Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How to Adapt to Disruption Through Collaboration in the AEC Industry

This article begins by raising a red flag that disruption is coming to the AEC industry. A maturing workforce with expertise in building information modelling and computational architecture could not have arrived at a better time to match these challenges. However, business models and best practices around architectural 3D printing and additive construction are still very much in flux and a different type of mindset is needed to successfully tackle these subjects. Education is needed:

  • Building Design Management. Here we strive to understand additive construction techniques, architectural 3D printing, and building information modelling with the tools of business analysis and economics.
  • Digital design. There's a range of digital design characteristics to consider which affect creativity. Starting at the almost childlike interaction with technology through to architecture-specific traits like modularity and prefabrication.

One thing a fair and open society can do to adapt to these changes is collaborate; and here yes I mean in the warm-and-fuzzy sense but also the literal sense. A significant feature of preparing wisely for such a disruption is acceptance of the solution's multi-disciplinary nature. Here I'd like to introduce the work of Swiss-scientist Jonas Buchli in support. His recent research published through the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research is proposing a drastic change to the construction site, stating "radical focus on domain specific robotic technology enabling the use of digital fabrication directly on construction sites and in large scale prefabrication." Doesn't that sound like science-fiction? Science Daily goes on to describe the importance of multidisciplinary skills in the research, "They bring a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach that incorporates researchers from architecture, materials science, and robotics."

Jonas Buchli ETH Zurich/Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

As buildings become more complex, the proportion of a structure an architect is qualified to design decreases. This highlights the collaborative role of the contemporary architect. Author Stephen Emmitt suggests "cross-cultural leadership intelligence" is needed and that is a very good way to describe it. Combining different engineering disciplines, construction specialities, and stakeholders into one motivated team still strongly depends on more ancient and subjective leadership qualities like open mindedness and compromise. Building projects are complex and expensive and therefore deserve a great amount of scrutiny and study to drive positive results. 

Understanding economic developments in the field are a bit more complex. To date, I haven't read an authoritative analysis of how the economic structure of the industry will shift when the effectiveness of economy-of-scale methods are reduced. Additive construction reduces the penalty for customization by moving the process dominantly into the software realm. It might take a once-in-a-century economic thinker like Adam Smith to frame our understanding of how these new markets will behave. In other respects, the educational component seems to be taking care of itself. Human playfulness and curiosity have ignited maker spaces across the world and there is lively research in the field into how best to introduce digital design to students of any age. Here readers are encouraged to check out the work of educator Corinne Okada Takara and institutions like MIT's Multimedia Lab which really are the sharp point of the multi-disciplinary architectural practice.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Beacons of Sustainable Architecture

This post focuses on a still developing building-type that has some sustainability and quality-of-life features which deserve to be more widely known. Maybe green lighthouses are a widely known building-type or maybe the reader was like me and thought literally "green lighthouse" when they first heard the term. Digging into the subject these are really interesting buildings and might represent a good design option for some projects. The examples I've collected here are from Nanjing, China and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and we're going to explore all sorts of connections between them to describe the type. Digital design and prefabrication techniques allows modern architecture to be very adventurous in experimenting with form, however, some projects will be looking for options which optimize modularity through simplifying form. Adapting the cylindrical shape to sustainable architecture drives a lot of the buildings' high-performance features, two of them being the amount and quality of the sunlight, and zero-carbon footprint.

University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Making some assumptions about the reader's familiarity with the characteristics of interior sunlight and how to control it, these buildings exemplify what is possible with careful solar modelling. I'm picky as sin when it comes to the quality of interior natural light and draw upon its connection to the productivity of employees and the comfort and health of staff to encourage its use. Materials on the development of the buildings make clear modelling the behaviour of natural sunlight inside over the day and year was key to optimizing the equal distribution of quality sunlight inside. Dynamic shading is utilized on the Nanjing example which contributes to the sustainability features of the building. Secondly, each building is carbon neutral which is a goal I try to champion because I feel an obligation on the behalf of the architecture profession to contribute to solutions of climate change.

