Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Building (in) the Future @ Yale, Part 4

The next four speakers presented under the theme ”The organization of Labor: Architecture”. Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX, (formerly OMA’s American office), Marc Simmons of Front, Inc., Coren Sharples from SHoP, and Howard Ashcraft, an attorney from Hanson Bridgett Marcus Vlahos & Rudy LLP. Phil Bernstein, co-coordinator of the symposium, moderated and provided the response. For those of you wondering, yes, this is the same Phil Bernstein who is Vice-President of Building Solutions at Autodesk.

Mr. Prince-Ramus repeated the need for the redefinition and redistribution of the oft-shown Owner-Architect-Contractor triangle relationship. He called for the architect to be able to ‘let go’ of preconceived formal notions in order to find a solution truly fitting for each design problem and cited the Seattle Public Library project as an example of a team effort. The Project Manager for the SPA expected the three major cost centers to balloon uncontrollably, thus killing the project. OMA was able to redistribute cost allocations for those three centers and redistribute the costs among all three centers, thus keeping the project budget stable and the project viable.

To prove his point about ignoring predefined outcomes, he continued describing his collaborative work with Front, Inc, in developing a cost-effective solution for the façade. The key, he explained, was Front’s ability to develop appropriately-sized glass panels that could be bolted into place with little additional labor. The panels, he further explained, were also optimized for panelization, efficiency of materials, ease of installation, and portability for transport. He explained that architects don’t focus on the issues that are important to developers, issues such as financing. Without beginning to understand and address these and other issues, we’ll remain limited to being façadists.

Finally, his demonstration of innovation within severe cost limitations is evident in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts project. He took what they considered to be the cheapest ‘monumental’ building material, aluminum, and explored it fabrication. They rationalized that extruding aluminum in different shapes produced by standard dies and tools would cost roughly the same as a standard extrusion, e.g. corrugation. They experimented with different arrangements of these standard dies and arrived at a unique extrusion that became the panel profile for the project.

Prince-Ramus and REX are extremely visible right now, probably partly because of REX’s new status as an independent office, partly because of the success of the Seattle Public Library. I found a recording online of a similar speech he gave about a month earlier. If you’re interested you can watch it here.

It was only natural that Marc Simmons spoke next. Front, Inc. has worked closely with Prince-Ramus, giving Mr. Simmons the opportunity to explain some of the specifics of the Seattle Library project. Front has also worked with quite a few others of the most recognizable architectural firms, including Renzo Piano, Peter Gluck, Frank Gehry, KPF, and Gluckman Mayner. It’s definitely worth a visit to Front’s website to check out the projects. I find the SCL Glass Headquarters project to be very interesting in its use of technology to determine the limits and possibilities of glass construction.

Mr. Simmons spoke most engagingly about his work with Ryue Nishizawa on the Novartis Office building, located in Basel, Switzerland. Nishizawa’s design is little more than opaque horizontals and transparent verticals. Front was consulted to help realize this most minimalist of designs, and to ensure an all-glass building could meet the strict energy efficiency requirements of Switzerland.

Front immediately opted for the highest-efficiency double paned, argon-filled glass panels available, and due to the architect’s requirements sandwiched motorized Venetian blinds between the panes of glass. They then devised a system so that there would be no mullions visible in any of the operable panels. They even went so far as to model the MEP objects to ensure a fitted coordination and adherence to the minimalist design of the building. You can see all of this on their website (did I mention you should check it out?)

This leads to a question: what, exactly, does Front do? Mr. Simmons explained that they don’t consider the firm to be an architectural or engineering one. The staff, however, is comprised of architectural professionals as well as a variety of different types of engineers. Often he positions himself and the firm as a “curtain wall consultant” but only because there’s already a slot in a project’s fee structure for that. This firm serves as a highly technical consulting firm to assist in realizing a client’s designs. If ever there was an example of the re-merging of architectural and engineering professions into a single office, this would be it. However, Front seems content to assist in projects only, making it a rare breed.

Coren Sharples began her portion of the session by responding to some comments made by Mr. Frampton in his Friday night keynote. She agreed with him in that architecture must be grounded in space, light, materials, and context. What she disagreed with was his belief that these premises couldn’t be achieved through the collaborative digital process. It was a polite and reserved response to Frampton’s comments, which were obviously designed to provoke. By responding in such a manner, Ms. Sharples effectively neutralized them, inasmuch as they didn’t even deserve a lengthy retort.

