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Because the Sharifa-Ha House in Tehran has a narrow footprint, the architect designed rotating “pods,” or rooms, that close to a horizontal position (above left) to keep the house warm in winter. When summer arrives, the pods rotate outward (center) to open each room to the views and outdoor terraces (above right). (photo by Parham Taghioff, www.taghioff.com/courtesy NextOffice Studio of Architectural Research & Design)

Foldable and functional is the new “it” in innovative designs.

By Kerstin Lieff

Mythology has a term, shape-shifter. It’s the ability to magically transform oneself into something completely new. A frog becomes a prince; a field becomes a circus.

Some have wondered if structures could do the same thing: transform and function in a completely different shape. Architects thinking outside the box (or inside it, if you will) are creating shape-shifting designs that transform as if by magic. Here are examples from around the world.

Pod House

The Sharifi-ha House in Tehran, whose construction was restricted by its narrow urban footprint, unfolds with the seasons. Three of the home’s rooms, or “pods,” can rotate 90 degrees to open up views and terraces in summer, and rotate back to a horizontal position to keep the house warm in the cold winter months. The architect, Alireza Taghaboni, employed foldable balustrades that tilt up or down as the pods rotate to accomplish the changeable façade.

Dynamic Sports Park

Sports fields aren’t feasible in Seoul, where space is at a premium. This South Korean structure unfolds for unconventional sports, like wall tennis, flying-disc games and triangle basketball with three hoops. (photo courtesy b.u.s. architecture)
When fully unfolded, the sports field becomes a semicircular soccer field (photo courtesy b.u.s. architecture)

A “dynamic” recreational park in Seoul, South Korea, is on a smaller scale. Seoul is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, with very little open space for traditional sports like soccer and basketball. Seoul-based B.U.S. Architecture developed a park structure that folds to become a facility for unconventional sports, like flying-disc games, wall tennis, and triangle basketball with three hoops. When fully unfolded, the structure becomes a semicircular soccer field. Designer Ji Hyun Park says traditional sports aren’t possible in densely populated areas and his design allows for unique recreational opportunities in cramped cities.

Shape-Shifter Home

photos courtesy David Ben-Grunberg, www.thedhaus.com

Some of the most innovative designs are still in the conceptual stage. A shape-shifting house, designed in the U.K. by architects David Ben-Grunberg and Daniel Woolfson, unfolds in response to the seasons—and even the time of day. The house literally reconfigures into eight different shapes, transforming from a square into equilateral triangles, causing interior partitions to become exterior walls, doors to become windows, and windows to become doors. The house rotates to follow the sun during the year so that it opens into triangles in summer, and collapses back to a square in winter. According to the architects, “We believe creating buildings that can adapt and change is a much more sustainable way of living.”

Their design has yet to be built, however, and there are inherent problems, says Boulder architect EJ Meade of Arch 11. “I believe in the visionary, but there are so many challenges to just getting a building not to move. Operative parts at smaller scales are much more realistic,” he says.

Country Cottage

This country cottage in the Netherlands can slide open to become an outdoor patio. If the weather turns iffy, glass panels can slide over the patio to protect against the elements. (photo by Jorrit ‘t Hoen, www.jorritphoto.com)

A country cottage in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, is a seasonal dwelling built for summer living. But the entire home can remarkably transform into an indoor-outdoor patio. Self-taught designer Caspar Schols built this prefab “Garden House” for his mother. A therapist by trade, she wanted a summer cottage for entertaining and a place where her grandchildren could do art and perform plays. She also wanted a quiet cottage for writing and meditating. The house Schols built contains an inner shell of double glass, with wooden trusses that go over the glass. An overarching steel roof caps the cottage.

photo by Jorrit ‘t Hoen, www.jorritphoto.com

Imagine sitting cozily by your wood-burning stove when suddenly the clouds disappear and a warm spring day arrives—like it can do in Colorado. You decide you’d prefer to sit outside, so you slide back the wood and glass shells until you’re sitting in the fresh air. If it gets too hot or windy, as it can also do in Colorado, you simply slide the inner glass shell back to center to have full protection against the elements and still retain the outdoor views. When winter comes, just slide everything back together until the home is completely enclosed.

Open House

Photos by Matthew Mazzotta, www.matthewmazzotta.com

The Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Ala., wanted a public community space, so it turned a condemned house inside a park into a foldable public theater. The iconic 1930s home was about to be razed. Artists salvaged the timbers, siding and window frames to reuse in the construction of a new house that looks much like its predecessor. Known as the “Open House,” the structure unfolds at the roofline into five sections to transform into a 100-seat space where community members can watch films, plays and musical performances, and host meetings. “People that sit together can dream together,” says artist Matthew Mazzotta, who designed the project.

Furniture That Flattens

Photos: table courtesy Ozzio Italia; sofa/bed by CLEI, courtesy Studio 2b

Shape-shifting furniture from Studio 2B in Denver offers many possibilities for smaller spaces. Space is at a premium in many European apartments, so Italian furniture-maker Ozzio Italia designed an entertainment center to store a dining table and four chairs that can unfold into an instant dining-room set.

Italian manufacturer Clei offers furniture that transforms a living room into a bed space through foldable components—a twist on the Murphy bed. When a Boulder family’s two sons grew too big to share a room, Clei was their solution. “Our 15-year-old wanted his own room, but our guestroom was only large enough for a bed,” explains their mother. “With Clei, we were able to include a desk, a sectional couch, storage and a queen-size bed—a modern and perfect solution.”

In a world where the population continues to soar, it seems that foldable and functional is a logical next step to address space and sustainability concerns.


Kerstin Lieff is the 2013 Colorado Book Award-winning author of Letters from Berlin: A Story of War, Survival, and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship.