Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Business Analysis of Sustainable Design Best Practices

Press releases don't often make for a very interesting read, nor are they known for being places of discovery for great blog content. However, in this one case I must break tradition and write about a press release from a structural engineering firm in the States, which, in fact, communicates one insightful idea about how AEC firms can profit from the larger global shift toward sustainable design. So rare is the information that I partly think they might not have intended to put up this sort of competitive information in the first place. I immediately saw the value in it, and assume others did as well, mostly because the information and strategies reported in the release can easily be transferred to other firms. In other words, it can be reversed-engineered. Once understood in the context of one's own firm or project, then it's time to ask the serious question: "How can we do what they're doing but better?"

The Summary:

The press release states its purpose is to celebrate the firm's 20,000th solar installation certification. Exercising some discretion, I can report the firm works all over the States on small and mid-size solar installations and certainly to see the sustainable design market mature in size is a good sign of its health. However, I was not expecting the press release to be as forthright was it was in its description of how the firm achieved this milestone. Though I can see their logic, as online marketing values authenticity and sincerity now, and here they have tried to share their expertise transparently. In the end, however, there were definitely elements which stood out that could be learned from and applied elsewhere.  

The Takeaway:

The press release notes they improved their numbers by diligently streamlining their workflows. All elements were considered, from their national network of engineers, to drawing up plans, and then certifying them with letters to jurisdictions across the country. There's a balance to strike in a professional environment of limiting endlessly mindless tasks and having policies which contribute to the coordination of the project. What should be recognized is how focusing on and streamlining workflows helped expand their margins for this service. The firm in question proves thinking strategically and critically about workflows and best practices does pay dividends. Inside design studios across the world there barely ever seems time to catch one's breath as deadline after deadline passes. These are not good conditions for the type of reflection and strategic thinking necessarily to accurately set up these workflows so they support users, and don't work against them. 

The Analogy:

I recently made the above image for a post about how digital design supports sustainable infrastructure projects but wanted to share it again here in this context because it's a good place to start discussing other areas where streamlining workflows and channel efficiencies have benefits. Nowadays in the AEC industry it's common to see larger firms try to capture several phases of the construction and building services industry (vertical integration from pre-construction to post-occupancy). Many of these firms have started to look closely at how to integrate all these different aspects of BIM in one core set of services. Digital design makes clear there are a lot of ways these phases overlap, possibly reducing rework. But this whole cycle only runs smoothly if there's coordination between phases. High-performance teams are going to want to aim for the perfect configuration of coordination policies that balance the features referred to above. Another channel to consider is the sales channel. It's sort of self evident from the image there are competitive advantages to be gained if firms can encourage clients to stay locked into their firm's cycle. There are aspects to the firm/client relationship that can be cultivated and invested in to make it more likely a client would choose a certain firm for a project and thereafter see value in a continued partnership. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Will 3D Printing Make the Construction Industry More Sustainable?

Reporting on the successes of architecture 3D printing, Motherboard updates the status of a project to 3D print a skyscraper in Dubai. Two takeaways from the piece:
  1. As the first 3D printed skyscrapers are being planned, there is little evidence to suggest we should expect current generation concrete 3D printers' CO2 footprint to be any different than traditional concrete-building techniques. This is a concern insofar as concrete production is a particularly energy intensive industry and thus at conflict with some of the carbon-neutral goals of sustainable design. More can be done to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete in general. 
  2. The article highlights the cost-effective nature of 3D printed structures but I am doubtful this should be stressed as the most important quality of sustainable design. In certain constructions of the topic, including issues of housing-accessibility and housing-security in the goals of a sustainable design project is appropriate. But a broadening of the topic is also important to ensure all sources of value in an additive construction tool chain are studied and adapted for business. 
To put one last important characteristic of architectural 3D printing in perspective, additive construction technologies' ability to apply different optimization techniques in order to save materials and increase strength should be highly leveraged in a digital design workflow. This process has the potential to make the built environment look much more organic as these optimized forms share much in common with natural biological processes.