There were too many other sustainability features to mention all of them which signals the maturing field of the sustainable design. Some of the credit for the abundance of efficiency features included in each project represents our last connection between the two. COWI Engineering, headquartered in Denmark, had a consulting role in each. I really liked their approach to sustainable architecture and infrastructure design and this is totally something we should all be supporting as we at the same time raise our expectations of how the AEC industry should contribute to lowering a building's carbon footprint and increasing its energy efficiency.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre

Reviewing the VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre of Vancouver, we should be happy sustainable architecture continues to be second-to-none in terms of aesthetic appeal. Industry professionals should take note that the construction of the visitor centre in many ways exemplifies the benefits of building information model in streamlining the workflow of complex forms. To beginning, the website describes the overall building thusly:
"Shaped like an orchid when viewed from above, its organic lines echo the way nature and conservation have been considered at every turn. The building is widely recognized as a pioneering structure in green design—and is LEED Platinum certified."

A curved structural grid system was used to organize the building's layout from which the structural system of columns and custom glulam beams were derived. Much of the building's enclosure was made from pre-fabricated wood panels to capture the complex free-form surface. Again building information modelling software platforms are optimized for this type of work. Custom glulam beams and pre-fabricated wood panels would have been carefully tracked and laid out on page after page of construction details. BIM gives the additional confidence that as changes occur, the drawing set would have been automatically updated. The story of architecture separated from other design fields decades ago in setting aside how the design was to be built. It's just a characteristic of the professional field that unlike consumer-goods, architectural designs – "the product" – are sold before the design is even completed or built. As BIM matures we're seeing construction processes considered earlier in the design phase with the application of modularity and prefabrication techniques which have the effect of reversing this trend. Fast+Epp is again here again lending their expertise in the structural use of wood. 

When Frank Gehry was experimenting with free-form shapes at the beginning of his career he was really struggling against the 3D modelling software and manufacturing constraints of the time. Architectural 3D modelling skills are now much more advanced, including the availability of a wide talent pool of computational architectural specialists and programmers experienced in deriving complex geometry from the underlying maths. Therefore, the architecture loving public, which I include myself in, have a role in encouraging projects which are able to add depth and meaning to our visual world. Enter landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Practicing in Canada for nearly 60 years, she seems to be at the height of her powers on this project. Every angle of this building looks great and the wood detailing throughout is an inviting detail to copy but I doubt is replicable in any other building without her and the project team's help at Perkins + Will. Architect Peter Busby of P+W's San Francisco office also deserves a big shout out – especially for the green roof – because it's a heck of a sustainability feature. The street-level views of this building are great and I love the the free-form lines defining the elevations. If developers and real estate agents are trying to figure out what architectural features really add value to a building, this is definitely a good example of contemporary sustainable architecture to include in any early research. The building earned both Living Building Challenge Certification and LEED Platinum status, which is quite a unique accomplishment by my estimation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Software Tools for Great Architecture

This article is not meant to be an introduction to parametric design – there are a gazillion other articles online for that – I write to strike right at the economic heart of BIM to develop productive design workflows, and in doing so hope to build valuable architecture. To keep our commitment of supporting not only creativity but also helping build more, from time to time we turn to look at the tools of design. It's only fair in the 21st century that this means reporting on the complex software which drives building information modelling. In the space of a day last week I read an online article about the growth of parametric design and accompanying commentary that didn't know what it was ever going to good for. To me this signaled that there is quite a lot of confusion around the subject meaning design firms will struggle to capture the efficiencies of BIM when such an ambiguous environment exists.

Before addressing how architecture and engineering firms can harness parametric design a short description of how BIM intersects the topic is appropriate. In this article I draw very little distinction between building information modelling, computational architecture and parametric design. Sometimes the differences between these topics is very important, today approaching the topic from a building design management angle each relates to the other so tightly in the design process such distinctions become unhelpful. I'll confess to being a bit of a math nerd and one of my favourite applications of calculus is the parameterization of systems. Formally the topic is applied to modelling dynamic systems but it's a good analogy for how we need to break down and organize a building model to start leveraging the advantages of digital design. If a building has three different roof heights, each can be assigned a variable. If a building has two window sizes, each can be assigned a variable and so on. The same way applied mathematics breaks down a complex dynamic movement (i.e. free-body diagrams), a building model too can be thought of as system of equations. Parameters are the handles we use in order to control the equation and model. The reason there is so much overlap in the topic is because pretty much any information attached to the digital model geometry can be considered a parameter, though this time not so much in the mathematical sense but instead a very functional one: Material type, material specifications, manufacturing information etc., in addition to every type of relation and offset amongst the geometry that is conceivable by the human mind or computer. These parameters allows for different types of model control and comparative analytics.    

