Smog-Eating Façades and the Future of Air Quality

Matt Shaw Matt Shaw

“Sustainability” comes in a range of scales, from the thoughtful planning of mega-urban infrastructure to home daylighting design and innovative material choices for commercial projects. But can a building’s entire envelope sync with the environment? We’ve unearthed one of the most intriguing and uncanny trends of late: the smog-eating surface.

The treatment is a thin layer of titanium dioxide (TiO2), a powder or liquid that can be applied to glass, concrete, metal, or fabric; when sunlight hits the chemically treated surface, a process begins that oxidizes organic matter, turning pollutants into water vapor and CO2.

Image via

The innovative technique has recently been used on the Manuel Gea González Hospital in Mexico City, one of the most polluted cities in the world. The façade was designed to use Prosolve 370e, a new system of thermoformed plastic shells are coated in TiO2 developed by Elegant Embellishments. The system blends sustainability with forward-thinking construction techniques and novel form: the developers used Rhino to fabricate five different modules, each shaped to maximize surface area, light reception, and wind resistance, and thus increase the benefits of the treatment.

Image via

The visual complexity and ornamental qualities of the façade—formally reminiscent of Reiser + Umemoto’s stunning O-14 Tower, a recent A+ Awards finalist—are the result of the functional aspects. As opposed to the monolithic concrete solidity of the tower, though, the hospital’s bone-like, perforated surfaces are lightweight and easily detachable.

Image via

This building is not the first to try cleaning the air. In 2012, New York-based architects HWKN won the MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program competition with their own smog-eating construction. Theirs used fabric treated with a liquid Ti02 compound and assembled into a star-like character; dubbed “Wendy,” the structure scrubbed the air for one summer, removing the smog of an estimated 260 cars from the New York City air supply.

“Wendy” at work.

In the TEDxTalk below, designer Alison Dring, director of Elegant Embellishments, discusses the material and its potential uses. “Why not coats entire cities in it?” she asks. Perhaps, in the future, every architectural surface will be working to improve air quality; these buildings might be the first steps toward that new world.

© JHW IROJE architects&planners

Forest and House // JHW IROJE architects&planners

Sunchang-gun, South Korea

© Estúdio Urbano Arquitectos

Belas House // Estúdio Urbano Arquitectos

Belas, Portugal