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New Urbanist is a monthly column that explores how technology and design are changing our cities, homes, the built environment – and ourselves

“Does your home have an airplane mode?” The RAM House prototype allows control over what radio signals enter, or leave, the structure (Image: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti for Space Caviar)

When a newly renovated apartment in San Francisco went on the market earlier this year for roughly $8.5 million, its asking price included a somewhat unexpected amenity: “excellent EMF protection”. The entire flat had been rigorously fortified against electromagnetic fields.

Architects used to be concerned primarily with questions of light, visual aesthetics and maintaining a comfortable temperature – with an ear for acoustic privacy. Today, however, in an age of mobile phone communications, Bluetooth and home WiFi – to name just a few of the sources of electromagnetic waves now coursing through the built environment – architects must consider a whole new range of forces and energies. Put another way, electromagnetism is beginning to have a physical influence on the way we construct and manage the built environment.

In the case of the San Francisco apartment – widely described by an incredulous media as a multimillion-dollar tinfoil hat – the home’s electromagnetic profile was achieved by applying heavy graphite-based paints on all interior surfaces. Conductive wire tape was then applied in a large network, connecting the walls, floors and ceilings. Finally, the windows were coated with transparent, EMF-resistant films. Taken as a whole, these measures prevent electromagnetic signals from entering the apartment. It is a live-in Faraday cage, an enclosure made from conductive materials, named after 19th-century inventor Michael Faraday who discovered how to block and redirect electrical fields.

Shimmering curtains of WiFi

Why? Among photos of the renovation process on the marketing website for the San Francisco property were lengthy descriptions of the potential health risks posed by electromagnetic fields. The house was being sold as a peculiar kind of isolation chamber, sealed off from the outside world. But what is particularly noteworthy here from an architectural perspective is the way in which interior design – including specific building materials – can be used to sculpt otherwise invisible electromagnetic environments.

Last year, physicist Jason Cole at Imperial College London published a mathematical model showing how WiFi propagates through architectural interiors. The work relies on the Helmholtz equation, a partial differential equation for modelling field oscillations in space. Cole’s model revealed the ways in which curtains of WiFi shimmer and move through a building, passing from room to room, and around walls and other obstructions (pictured below). Cole has since made an Android app that lets you visualise the pattern of WiFi signals in your own home.

Simulation of WiFi propagation in Cole’s own flat. The black circle represents the router, and the ‘hotter’ the colour the stronger the signal (Image: Jason Cole)

In one sense, Cole’s work simply reveals the obvious: that certain spatial configurations of routers and receivers offer better wireless reception than others. This is hardly surprising. However, his model suggests an alternative approach: rather than continuing to shuffle devices around within an existing space, why not rethink the positioning of the walls in the first place – or at least the materials those walls are made from?

The model has intriguing architectural implications. Since these equations show how WiFi signals are reflected or blocked by materials such as brick, concrete, timber and glass, then it’s conceivable that an architect could simply reverse-engineer the ideal WiFi space from these same calculations, says Cole.

Signal architecture

In other words, architects could use computational simulations to sculpt home interiors that offer the best electromagnetic reception. Of course, this would not leave architects with much to do. The ultimate solution would be to simply build a big, open-plan interior with no obstructions or walls, says Cole. Indeed, welcome to modern architecture! But in a large, multi-room house or apartment, architects may not have that luxury and must instead balance the competing demands of walls and WiFi.

Still, hidden in Cole’s mathematical models are the shadowy outlines of an electromagnetically improved home. This realisation opens a vast and strange new world for architectural design or home makeovers &ndash one where signal propagation becomes as important a design parameter as natural light, good acoustics or fresh air. Developers might boast of WiFi efficiency ratings the same way they now tout sustainable design and luxury amenities. Architects will learn to build with electromagnetically porous materials in configurations that boost both wireless internet transmission and square footage. Designers are not yet prepared for this scenario, says curator Joseph Grima, co-founder of an Italian arts organisation called Space Caviar. As Grima sees it, an entirely new class of design parameters has emerged and architects have not had time to adapt. For now, adding WiFi or Bluetooth to a home is nothing more than an aftermarket add-on, something the residents themselves will do through a chaotic assemblage of gadgets, antennae and routers.

Police radar intrusion

Yet the rise of the so-called smart home – where networked devices, communicating in real time, are peppered throughout the domestic environment – means that we may be surrounded by electromagnetic technologies 24 hours a day. This also means that we will be constantly monitored. The challenge for architects, says Grima, is twofold: they must learn to design with these devices in mind, but they must also learn to design so that residents can find refuge from them. This is an altogether novel conception of architectural privacy, well beyond the problem of noise coming through thin walls, or windows overlooking a neighbour’s back garden.

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