Thursday, May 25, 2017

Solar Powered Sustainable Architecture

How to incorporate solar panels is only one facet of an integrated design approach to sustainable architecture. I'm hoping technology will solve some of the current problems with solar panels, increasing their design features and lowering costs. But there are many qualities of the sun's power to consider in design. The quality of interior daylight connects to higher productivity levels and better employee health. This is why the quality of interior daylight is considered a factor in several sustainability certification programs, LEED being the best known.  

Soon the Apple headquarters mothership will be landing in Cupertino and it reminded me I wanted to find out more about this building as their stated goal was to build the best office building ever. The project has seen Apple make a significant statement about sustainable architecture but how was this achieved? The design's 850,000 sq. ft. of solar panels almost cover the entire electrical operating costs of the 12000 employees. Furthermore, the very shape of the building is well adapted to maximizing the area of the interior where quality daylight is possible. The designers have gone further and modeled exterior louvers to match the site's orientation toward the sun throughout the season. An earlier example of Foster + Partners experience with advanced solar modeling is the London city hall, whose form is highly optimized toward the sun giving the building its distinctive oval shape. It's expected the quality of interior daylight will be excellent in Apple's Infinity Loop project and other features of the project, like giant 4-storey doors that mechanically open to the outside on nice days, will make this an excellent place to work. 

ARUP's Jaguar Land Rover plant in the West Midlands of England has a design feature on its roof I've been advocating for years. I actually noticed a similar approach at LACMA in Los Angeles on their exhibition pavilion. Returning to the Jaguar plant, the sloped roof plays a large role in increasing the quality of interior daylight. The client was quite happy to support the performance and health benefits such an architectural program provided. North facing windows bathe the interior in diffused sunlight while a continuous strip of glazing wraps the bottom of the building to encourage transparency. 21,000 solar panels face south and provide 30% of the building's power. 

The 10-storey Elithis Tower in Dijon, France has some interesting numbers to report to readers. With 330 solar panels on top it provides 70% of its own power but part of this rests on the excellent interior daylight quality which makes it comfortable to work inside with limited need for electric lights. The eye-catching solar shield on the front eliminates the building's need for air conditioning which contributes significantly to the building's high performance. Hopefully potential developers will see these examples and want their buildings to have strong solar strategies as well but it will be hard to reproduce the success of Elithis Tower because some of the design work was done by the client themselves, Elithis Engineering. The French firm of Arte Charpentier Architects also contributed their talents to the project. Renewable wood and recycled insulation was utilized throughout but total costs were kept to around $10 million (in 2009) which supports the idea high-performance architecture is coming down in price. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wonderful Renewable Wood in High-Performance Buildings

Instead of breaking down a number of buildings in single post, today we expand on just one. The building, located in Portland, Oregon, has gained some popularity since 2015 by capturing several sustainability awards. Only having time to return to the subject now, I wanted to focus on three characteristics of the project: It's form. It's materials. and it's sustainability goals. 

The story of this building doesn't stray far from the city of itself and represents how regionally specific modern architecture can be compared to how we think of it as an international style. With the design team led by local-firm Holst Architecture, they set out to be visually ambitious. On that account, I think they were successful, having established the project's architectural value through awards and commentary. Official literature for the project states Antoni Gaudí as an influence but I also see a final form that's classically modern and will age well. The touches of local and regional materials and expertise throughout is great. The warm texture of the wood is timelessly inviting but the deeply inset windows on the exterior create a delicate balance on the exterior. From all the pictures of this building these apertures look very well detailed. In addition, I suspect they help support the quality of the interior daylight. There are three buildings placed on the site, all of exceptionally high performance, but only two share the characteristic curvilinear form. The use of sustainable timber continues inside with its use featured in the open and spacious common areas of the two buildings. The project also has a large outdoor courtyard spearheaded by landscape architect Lango Hansen. Its contemporary style is inviting and I appreciate the design's use of regionally appropriate plants. But it's that renewable facade that draws the eye from blocks away that bares some critical thought.

A good reference point for sustainable wood products in the AEC industry is the widely known Forestry Stewardship Council. On the One North project, the clients and architect were committed to pushing beyond that industry certification. In the end, the project (in coordination with the general contractor) sourced materials privately and independently from a local landowners cooperative organized just for the project. Though not reclaimed, the wood is all 2nd-growth, which means no centuries old ecosystems were disturbed to secure its procurement. 