Returning to the skyscraper in Dubai, the research and development the project is leading will continue to be of interest to anyone trying to stay abreast of developments in the AEC Industry. If the method is as cost-effective as they are suggesting, this would be welcomed technology indeed. However, there are many questions remaining as the technology shifts into the mainstream, such as the longevity of the structures after decades of exposure. Modelling from similar materials' behaviour is the most direct way estimate its performance to date. It's worth remembering, jurisdictional approval of such projects depends on the availability of robust engineering data or special approval for the project. Neither route is ideal for large developers looking to reduce risk in design and construction workflows. Jurisdictional and technological issues are unpredictable obstacles on the road to success. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

How To Achieve Sustainable Postmodern Architecture Through Renovation And Repurposing

Normally, I gravitate more toward complex large-scale projects like a moth to a flame. I balance this attraction by consciously keeping an eye on the renovation market for innovative ideas because some of the strongest arguments in favour of sustainable design are best achieved through the renovation and repurposing of existing structures and materials. NADAAA's recently completed Rock Creek House in Washington D.C., is an interesting case study of how far this paradigm can be pushed. With this study it's hoped ideas and methods will surface that will be of benefit to the community of sustainable designers.

I was initially introduced to this modern-looking building the same way many others discover new buildings these days: Through my social media feed. (I apologize I no longer remember which platform but I know way more about the building now anyways.) The project initially stuck out to me because it looked like such a good example of postmodern architecture. The asymmetrical placement of the windows is well balanced. There is great detailing around the windows. And the texture of the exterior brick was very unique; almost ancient, but also deep. However, I was surprised to learn the original house was built in the 1920s, and then bowled over when I learned how radical the renovation had been (as the below image attests).

The use of brick many in residential and commercial projects is lamentable. Bricks themselves have several desirable characteristics such as their cost effectiveness and thermal properties. However, too often the material seems to be used without any meaning attached to its use. It can lead to the brick looking out-of-place in these cases. Leaving aside that one design issue for the moment, Rock Creek House leveraged some of its best qualities by reusing the original house's exterior brick, but drastically reworking its configuration. I think this was a really good choice for the project. The diverse range of tones from a grey-brown pallet gives the exterior a great texture. Care has been paid to the window casing details, which in all images of the building are about as slim and clean as construction allows. 

Moving to the interior. it's drastically different than the 1920s original as well. The designers have gone in a much more conceptual direction. The main stairs' railing is the best example of how radical some of the interior features are. Each will fall where they may as to if they like it or not. I don't mind the boldness except for where it becomes inconvenient and nonfunctional and for the most part the features seem designed with functionally in mind. I find echoes of Japanese design in some of the plain surfaces throughout the house. Great interior lighting from the big windows. On the sustainability front, the design team did an excellent job elevating the use of sustainability sourced plywood in the interior, with again the feature stairs highlighting its use in a parametrically-derived form. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How Digital Design Supports Modern Sustainable Infrastructure Projects

Waking up every morning wanting to improve one's knowledge of BIM is a welcomed characteristic in the AEC industry. Expanding the group of stakeholders who could potentially benefit from the use of BIM in their project is the focus of this article. "Building Information Modelling" has it right there in the title: we should focus on buildings. This misconception contributes to one reason why I've slowly been shifting from strictly describing the use of REVIT or Sketchup as BIM, and have adopted them as tools in a more comprehensive digital design strategy. Infrastructure projects are a good example of where this technology is expanding to. These tend to be projects where construction is going on, but it isn't necessarily building related. This field is an important area of application for BIM because these projects benefit from same positive characteristics of BIM as vertical building: that being better coordination, earlier visualizations, more streamlined production workflow, etc. (I'm assuming my audience is well-acquainted with the benefits of BIM.)

