Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Best Restored and Sustainable Architecture

This piece came together as a reminder renovation and restoration services are a major segment of the AEC industry. Should we wish to support these projects achieve their ambitious sustainability goals, our understanding of the subject must be perceptive and comprehensive. Collected below are two examples which distinguish themselves in their sustainability features and design. 

One thing to note as the piece proceeds is how the intersection of new and old was approached in each project. If upgraded facilities alone aren't enough, often auxiliary modern structures are needed to complete the modern function of the building. Approaches to this problem normally follow one of three paths but architects play with the blurry edges of each all the time. The first approach can be a careful matching of old and new so that new additions blend seamlessly into the old. Secondly, one can have a more modern approach to the addition, but still include stylistic cues referencing the old. Lastly, some projects embraced radical departures from the original structure to maximize the contrast between old and new. Zaha Hadid's Antwerp port headquarters or the European Union's Europa headquarters in Brussels are examples of this approach. 

We begin with's restoration of Toronto's Daniels Residence. The original was a Royal Architectural Institute of Canada award winner in 1935, and the restoration repeated this feat in 2010, but this time in the sustainability category. Here the additions, one to the side and one on the roof, are very blocky, and while the design did specify excellent materials for use in each of them, the proportions are a bit conservative to really say the design strongly contrasts the different periods of the building in any sort of daring or creative way. And so while that is a bit of a miss, the project doggedly pursued the use of recycled and renewable materials at every scale, from paint primer to concrete, and this is where the expertise of a specialized sustainability focused firm pays for itself. Mistakes which might need to be fixed years later are avoided. The current owners, the Daniels, have filled the house with their collection of early 20th century furniture and art, which they are rightly very proud of, but I find it less interesting than the structure itself. Much of the furniture would be too delicate to flop down on when trying to relax at home. Following is a list of the house's sustainability features:
  • Kitchen floors are from recycled walnut shells, bridging some of the qualities of concrete flooring and wood. 
  • New louvers over all the windows to control solar energy. 
  • Building enclosure upgraded with high-efficient insulation. 
  • High-efficiency doors and windows.  
  • Geoexchange heating and cooling system.
  • Radiant-floor heating used throughout and separated into zones. 
  • Rainwater collection. 
Laverstoke Mill is the home of Bombay Sapphire Gin, featuring a distillery and visitor facilities within the confines of a restored Victorian paper mill on the River Test in Hampshire, UK. Usually I'm not such a fan of brick but I warmed to this building's rustic aesthetic wrought from centuries of use. The interior design of the renovation is sharp if minimal. I was especially fond of the below accompanying interior shot of a tasting room. Lots of natural light and space to work in. London based firm Heatherwick Studio added level after level of sustainability features to the project, some of which are collected below. One of the biggest challenges, however, was the complex geometry of the curving greenhouses. Housing samples of the botanicals used in the production of gin, its execution, aesthetically, was extremely successful, with the bonus it captures excess heat from the distilling process next door to heat.
  • Sensitive restoration and protection of the ecosystem around the distillery. 
  • Biomass generators which create heat and power from byproducts of the distilling process. 
  • Materials from destroyed buildings was recycled into restored ones. 
  • Photovoltaic and hydroelectric power generation on site. 
  • Rainwater collection.
  • Small carbon footprint during operation gaining a BREEAM-rating of outstanding for industrial design. 
Overall, assuming clients will continue to seek brand distinction in the marketplace through architecture, reciprocally, this becomes a lever for users to steer developers in the direction of sustainable, carefully designed buildings. Lucky few will ever work in them but the benefits of sustainable architecture spread far in this interconnected world. Three general conclusions:
  • Restoration projects are notorious for going over budget but, as seen in our examples, this plays to the benefit of more radical functional changes where more modern uses are supported. Modern uses brings modern technology, which on a whole are more efficient than previous generations'. 
  • When planning a project, tourism becomes a proxy measurement of the public's sentimentality for the structure, either individually or regionally (historic districts), and this in turn can have a large influence on determining how historically accurate the building program needs to be carried out. The final bridging between the above two points – radical modernization programs and an authentic restoration – is best done on a case-by-case basis. 
  • Good specialist consultants go a long way toward bringing predictability to a sustainable project's timetable and budget. Sometimes it seems like they can see the future or look through 200 year old walls. Worth every penny.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Architectural 3D Printing Moves Forward with AI