Industry sustainability certifications absolutely have a role. There are economies-of-scales to be leveraged within the industry by pre-qualifying products and streamlining the certification process. However, this economic structure in some ways disincentives organizations from attempting to go above and beyond, retarding an engine of improvement and advancement within the AEC industry. It took leadership to decline industry-specific certifications and real skill to execute a world-class sustainability program nonetheless. I really discourage any suggestion sustainable architecture is a paint-by-numbers affair. Here we see an example of a multidisciplinary project establishing a high performance mark with great artistic merit. The power of metrics and certifications is derived from the motivation to improve the state of sustainable architecture. That's the proper perspective on such information. Engaging the fundamental drive of a group to build excellence architecture seems like a much more valuable characteristic to harness, from there the tiniest details of sustainable design can be placed. 
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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Advanced BIM Workflows in the Digital Design Office

I came across the below linked video last month and instantly knew there was something to learn from it. However, the video format – a recording of a live meeting – was extremely limited as a medium to transfer the knowledge I so desperately wanted, and so had to come back to it later. I don't consider this the fault of the good folks at EvolveLAB or Autodesk Fromit. Quite the contrary in fact, I think they should be celebrated for releasing whatever they can to the community. I love learning and am more than happy to take up some of the responsibility for learning a complex subject myself. That said, one method of learning any subject is writing about it. Here I thought I would share my description of the class after draining all useful information from the video and reconstituting it here for my readers in a much more inviting and engaging form.

The almost hour long video is notable for how it links together several software applications. Transitions between software programs have traditionally been a pain point in BIM projects because the complexity of the digital model can inevitably lead to the introduction of small bugs that result in unexpected behaviour. Anyone in charge of supporting parametric design in the office should be aware that to support an architect's vision at a high level, a fluency in the topics discussed here on the blog continually, or specifically today in the video, is fundamental. 

Autodesk's Formit 360 is mentioned. Great little program. It's a lightweight modelling environment for conceptual design which integrates with each DynamoBIM, Revit, and the Cloud. I love REVIT but it's a heavy weight champ when sometimes nimbleness is required. Fromit was made with this goal in mind. The helpfulness of this software rests on the undercurrents of digital design the AEC industry is currently transition to. The ability to have a robust and flexible conceptual workspace supports iterative design techniques so prevalent in data-driven design methodologies. 

The presenters show DynamoBIM still growing in its role as a complementary tool in an a world-class digital design workflow. Here we see Dynamo used very effectively in a conceptual environment. Many firms could use this skill set to make amazing architecture, but I'm not sure all firms are ready to take the plunge, at least in Canada. Certainly from an architectural criticism perspective I don't know if this is totally a good thing either. But in an empirical way – taken in context of a suite of digital design software – this tool allows optimization of the design which, in turn, can drive building value for all stakeholders in a project, especially users. Two other characteristics of computational architecture and Dynamo not illustrated in the video but important applications nonetheless are 1) Dynamo has many functions in a BIM production workflow not mentioned in the video; and 2) there is a subtle but important difference between computational architecture optimizing a conceptual design and production workflow versus optimizing a building materials or performance through analysis. Computational architecture needs to be attacked from both angles to maximize the benefits of digital design. 

Lastly we introduce Autodesk's Project Fractal initiative. Certainly this isn't as big a piece of software as REVIT but it has some interesting characteristics for sharing parametric designs that have implications for teams designing distributively around the world. Basically it's a way for parametric models to be processed and hosted in the cloud for users to inspect and review. It's nice to see lightweight mobile options continue to be developed along side enterprise-level creative software. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Data Science in the Service of Architecture.

I've been carefully reading articles about the impact of data science in architecture but haven't felt any cover the topic particularly well. This concerns me insofar as these changes are zooming toward the design studio. By comparison, there doesn't seem to be a lot of haste in communicating to firms the tools they'll need to adapt. Furthermore, the big data landscape is getting increasingly competitive. Firms without experience in data science will be at a disadvantage. Data science conversations are becoming more and more commonplace within the AEC industry and general public and, secondly, it's important to recognize excelling at any one type of big data application can require a deep understanding of the underlying math and science behind the data. This is a specialist knowledge many big data firm already have, and small and mid-size architectural and engineering firms will struggle to get. Venture capitalist Matt Turck's 2017 Data Landscape poster graphically represents the competitiveness I'm trying to express in writing. There are an absolute ton of smart, driven, and hardworking firms coming for your dollars. My hope with this article is that a defence can start to be built, and, on a whole, we can get data science working for architecture.

Before proceeding, it's worth describing some reasonable constraints on our approach to the topic. The rapid growth of big data in modern life brings many different characteristics of the field forward; here we are going to discuss the topic strictly in terms of building design management, that being the study of architecture in terms of economics and business analysis. Left aside for the moment are more existentialist questions related data science's role in architecture, such as whether it's a good thing or not to let an algorithm totally determine the form of a building. Instead I favour of questions of adaptability. This technology is coming toward the design studio and we need to try to get out ahead of it. Where I need to admit bias is that I have a strong belief data science can help myself, and my readers, build more valuable architecture.