The AEC industry is therefore faced with a choice to either focus more broadly on digital design, or continue to distinguish between horizontal building projects, like rail interchanges and mining concerns, and traditional vertical building projects. My advice is to ignore the debate over whatever to call it – it's a question that doesn't need to be answered at this exact moment. The far better goal, which is also more difficult to achieve, is to make sure your organization is fully dedicated to capturing the value of digital design on every level of the project: that being mostly found in the characteristics of collaboration and coordination, and analysis.

Public Domain image

An example using computational architecture in a production workflow.

Say I've been tasked with laying out 300 km of pipe across some terrain in beautiful Southern Alberta (seen above). It's a very linear problem: There are not a lot of features on either side of the pipe to help orient oneself to the project. However, there is a good chance that despite the problem presenting itself as highly linear with many repeated elements, a great deal of engineering detail is subtly changing along the length of the pipe that absolutely must go on the drawings correctly. "Here the ability of computational architecture and programming skills to setup overview templates and routines which 1) automate the precise and equal spacing of views along the pipeline track and 2) cross-references engineering specifications contained within the view to some other human-readable format (the subject of data visualization). This translates in a production workflow as a nice cheat sheet that always references the important engineering data scaled to an appropriate layout of the project. This sort of script could be as sophisticated or simple as a firm's programming skill and project resources allow and benefits in terms of efficiency gains and increased accuracy will follow proportionally. In navigating these questions the topic of software development is the most likely source of information about the problems currently facing the AEC industry. 

The BIM Cycle. 

Lastly we come to Circular BIM which has implications for many firms wishing to offer the market a full suite of building services from pre-production to construction to post-occupancy facilities management. I don't remember where I first heard this idea but after applying it consistently for a period, the concept continues to shed light on how firms can attract projects at any stage of their lifecycle. Interpreting from within an economic framework of BIM, it's hard to ignore the many applications of digital design and data science to the field. Take for example the strong growth in the market for scan-to-model services of existing buildings. The real estate and development sectors see great value in digital models in the facilities management field. The decommissioning process is also another natural area to apply BIM. As counter-intuitive as it may sound to long time readers, situations arise where BIM for decommissioning and demolishing is the perfect digital platform for the project, supporting many automated quantifying tasks with only a little post-processing of the scan-to-model data. This is contrasted to how BIM was framed as just a building tool at the beginning of the piece. Firms wanting to expand in any market are going to want to invite clients to start their project anywhere on the BIM circle. Smaller firm might what to focus on only a couple of BIM phases to gain a competitive advantage in them. Larger firms will have an easier time establishing a complete tool chain to capture projects anywhere in the cycle. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Reuse Materials in Architecture with Help From Robots

Normally I don't write about this sort of topic, instead preferring slightly more serious subjects, but a new Sketchup plugging, Trussfab, caught my eye, and I've only now had time to look into the technology further. The research project aims to combine several technologies – 3D printing, structural optimization, and construction tracking – to build pretty much whatever you can imagine out of recycled/reclaimed plastic bottles. I found the playfulness of the project's aims really engaging. My creative side sees many useful applications for theses types of structures, all the while putting an exclamation point behind the awesomeness that is sustainable design.

I don't think it occurred to me that such a recycling program was ever executable, which I guess is what prompted me to learn more. Most of the process will be familiar to causal Sketchup users, and the plugin allows specially created forms in the shape of tetrahedrons and octahedra to be placed by users. The program keeps track of all the modularity for you. The plugin also has a built-in structural analysis tool which warns users about possible weaknesses in the design. The last step is to fabricate the connectors. Again, computation to the recuse. With another set of analytical tools the program figures out all the needs for hubs and connectors and outputs them to the 3D model file format of your choice for 3D printing. Installation is a breeze because the program tracks all the pieces and prints a unique ID on each. Below attached is a time lapse from last month's CHI'17 robots conference in Denver, CO. and shows how the structure was built and fills the space. 