Wow, the field of machine learning and architectural 3D printing is moving fast. I wasn't planning to write about the topic again so soon but I didn't want to let these examples pass without sharing them first. Eureka Magazine has an interesting article up about a small London-based 3D printing firm, Ai Build, which people are going to want to check out. To date, they hadn't been on my radar either. Lately I've been impressed following MX3D's progress on a 3D printed metal bridge in Amsterdam. Ai Build's "Daedalus Pavilion" has similar goals so it's a sign the sector is very competitive. The technology is finally out of the lab but still needs further field research. Recommending architectural 3D printing for anything other than architectural features at this point might be risky, on the other hand, construction company Cazza says it's up to the challenge. They're determined to build a full-scale skyscraper in the Middle East using cementitious 3D printing techniques. The interesting thing here is that while some of the technology is still to be developed for the project, it also piggy backs on well-known and established construction techniques. The tower by Cazza will use cranes as a base of support for the 3D printers. This seems like a really efficient approach in my opinion and is different than the prefabrication techniques, say, used to accelerate Barcelona's Sagrada Familia's completion.

Returning to Ai Build's Daedalus Pavilion, we wish to stress that as this type of technology becomes more widespread, and more and more studios develop the expertise to execute complex generative design programmes, clients are encouraged to raise their expectations as well. This strategy creates a bulwark for our built environment against mediocre 3D printed blobs. Referring to the London installation, descriptively it's a symmetrically deformed surface; maybe some type of hyper-surface. But ultimately these shapes already have a history of use in architecture (in concrete shells). The difference here is that the structure was built by robots with some very interesting underlying software implementations. As people walk around it in a gallery however, I'm not sure how well this story unfolds. It never really breaks away from its nature as an architectural feature. Its engineering challenges are a bit better expressed in my opinion. It looks amazingly delicate. Like a person could lift it up with one arm. Here to keep the whole thing from snapping in half on opening night is the engineering expertise of Arup. I love structural engineering and even love designing strip malls and warehouses, but one has to admit calculating out the forces on lattice structures as shown is not something within every shop's capability to do. Quickly touching on the software before ending, the coders implemented deep learning algorithms during the production phase to improve the accuracy and speed of manufacturing. The approach appears to be quite computationally heavy, hence the involvement by NAVDIA, which I'm assuming brings a substantial amount of electrical engineering and computer science expertise to the project.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Architectural Cage Match: MAD vs. BIG

In this article we try to exercise our good judgement by comparing two works each from two rival design studios. Each firm has expanded their branches all over the world but I still find where their home base is located informs their style. Copenhagen has been driving European style and technology trends for years now so it should be no surprise the Bjarke Ingels Group emerged as a leader in the field as clients looked around to hire some of that avantgarde postmodern appeal themselves. MAD Architects continues to open satellite offices from their Beijing headquarters, infusing their projects with that perfect sense of asymmetrical balance Asian art is known for. While trying to pick strong candidates to represent each, I'm definitely bias toward MAD Architects on the account of having lived overseas in Asia for years, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot we can learn from BIG Architects as well.

To my eye, a lot of BIG Architects' portfolio strikes me as quite monolithic; and not the good type of Minecraft monolithic, but rather a more sinister dystopian future type monolithic. Modern designs' demand to be multi-functional highlights the fact some of the spaces created around their buildings become very inhospitable to humans under certain conditions. That said, one project where the monolithic forms create a balanced impression is the soon to be completed LEGO House in Billund, Denmark. Set to open later this year to hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, here I think the placement of shapes to echo the placement of LEGO bricks was appropriate and successful. There is a restraint in the design characteristic of traditional and modern Japanese architecture but missing in other BIG projects. The Grove at Grand Bay, Miami, is another tower complex which BIG Architects executed successfully. Some might be getting tired of white parametric designs going up all over the world, but I really identify with the style's rhythm. It's very musical to me. The Miami example also thankfully transitions away from being a strict rectangular prism skyscraper by including a dramatic twist at the bottom which is both visually playful and structurally challenging. This is another way BIG distinguishes themselves: they relish technical challenges, having recently opened a multidisciplinary engineering services firm under the Bjarke Ingels Group umbrella. And architectural and engineering challenges is always something we always champion here on the blog. 

