NJIT Professor Designs New Building Materials

Martina Decker researches new materials that could lead to sustainable architecture.

Most architects are content to use existing building materials.  But Martina Decker, an environmentally-concerned designer with a keen interest in science and technology, wants to create new building materials. 

Decker, an assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Design, has partnered with scientists to create new building materials that have the potential to reduce fossil fuel consumption and thus make buildings more sustainable.

She has, for instance, fabricated a prototype for a smart screen that, once installed within glass building facades, could moderate temperature and light. The screen is engineered from shape-memory alloys that can change shape as a result of changes in room temperature. The concept is simple: if it’s cold inside, the screen opens to allow sunlight into the building. Conversely, on hot days the screen closes to block the solar heat. No electricity is needed to move the screen, since the material is both a sensor and a motor. Though the concept is simple, the science involved in creating the screen is complex. And that’s why Decker, who arrived at NJIT in the fall, loves working at the university.

“Before I arrived here, NJIT researchers like Zafar Iqbal shaped my understanding of certain materials,” says Decker, who is quick to add that creating new materials can be accomplished only through collaboration. “NJIT professors are doing amazing things and it’s very exciting for me to be here.”

Before coming to NJIT, Decker was a visiting critic in the Architecture Department at Cornell University, and taught art and design at the Rhode Island School of Design, as well as at Parsons in Manhattan. She is a frequent lecturer at universities where she has spoken on the use of new materials and how they can change the future of architecture.  She completed her architecture degree at the University of Applied Sciences, in Munich, and has worked in offices in Europe and North America. She co-founded Decker Yeadon LLC, a Brooklyn-based architectural office, in 2006.

This semester Decker is teaching a collaborative design studio. The class is comprised of industrial design majors, digital design majors and interior design majors. All of the students in the studio class are working in teams to design and create a contemporary circus. Decker is also setting up a Material Dynamics Lab, where she intends to work with NJIT professors and students to explore the application of new building materials. The lab will be located in NJIT’s Idea Factory.  

One of the material groups she’ll work to develop in the lab are smart materials that can react to their environment. She’s especially interested in polymorphic smart materials that can change shape in response to an external stimulus. These smart materials operate like artificial muscles and as such can be used in various ways to promote sustainable building.  She’ll also assess new materials for architectural applications and work on shaping the materials for specific building applications.

“This is the moment in my research when close collaboration with scientists is essential,” she says. “Designers know what the particular performance requirements, but scientists know exactly how to modify the performance of substances and materials.”

She hopes to work closely with NJIT Physics Professor John Federici, who is establishing the Remote Sensing Center at NJIT.  Sophisticated sensor technologies are important not only to activate some of the new material assemblies.  But the sensors are also essential to monitor and measure the effectiveness of a new material prototype.  Once in her lab, Decker will create proof-of-concept prototypes to verify the performance of the material assemblies.

She hasbeen at NJIT only for a few months, yet Decker says it’s a perfect environment for a designer like her, who wants to collaborate with researchers to invent new materials.

NJIT is a close-knit university that excels in design and architecture as well as in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, she says.  Researchers in all of those fields work in proximity to each other, which makes for a perfect environment for innovation.

“As a designer I will work closely with various researchers here," she says, "and hope this will be an example of how NJIT unites science and technology with architecture and design to develop new sustainable technologies.”

By Robert Florida