In an effort to make architecture seem more dangerous and alluring, I guess we should point out some of the things to be careful of if attempting a plastic bottle truss project:
  1. Because of the inherent lightness of plastic bottles, there is little risk of severe injury or damage if a structure happens to topple over during construction. However, that is not to say there isn't a point where its possible to build a structure so large failure would be catastrophic. All that to say there is a point in these projects where an engineer's services will definitely need to be engaged. 
  2. Reclaiming a product for another use can absolutely be put in the win column. However, it's important to remember plastic is a diabolical substance, literately saving lives in certain surgical situations, but at the same time also slowly poisoning the environment. These projects don't so much as stop that process but hold it off. I think many are starting to make better long-term choices about plastics, but there's a heck of a lot in the environment now or on its way there directly, which I had no role in putting there. And while I'm not placing blame on whoever thought it was a good idea to just allow ships to toss there garbage overboard, nor do I really have a good idea about what to do about it. (But I would plead we please leave some fish in the ocean for my grandchildren.)
The connection between these types of applications and Calgary's Beakerhead events or any world engineering festival is easily made. This program so greatly lowers the threshold for constructibility on these types of structures that it effectively gives a much larger population access to this technology. This is a bit of a double-edged sword in and of itself. While these sorts of projects popularize and demystify the field of engineering for students, the ease from which these structures can be built and made to look infinitely complex can dilute their artistic impact. Hence the important role of architectural criticism in all this; to be always pushing for a deeper meaning and good designI also wouldn't count out some innovative uses for this type of technology in regards to low-cost structures like temporary or emergency shelters. The world is so big that I have no doubt creative people will look at this tool chain and imagine completely novel applications that haven't been considered yet.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

How Computational Engineering Supports Better Building Quality

News of Dynamo's achievements are starting to spread widely, but that's not to say it can't be helped further. I'm normally a bit more focused on the production side of computational architecture but this use case for computational architecture by ARUP and Populous really highlighted some of the benefits of using this technology. Populous is a small firm with a growing international presence but in this project's style and trends were not the only factors driving the early design phase. 

The linked case study explores how ARUP provided Populous with 12 detailed structural options in 12 weeks for Australia's proposed National football stadium. Without the computational support the article states they would have only produced 3 or 4 options in the same time period. From the perspective of the client, this increase in design options represents a better search of the total solution space. This translates for the building design manager as an increase in building quality. The source of this extra value is in the application of iterative design techniques. One of the characteristics of this application worth pointing out is the detail contained in the options. Dynamo was as much responsible for increasing the number of options analyzed but also, importantly, increasing the detail. In this data-intensive age where econometrics is replacing economics, the increased level of model detail drove more accurate cost estimates, certainly for materials, as ARUP's specialty is structure, but also I assume construction costs as well, which depends heavily on the complexity of the geometry. 

A last point to note is where ARUP stopped using Dynamo in the project: At the building performance analysis stage. ARUP owns a software company and therefore probably has little need for other 3rd-party software to analyze their projects to the quality they want. Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, Dynamo is not optimized for the types of calculations seen in structural analysis, nor its interface, giving 3rd-party products an advantage. That is beginning to change as Dynamo matures as a programming language. A team in Europe has spent a great deal of effort putting together an Dynamo-based structural optimization package called DynaShape. Considering its aim, the software is a bit complex to use. And I can't speak to the quality of its output either, that being a whole other complicated subject. But the code is open-source so those curious enough can find out for themselves. There are some videos included in the link as well which give a clearer idea about the capabilities of the package, though I wish they were longer. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Celebrating the Architecture of Zaha Hadid

There have been various tributes to Zaha Hadid over the past year and now it's my turn to contribute. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I accept an architect's portfolio can vary in quality over time. However, I didn't have any problem picking out four of my favourites for this piece, leaving Wangjing SOHO and her work for The London Science Museum's Architects' Mathematics project as close runners up for inclusion. Hopefully this piece strikes a loud celebratory tone, even if I can't help but mention some of the buildings' neglected details. What I really want to throw a party for is Hadid herself. She has an amazing story and I really admire her tenacity to build. It's definitely something I can identify with. Her extraction from the Middle East and representation of that culture in modern architecture has improved our cities immensely. She had the honour of being the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize in 2004. I will end by saying if you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it with at least one friend that needs a smile.