A close comparison of the style is offered by MAD Architects' Absolute Towers of Mississauga, ON. Here the floor plate shape, in addition to structure, is manipulated to artistic and aesthetic ends through parametric modelling. The design pulls ahead of the BIG example because the curvilinear form smartly breaks away from monolithic characteristics. Again, the flowing rhythm and music of the design is excellent. Lastly, we come to MAD Architects' Harbin Opera House of Harbin, China, completed in 2015. The structure is a true tour de force of design, especially in its attention to detail. I really have to give credit to the studio for being able keep the aesthetic style consistent and functional at all scales. This represents a completely non-trivial challenge which many structures don't even attempt to solve, explaining why so many of our buildings end up looking the way they do and falling short on creativity. The Harbin Opera House is certainly a good example of the level of execution expected to be truly worthy of celebration and study. No one said being at the sharp point of design was going to be easy.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


We try to deliver developments in materials engineering field because it's a valuable component anyone's ongoing surveillance of the AEC Industry. Engineering specific material qualities shows great promise but has been slow to leave the lab and find a place on the construction site. Useful nano-coatings are starting to emerge onto the market but I find it's the materials' structural and mechanical properties – which often merry contradictory qualities – most impressive. 

Credit: Glotzer Group, University of Michigan.

The first update comes from Northwestern University professor Chad Mirkin who's lab perfected a novel way of combining DNA to produce different crystallization structures. A lot of his research was based on previous advancements in modelling protein folding, one of the most computationally complex branches of applied mathematics, which here was used here in conjunction with other materials to create crystallization structures not previously seen in nature. The basic process harnesses knowledge of how A, C, G, and T nuclides fold but then include other nanoparticles in the self-assembly process to create the crystal structures. Here the medical benefits seem more apparent than the architectural goals, medicine delivery mainly, but different coatings could be developed in the future which have aesthetic or functional value to the AEC industry. His university summarizes his work thusly: "Mirkin is director of the research group that invented the chemistry for conjugating DNA and nanoparticles and a pioneer of the concept of programmable colloidal crystallization with nucleic acids."

The next update was super interesting because of its connection to 3D printing. Normally we promote a much bigger version of 3D printing suitable for architecture and construction, but Washington State University used 3D printing on a microscopic level which still has implications for architecture. Amazing! The details of the project are many but the general idea is that researchers used lasers to etch out their 3D structures from metallic vapour clouds, in this case gold. As the technique advances in sophistication and scale, the properties of these materials, say if carbon is substituted, start to have architectural implications. These materials can be engineered to have very specific mechanical properties of strength and lightness while still retaining certain amount of deflection and flexibility required for safe and productive building. Whole buildings made with of this sort of nano-technology are probably a way off but large-scale manufacturing of 3D printed materials is progressing quickly and there is nothing to say gravity defying architectural features can't be utilized within a decade. Having materials which combine characteristics that historically have always been contradictory openthe door to many creative design options. As adoption evolves, the laws of physics won't change how loads are transferred to the ground, but the structural members themselves could look radically different leading to new building forms heretowith not considered. 

Credit: Washington State University

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Let's Drink to Architecture!

Vineyards tend to be good locations in which to place postmodern architecture because, being surrounded by greenery, there is less conflict with neighbouring structures of different styles. Contradicting the area's historically established style is one way to really line up the locals against your project. Winemakers' healthy profit margins on the high-end and sensitivity to the way architecture can establish brand has made risk-taking common place in the field. Below we've collected six examples of structures where we think the risks paid off.