Breaking down four ways firms can start leveraging parametric design today, parametric design:

  1. Can streamline the production of a construction drawings.
  2. Supports the search for an optimal design solution through rapid design iterations.
  3. Helps develop a building's advanced sustainability features and functional requirements through comparative analytics.
  4. Can generate complex yet elegant design forms.

Construction Drawings. Even the most basic applications of parametric modelling require skill and foresight to ensure success. Experience correlates only weakly with its application because the process is so complex and other factors begin to overwhelm the process. Architects, engineers and industry professionals need to have an excellent understanding in how the model will behave when the programmed variables change. For example the basic variables discussed above: Roof heights, floor elevations, offsets, etc. When design changes come across my desk sometimes I smile ecstatically – almost laughing out loud – because of how trivial it can be to make complex comprehensive changes (assuming the digital model has been caringly and intelligently built). All my beautiful details updating automatically across the drawing set. An example of this from last year was when an engineer brought some foundation changes to my desk. He looked so despondent because he thought I would have to spend half a day updating everything. Instead, with a few clicks, I updated everything while he was standing there, and could show him the updated sections and annotations. The ability of a well-designed building model to quickly absorb changes makes me smile even now as I write this remembrance.

Design iterations. Sometimes the solution space for a proposed design is truly prodigious; and while I love discussing the intersection of complexity theory and architectural theory, here we need to remember our priority should be searching the vast solution space of possible designs efficiently and productively. Here the task is supported by being able to generate and test many possible proposed designs efficiently. Clients have a lot on their plates and it's appropriate they ask for quantifiable ways to produce their expensive buildings. Being able to show the solution space was much more thoroughly searched leading to an even better high-performance building is an important way of distinguishing the project in the marketplace and ultimately offering the client a more valuable design.

Comparative Analytics. Having oodles and oodles of possible design solutions and making sure the solution space is well searched is only one step in creating a valuable building for the client. Comparing proposed designs relies on analyzing the differences between models. Comparative analytics is a field within computational architecture and all those parameters associated with the geometry are now needed to accurately model and control all sorts of conclusions about the proposed structure. These include energy modelling, solar modelling, building safety, material optimization, etc. A further step often seen in high-performance buildings is that results from predictive modelling can be fed back into the building model to optimize all sorts of things. The simplest example might be orienting a building to optimize the location's solar properties, but pretty much anything can be compared; material economization, mechanical systems, user travel paths, solar shades, and on and on. This is why beyond the formal skills needed to compare features, the subjective meaningful qualities of architecture again rise up to distinguish good architecture from great in what features were highlighted by the architect and client.

Parametric Forms. As referenced above, the advantages of parametric design can be utilized without any drastic changes in visual characteristics. It's still a strip mall but at least it's a computationally optimized one. Over the last number of years, however, several projects have been completed which, to my eye, establish parametric design as a visual style. (Calatrava's New York Oculus Station is very successful in this regard but Pinterest is as good a catalog as any to understand it further.) The notable feature of the of parametric exteriors and interiors is their seductive rhythmic variation. Looking forward, I hope parametric design isn't used for the sake of parametric design. As programming skills mature and expand amongst BIM professionals, there's going to be a tendency to use it everywhere. Complex patterns really are trivial to generate and critical thought will need to be applied to probe the meaning and depth of its use. It's the only way to ensure clients and communities get the beautiful sustainable architecture they deserve.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

How Architectural Photography Makes Buildings Better

Personally I prefer a white page to write or draw on but undeniably the internet is a powerful visual medium. Now a stream of architectural photography comes at us literally seconds apart. How we can frame the subject to highlight the good from the merely average? I have a Linkedin connection to thank for getting the wheels turning on this post. He's recently introduced me to a pair of architectural photographers we should all take note of to improve our perceptiveness to good design and communicating good design. Much of what I have to say applies to 3D visualizations as well.

First to distinguish some of the theory behind photography's use in architecture. There's certainly a long history of its value portraying the structure honestly. Here meaning the journalistic sense; in that one wants to record or communicate the structure at a particular time and place. If the photographer can somehow move the viewer emotionally all the better.

If viewed on a continuum, the photographers I've chosen to feature distance themselves from this journalistic truth and embraces more use of artistic license. There are as many ways to use artistic license in architectural photography as there are creative photographers. This is why perceptiveness plays such a key role distinguishing good from average and is so helpful in improving one's own photography and renderings. Examples of artistic license's use include impossible exterior angles, positions from which people will never see the building from or access is restricted, or unnatural lighting conditions, which can never actually exist but can be quite dramatic and engaging nonetheless.