Heydar Aliyev Center, Azerbaijan, 2013
A small problem about this building cropped up in the preparation for this post: It looks good from every angle. This fact made it difficult to pick a favourite perspective. Once in view, it's a hard building to take one's eyes off of. Hadid really seems at her most inspired here. The interior is a bit strange, with the main entrance foyer in pure white. I know it's to accentuate the forms but the atmosphere has always struck me as a bit sterile. I've never heard any reports back as to the auditorium's acoustic performance but I imagine its relative remoteness plays a factor in that. Returning to the exterior, it will be interesting to see how the future treats the glass finishing, the main building tiles using a glass-reinforced polymer and the plaza a glass-reinforced concrete.

The Jockey Club Innovation Center, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 2014.
This building in particular does such a good job channelling the futuristic style of Japanese science-fiction anime. I don't know if that's what Hadid was aiming for when she designed this building, but overall, the building's stance does an excellent job communicating its forward-thinking purpose; the perfect message for a university. Many buildings in our communities don't stray far from the traditional rectilinear form and wear their value engineering as an aesthetic. I really applaud the clients for their open mindedness in this project. The way the facade twists and wraps around the exterior adds a lot of visual interest to the building.

Library and Learning Centre University of Economics, Vienna, 2013
This building is also really interesting from the air but I liked this view of the main entrance better. The interior, for the most part, sticks to all white again but I think the spaces are much better handled in this project and don't seem so sterile or monolithic as the Heydar Aliyev Center above. Here I think the comparison to postmodern Japanese architecture is also apt because that is a category of architecture which also highlights the sophisticated possibilities of pure white interiors.
Investcorp building, Oxford, 2015.
I wanted to include this smaller project from her studio because it showcases her excellent conception of novel interior spaces and approach to matching modern architecture to traditional settings. Sometimes whacky curvilinear rooms never really work functionally but much of Hadid's work pulls off this difficult balancing act between form and function. The interior views of this building confirm how much planning and effort went into designing these spaces. The exterior is where I see the most Middle Eastern influence but have been struggling to find the words to express it. Housing some of the facilities for Oxford's School of Middle Eastern studies, I imagine this project was meaningful to Hadid. It's parametric roots are obvious but somehow it's proportions exemplify the dignity of the region that couldn't be accomplished by a Japanese of North American architect. That said, perhaps others will see this building distinctly in the modern international style that could be placed anywhere.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

3D Printing in the Design Office

Surveying the complete field of architectural 3D printing, this week instead of studying structures large enough to walk through, we introduce two firms broadly implementing 3D printing across their offices. The Asia Times article is interesting for its insights into this transition, but also what questions it never asks which I think are important from my involvement with the field. Starting with a bit of context, while my architectural education jumped directly to 3D printing, I don't think architectural model-making is going anywhere, but it's important we keep the tradition in a proper modern light, recognizing what's good about scale models and why they're so helpful to the design process. Like many things, digital technology has changed the dynamics of what scale models can do for a design project.  

International architecture firm Aedas had the goal of introducing 3D printing to all of their offices in China. In their reason for establishing the goal Benny Chow, director of sustainability at Aedas, states “We are architects, and we love and understand design. But all customers do not understand design. By using 3D printers and models, we can explain and illustrate our thoughts. It makes it easier for our clients to understand and to make decisions.” Very true. The article goes on to state, "Cost-wise, the investment in 3D technology is minimal compared with the savings." Well anyone responsible for building design management will welcome cost savings in the design process because of better decisions earlier from the client. The characteristics of providing a professional service (as opposed to a consumer good) means the marketplace is also competitive on qualities not necessarily representatives in the cost alone, such as quality, which leads to my second point: 

