Fig. 5: Envelope performance in real weather conditions over several days.
Fig. 6: The overall energy saving potential of the adaptive PV envelope against an equivalent static PV envelope and a static shading system without PVs.
Fig. 7: Envelope energy balance and integration into a nearly zero energy building.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper are partly available on a public repository (https://github.com/architecture-building-systems/CityEnergyAnalyst)51 or from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Change history

  • 22 July 2019

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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We thank G. Lydon from the Architecture and Building Systems Group, ETH Zurich, for helpful suggestions. We thank M. Niffeler from the Architecture and Building Systems Group, ETH Zurich, for assistance with FEA. We acknowledge support from the Building Technologies Accelerator programme of Climate-KIC. We acknowledge Flisom AG for provision of high-efficiency CIGS PV modules.

Author information




B.S. and M.B. developed the soft actuator and quick-cast fabrication process. M.B. fabricated soft actuators. S.C. and P.J. developed the rod–net facade supporting structure. B.S. and S.C. developed the pneumatic control systems. B.S. developed control algorithms. B.S. performed the experiments. P.J. performed the simulations. B.S., P.J. and M.B. constructed the dynamic facade with 16 modules. S.C., P.J., M.B. and B.S. constructed the dynamic facade with 30 modules. A.S., Z.N., J.H., I.H. and R.F.S. supervised the project. B.S. and A.S. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Arno Schlueter.

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Competing interests

B.S., M.B., P.J., S.C. and A.S. are inventors on an international patent application (PCT/EP2018/080425) submitted by ETH Zurich that covers the actuator, the manufacturing method, the pneumatic control system and the envelope. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–10, Notes 1–3, Table 1 and refs.

Supplementary Video 1

The video shows the operation of the soft-robotic-driven dynamic building envelope with 30 elements. The envelope cycles through different states, such as open, close, towards east and towards west. Parallel and sequential control of envelope rows is also presented, demonstrating the possibility to generate different transition patterns. The envelope is mounted at the NEST building at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, in Dübendorf, Switzerland.

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Svetozarevic, B., Begle, M., Jayathissa, P. et al. Dynamic photovoltaic building envelopes for adaptive energy and comfort management. Nat Energy 4, 671–682 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0424-0

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