If playing with a viewer's perceptions, there must be a pay off for the viewer. Unburdening itself with strictly following reality, the images are free to communicate deeper truths about architecture such as what the structure means to the people who built it and to those who use it. Artistic license increases the expressive power of images to capture and communicate the subjective qualities of architecture. 
These are a building's qualities which are worth trying to write poems about or capture the in a few flowing lines on paper. It is exactly these qualities that when condensed amplify so well in visual network we participate in online and in galleries.  

This post is a bit light on images for the purpose of giving the photographers maximum credit. Swiss-based photographer Adrien Barakat brought us the stunning image below which I wanted to include its for educational purposes. It's a top down view of Calatrava's Oculus Station from a drone or something. I assume this top-down view will be become standard on Google maps eventually but this is where the artistry comes in and why Adrien is so good. The rhythm of the structure is so well expressed in this image. Composed asymmetrically with a strong form pushing bottom-left to top-right, it recalls to my eye Japanese woodblock prints' use of unbalanced yet harmonious asymmetries. There's a lot of technical things done right too. The colour pallet and exposure look perfect and there is absolutely no distortion to my eye either. Good job!

The gallery of Ulf Wallin also deserves a shout out. Many images are taken under challenging lighting conditions and I enjoyed seeing how he worked around them to produce excellent results. This is where smartphone images just crash and burn. All sorts of detail starts to be lost in the highs and lows because of the combined effects of internet compression, sensor noise and lens distortion. Wallin's images still read exceptionally well. There's technical skill on display here fighting back against challenging exposure conditions which is why he's the professional and I'm not. Others would seem to agree with me as to the value of Wallin's photography because looking at this portfolio he's been booked on jobs across the United States.  

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Decades of Design Leadership

It’s not often we get to compare two buildings from the same firm 55 years apart. As a bonus, the forms themselves have similarities making it more challenging to perceive and describe the differences.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is one of the largest architecture firms on the planet and have always shown skill in balancing a necessary corporate focus with innovative design. SOM architects actually won the commission for the master plan of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado in 1954 and appear to have stayed competitive for the facilities’ various restorations and additions into the 21st century after the site was deemed a national historical landmark in 2004.

The first of the two buildings we will compare is the US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. Its striking form consists of 17 spines made of steel girders and aluminum panels and recalls an airplane's frame and skin with coloured glass filling the spaces between. The spines stretch 150 feet up and do a good job of elevating one’s ambitions and expressing the soaring of planes. It’s irresistible to compare it classic gothic cathedrals which stretch upward like Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle or the Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.

I always try to be supportive of more ambitious architectural forms (and the clients who build them) simply because I’m desperate to see a range of architectural styles flourish as a way of making our communities reflect back the diversity we now see in the general population. However, in some places the older building can not overcome the brutalist-style popular at the time. The placement of lights, the selection of materials, etc., all leave the visitor cold and design dated. Furthermore, a 3000 acre site in the rolling green foothills of the rocky mountains should offer ample opportunities to situate the structure in such a way as to be harmonious with the landscape. The choices of the firm to put the building on a plinth surrounded by concrete just makes the whole approach to the building completely unwelcoming and inhospitable. No doubt the academy needs parade grounds but one was already provided a short distance away so here many other practicalities of more human-focused design were drained away for what reasons I don’t know. On a hot summer day or on a cold walk over in the winter, the area around the chapel must be a pretty uninviting space indeed that hopefully isn’t wasted.

SOM’s new US Air Force Center for Character & Leadership Development fares much better. The basic issues of paving over large portions of the site still exist but the interior is much better designed for the expectations of modern day multi-functional requirements. Its form too, opposite the chapel, stretches up, but this time aligned with the north star, the symbolic guide of US Air Force members. The atrium itself is way over the top in terms of pure design efficiency but pushes good design forward by at least trying to do something out of the box. A detail to watch closely in the atrium is the creatively designed framing. The metal framing holding the windows varies in thickness as seen from the interior as it traverse the span. It does have a function related to the engineering design but also adds geometric interest to the overall form. The airy interior uses maple nearly in its entirety which I thought looked just great in the interior – very tranquil with a nice warmth.

I think should anyone ever be invited to attend a design leadership conference here they would definitely be wise to accept.