Here my I go further than the Asia Times article, stressing the role a scale model can play in helping designers understand the complex 3D relationships of a form and different 3D qualities of the form, such as shadows and perspective. This helpfulness is, to a great extent, detached from how the 3D scale model was produced. Establishing a rapid iteration workflow with 3D printing combined with the superb communicative properties of scale models raises the quality of buildings. While Aedas seems to focus on 3D printing benefits to clients, B+H Architects' Toronto studio's piece talking about taking delivery of a Stratasys 3D printer comes closer to illustrating my second point, here quoting at length:

"Designers use scaled models to demonstrate the fundamental form of buildings. 3D printing models enable the possibility of presenting several options at once. For example, possible designs can be made to fit into a scaled contextual layout of the surrounding area (e.g. a city block) to understand how a proposal will integrate into its immediate environment. A physical model can demonstrate that a building will comply with view corridor restrictions and it can also show how a design will complement the neighbouring cityscape as it impacts form in the area.

Advanced tools and technology can multiply possibilities and create endless opportunities, but at the end of the day, the people using technology are integral to project success. Despite the many things that technology can do, people are essential to the curation of data during the process and designers offer a skilled eye for composition to understand what can and can’t be achieved. In the end, comprehensive design solutions are the result of careful curation where possibilities are vetted for sheer aesthetic and other criteria like material availability and cost. Designers can anticipate needs and intuitively connect with what makes the most sense for the context — and there’s no technology in the world that can teach that…yet."

So assuming your firm is humming along taking full advantage of all the benefits 3D printing's offers, there is one last reminder about 3D printers in offices worth repeating: Depending on the printer model, some are really not meant for indoor use. The types Aedas uses which are producing models 24/7 365 days a year require their own specialized room with upgraded ventilation. I'm keeping my hopes up for an environmentally sustainable closed-loop printer. But until then, office design will once again adapt to include an additive manufacturing suite in the design studio. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How Graphic Design Makes Buildings Better

Over the last couple of weekends, in honour of Edward Tufte's work on information design, I drafted a visual example of one helpful principle from his lifetime of work. His work is so helpful in this particular instance because, beyond describing the importance of clarity in linework and colour selection, he also offers guidance on how best to choose them. Each should be proportionally chosen by their "smallest effective difference" relative to other elements (which the below image tries to represent; click to enlarge). The middle panel shows my best attempt at perfecting the balanced linework, with the two extremes set to each side, one with the line differences exaggerated and the other using all the same line weight. 


Competency in information design is core to the fluent and detailed expression of architectural ideas. The reason I meet the subject with such intensity is because I recognize construction documents as central to the design process and building awesome structures. The graphic design characteristics of construction documents are actually responsible for communicating things with completely nontrivial risks attached to them like structural loads and electrical capacities. These documents have to go out perfectly. My appreciation of construction drawings and architectural renderings extends into the artistic, and a well-rendered architectural section would not be out of place on my apartment walls. We all sort of have an intuition there's something scientific about graphic design, but Edward Tufte's work was significant because it established the field in a larger scientific context borrowed mainly from the cognitive neurosciences and statistics. I return again and again to the three books I own of Tufte's:
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983)
  • Envisioning Information (1990),
  • Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (1997)
They are exceptionally good books and I've never felt the need to expand past them (with the exception of Ellen Lupton's excellent work for Princeton Architectural Press).


I think more than anything my accomplishments in graphic design lay in the intensity with which I bring to bare the topic. Having understood information design's central role in construction documents and architectural renderings, I attack the subject with zeal and make no apologies for being a perfectionist when it comes to the graphical quality of my work. Assuming one is properly motivated to summon the care necessary to match the challenge, these particular images were all made in Adobe Illustrator CC. Two of the references are from Francis K. Ching and the top parapet is from one of my building science texts.