The biggest changes to shake up architecture in a long time may have their origins in the very, very small. Nanotechnology, the understanding and control of matter at a scale of one- to one hundred-billionths of a meter, is bringing incredible changes to the materials and processes of building. How ready we are to embrace them could make a big difference in the future of architects.

Already, this new science of the small has brought to market self-cleaning windows, smog-eating concrete, and toxin-sniffing nanosensors. Three hundred nanoengineered products are now commercially available; $32 billion worth of them were sold last year, with sales expected to top $1 trillion by 2015. But these off-the-shelf advances offer only a taste of what’s incubating in the world’s nanotech labs today. There, work is under way on nanocomposites thin as glass, yet capable of supporting entire buildings, and photosynthetic coatings that can make any building surface a source of free energy.

Nano-technology works by tweaking matter from the bottom up. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter—the paper you’re reading this article on is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Recent advances in scanning electron microscopes and other technologies now make it possible to see and manipulate matter at the molecular scale more economically than ever before. Using these tools, nanoscientists are creating revolutionary materials like coatings a single atom thick, carbon nanotubes up to 50 times stronger than steel (yet 10 times lighter), and quantum dots that could enable us to change the color of almost any object instantaneously.

These remarkable effects are achievable because matter behaves differently at the nanoscale, where the laws of quantum physics take hold. In this quantum world, objects can change color, shape, and phase much more easily than at the macro scale. Fundamental properties like strength, surface-to-mass ratio, conductivity, and elasticity can be engineered to create dramatically different materials.

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Nanotech’s “wonder materials” have the potential to revolutionize how and what we build. One day, carbon nanotubes (a molecular model is shown above) and other nanomaterials could so radically transform our material palette that paper-thin sheets might hold up entire buildings, forcing us to completely rethink the relationship between structure and skin.

Carbon nano tubes—sheets of graphite just one atom thick, formed into a cylinder—are not only 50 times stronger than steel and 10 times lighter, they are transparent and electrically conductive to boot. Nanotubes are already the building blocks for hundreds of applications, used to reinforce concrete and deliver medication to individual cells.

Nano composites, which combine new nanomaterials with more traditional ones such as steel, concrete, glass, and plastics, can be many times stronger than standard materials. Already on the market is a nano composite steel that is three times stronger than conventional steel. In the near term, nano composite reinforcement of steel, concrete, glass, and plastics will dramatically improve the performance, durability, and strength-to-weight ratio of these materials. Before long, nano-reinforced glass might be used for both structure and enclosure.

In the student projects, nanotube structural panels create transparent load-bearing curtain walls free of columns and beams, quantum dots make walls and ceilings light up or change color with the flip of a switch, and nanosensors in building components create smart environments that constantly adapt to their environment and users. But these are not just “house of the future” fantasies: My students also address the social and environmental concerns raised by nanotechnology, from toxicity (nanoparticles are so tiny, they can pass through cell membranes) to privacy (who controls the data gathered by embedded nanosensors?).

Privacy, sustainability, and security are just a few of the issues that will be profoundly affected by nano-technology. As threats from terrorism and even from natural forces like hurricanes rise, we will utilize the strength of nanotubes to make our buildings more secure. Research that is now under way to make Army vehicle windshields bomb-proof, using polycarbonate-reinforced nanofibers, may soon be applicable to building glass.