I'll have to be excused for making the reader do a bit of homework for this article. Getting all the image copyrights sorted out for a growing blog is turning out to be a bit of a pain. I've moved to plan B and made little iconographic sketches from publicly available images with links to more information and images.

B Birdsell
We start with a pure expression of form by Lisbon firm Promontorio in Portugal's wine making region. The simple white aesthetic might be divisive; but, assuming one accepts it, the form really is amazingly creative and the colour plays a role in highlighting it. Beyond functioning just as winery, the building also houses a spa and hotel which elevates the interior finishing to a refined and luxurious state. The design establishes some really inviting outdoor spaces around the structure for guests which is why I'm sure this winery gets named as a place worth visiting in the wire tourism industry.

The Winery at VIK, Millahue, Chile.
Smiljan Radic, Loreto Lyon 2014
Though this structure isn't quite as successful as some of the other wineries listed it should be celebrated for the larger than average creative risks it took. Completed in 2014 by award-winning Chilean architect Smiljan Radic, the structure includes a spectacular water feature at the entrance that's hard to describe. It's sort of this low pool which serves a heating and cooling function for the building that visitors walk over to enter. The reason it was such a risk is that the whole space is pretty experimental which lends it an unpredictable atmosphere no matter how many times it's used. It serves the purpose of a garden courtyard but looks nothing like it. The use of the space in this way seems disproportionate to the building's overall function as a winery but I like that the client took a creative risk and included it because I think the feature enthuses visitors and employees to the building.

Foster + Partners 2010
I wanted to make sure I left room on this list to highlight some of the most sustainable vineyards on the planet. A couple of solar panels and a water use plan was not going to cut it. I considered Renzo Piano's Rocca di Frassinello in Tuscany but ultimately felt the design fell a bit short compared to his other very strong work. Impressively, Foster + Partners again represents their sustainability credentials well with their work for the Faustino Winery in Bodegas Portia, Spain. Photovoltaics panels, materials choices and an extensive passive energy plan all contribute to the building's sustainability features. Great care was taken to accommodate the winemaking function of the building with a tourist function overlaid on top. I think the firm also did a good job understanding the winemaking process in implementing its function in the design. 

Archea Associati 2012
I liked this example because it showed real ambition in its landscape design and how it situated the building within the site. The Antinori Winery in Tuscany was designed to sort of materializes out of the main hill of the vineyard. There's also a wonderful staircase feature worth pointing out because these are the sorts of ideas clients and developers can aspire to without having to bankroll the intensive custom design process normally associated with high-profile, high-design buildings. Adopting an architectural feature to highlight goes a long way toward showing users the project cares about their well-being.

Bodegas Darien Winery, Spain.
Jesus Marino Pascual 2002
This building reminds me so much of Frank Gehry's work but without the strong curvilinear forms. Here we introduce architect Jesus Marino Pascual and his fine work for the Bodegas Darien Winery in Spain. He was able to offer a design that distinguishes itself by its balanced geometric aesthetic which if any one piece was removed would destroy the entire effect. Left unseen in the picture is that the building sinks into the ground quite far to accommodate wine-aging storage facilities.

Museo Provincial del Vino, Penafiel, Spain.
Refurbishment Architect Roberto Valle Gonzales, 1999.

Pivoting back now to end our travels we end at Penafiel Castle and the wine making museum housed within. The castle and museum sit in the center of an ancient winemaking region with the foundations of the earliest buildings on the site dating back to the 10th century, with most of the current exterior dating back to the 15th century. The castle, situated on a high narrow rocky ridge, reminded me of Game of Thrones or the headquarters building in Westworld. The same contrasting of old and new design is also evident in the wine museum which is snuggly fit into one of the courtyards. Architect Roberto Valle Gonzales completed it in the late 90s and I think it's a successful modern addition with lots of simple linear lines and natural materials and tones which complement the older stone structure. Unfortunately, even 20 years ago museum exhibit design was not as sophisticated as it now, and I'm not sure that if one is already familiar with the winemaking process these exhibits will blow anyone's mind.