It's the math itself which really distinguishes the study of data science. Many fields of math intersect at various points with data science, any one of which is worthy of its own international conference. Every subdomain of the topic is deep. How to bring all of this together in a single firm is one of the main goals of building design management. There are three broad areas to consider if facing a big data request in an architectural or engineering setting:
  1. Infrastructure
  2. Computer Science
  3. Analytics
Infrastructure. This refers to all the physical characteristics of the system or network to be used for work and is meant to be as broad as possible. Questions regarding multiple monitor computer setups all the way to browser-based BIM software hosted in the Cloud are all valid objects of study. Having a firm grasp of the computer and network infrastructure used in the AEC industry, including its costs and capabilities, and how it scales, all create the framework necessary to support technology users carrying out the following two points within a firm.

Computer Science. At the core of this category is supporting the needs of a high-performance computation architecture department or some other per project application of the subject. Distinguishing performance in this field is signalled by a depth of knowledge with several types of programming used in the industry (or fluency in several different programming languages). This includes familiarity with generative design (which encompasses branches of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and neural networks) and geometry (mostly within the field of finite mathematics, such as combinatorics and graph theory, but also classical and differential geometry). On the horizon, leaders will soon be expected to support additive construction techniques within a firm like architectural 3D printing or construction drones. Finally, how predictive mathematical models are developed and relate to statistics has a substantial influence on our last category.

Analytics. If above was about programming expertise in data science, this category is about getting the answers you want from your data. Having been involved in the field now for years, asking good questions of your data still seems to be more art than science. Several different branches of mathematics, such as linear algebra, matrices, and discrete optimization techniques, are involved in analyzing data. Network analysis can also be a powerful tool because as the data is analyzed, it often starts to reveal all sorts of complex connections within the data to that can be exploited (such as adjusting a product's supply chain). Building performance analysis in its many forms – thermal, structural, etc., – are all examples of activity in this field. Once all this data is in the model, it's time to analyze its form and predict its behaviour.

Conclusion. Ultimately, all three areas should be addressed on every project. This framework will help support better decision making about data science topics in architecture. Assuming one of the hallmarks of creativity is open mindedness, if the architectural and engineering field considers themselves creative at all, it's important we be openminded to welcoming data scientists and robotics engineers into the design studio. The creativity of the field can also be a source of adaptability.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Planning A Sustainable Data Center

The architectural qualities of data centers is a relevant topic of study because the structures:

  1. Play an important role in many organizations' expansion plans.
  2. Control vast amounts of moving information important to society.
  3. Consume an amazing amount of electricity. (Sometimes as much as a mid-sized municipality.)
We've covered elsewhere that sharp aesthetic design is no longer incompatible with sustainability. However, on the last point above especially, data centers have become an interesting exercise in what happens when a single building function is prioritized above all others. A great effort has been made to optimize the sustainability features of these buildings and therefore there are things we can learn to apply to our own projects. 

The first thing is to build a context around their low rectangular profile. This quality is arrived at by addressing issues of constructibility. In the design of a data center's characteristic rectangular shape, the use of repeating and modular details is maximized to ensure a short build time. The energy saved on a compact design and construction schedule can be considered a sustainability feature in-and-of-itself. If the data centers have offices, they tend to be very standard and unimaginative as the designers have no freedom to affect the structure of the building. Still, interior quality can be quite high when given headquarter's blessing.

Unless one really likes the techno-industrial stylings of data centers, their aesthetic qualities can be poor. Some buildings try to mitigate these concerns with advanced and well-thought out cladding systems (top image), but the fact remains designers are fundamentally limited from ever truly experimenting with form. A nice exception to this is South Korea’s GAK data center (bottom image), but most of the time, it has to be simple and rectangular at the end of the day. What one normally discovers with this constraint is visually very weak corners. They always kind of droop away. (The use of entasis in Greek architecture was to counter this effect.) So if the interior design is detached from the structure and exterior architectural quality poor, why are data centers continuing to be built?

Data centers are severing their primary function well: committing everything to reducing power consumption. This is a reasonable goal since electricity will, by far, be the biggest operating cost of the building. The electrical and mechanical engineering skills on display in these buildings is fascinating and building systems sophisticated. Power savings are normally addressed within the industry one of two ways: Lower powered chips can be used, which the architect has no control over. Or ultra-high performance heating and cooling systems are installed, which strike at the core function of data center and the role of an architect to figure out and coordinate. The electricity consumption is so dense inside these structures it expresses itself on the exterior with rows of cooling units. Backtracking from there, the cooling system is carefully designed to remove heat from the racks as efficiently as possible. Electricity consumption is fanatically tracked. The optimization on display here is emblematic of the high-performance building technology and techniques we should be trying to apply in all modern buildings.