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.