Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) say they have designed a building material that changes its infrared color — and how much heat it absorbs or emits — based on the outside temperature. On hot days, the material can emit up to 92% of the infrared heat it contains, helping cool the inside of a building; on colder days, however, the material emits just 7% of its infrared, helping keep a building warm.

“We’ve essentially figured out a low-energy way to treat a building like a person,” says Asst. Prof. Po-Chun Hsu, who led the research. “You add a layer when you’re cold and take off a layer when you’re hot. This kind of smart material lets us maintain the temperature in a building without huge amounts of energy.”

Buildings account for 30% of global energy consumption and emit 10% of all global greenhouse gas according to some estimates. About half of this energy footprint is attributed to the heating and cooling of interior spaces.