SHoP has identified some major roadblocks to an office adopting a new working method. Management will defend prior technology purchases, and the staff will defend existing skill sets. SHoP’s management has taken a clear and decisive step in declaring the digital workflow to avoid any confusion of the firm’s message. They reinforce this position by working with students from John Nastasi’s students at the Stevens Institute in developing software tools outside of what’s currently available. (I know I promised I’d talk about them. I will.)

The first of two projects shown was SHoP’s Camera Obscura building, located in Mitchell Park in Greenport, Long Island. SHoP’s philosophy of many of their design and building process is exemplified in this work. It was designed entirely via 3d modeling, including mid-construction adjustments due to site discrepancies. The construction process was approached as if the building was a model airplane, packaged as a ready-to-assemble kit of parts. The construction documents were created to be more like a set of assembly instructions than a traditional set of working drawings. What enabled this process was the modeling and digital fabrication via the model. Everything except the slab was manufactured offsite and simply assembled upon its arrival. Traditional 2d drawings were still required on the project for agency review and estimation, but they were irrelevant for construction.

Certainly this isn’t a completely new process. Modeling and fabrication have been the talk of the community for some time. What makes SHoP’s endeavor unique is that they’ve developed a digital design, fabrication, and assembly methodology and successfully applied it to a low-bid public works project. Wow! One point of caution is that by providing the digital files, SHoP inserted themselves into the CM-subcontractor relationship. Doing so required an allocation in their compensation structure, as they assumed more risk.

The second project shown, a residential development in NYC, was SHoP’s pilot project in implementing a parametric design and production workflow. A standard brick panel was deformed by shifting the faces of each of the bricks from what would ordinarily be the front face of the panel. The result is a panel that, in section, undulates like a shallow sine wave. The limits of the material, maximum overhang dimensions, optimal panel sizes, the site, cost, and building and zoning codes were all analyzed and adjusted through the use of modeling, and determined the amplitude of the wave. Ms. Sharples called the parametric modeling of the work “essential” to achieving the end result, as there were dimensional changes to the brick panels that would not have been coordinated without the use of parametrics.

Through the appropriate use of modeling, the “document” (model) also allows for many different types of outputs. For example, changing the panel sizes would affect the dimensions of the panel molds, as well as the actual square footage per apartment. A simple extraction of data from the model yields accurate results.

Ms. Sharples ended by reiterating what others have stated, but it’s worth repeating. The relationship between the exterior wall subcontractor and architect through the entire design process was essential to the project’s success. Again we have an example of two crafts joining early on in the process to create something truly unique.

Howard Ashcraft started his presentation by reminding us all that we can’t lose the passion for design amidst all of the legalities, contractual obligations, limitations, and management issues. He sees that in the future, digital design processes will be a given. The real question is how it will be used.

To manage risk, he continued, one has two choices: to insulate oneself from it by shedding responsibility, or by “owning” it. By assuming the responsibility, it’s giving the architect greater control and hence, less chance for errors, omissions, miscalculations, etc. If you haven’t guessed by the theme of the symposium, he advocates the second choice.

The legal concept of “responsible charge”, said Mr. Ashcraft, kills collaboration. Communication is channeled through very narrow, very specific channels. What is needed is a rebirth of the process, known as “Distributed Design”. As one would expect, a battery of questions arises: what is the “design”? Who is the “designer”? Where is the design? Is it even in a physical location? Who is now in “responsible charge”, and how is that shared? An “we, not I” attitude is required, as intellectual property rights merge, and the designer is drawn into owner/ contractor disputes. The “standard of care” changes, too, as would be expected when “responsible charge” becomes distributed across the team.

Commercial barriers to this workflow include excessive risk with little short term reward. There is no standard business model, either, so few collaborators are available. Implementation is easiest if the “Distributed Design” model is scaled back a bit, i.e., it’s practiced internally by a firm. That limits the benefit, but if there’s nobody around to collaborate with, it can’t hurt the benefit that much.

Mr. Ashcraft spoke a little about the shared design processes currently being shaped in the UK and Australia (see my comments about Kent Larsen’s presentation), and he sees it as a great first step to developing a business model. He ended with this caution: “We’ll all get there, but we should get there with a plan.”

Concluding this session, Phil Bernstein offered some comments. Designers are viewed as people who “think about things” and don’t really make anything. Constructors (his word), are supposed to “make things” and not really think about what they’re making. Eliminating the boundaries that separate the two camps is when “issues arise”, as he so subtly put it.

Construction Management industries are based on the “dotted-line” (non)relationship between the Architect and the Contractor. Front, Bernstein continued, falls on that dotted line. SHoP is also doing its part by “warping” the project delivery paradigm. Firms such as these are demonstrating a growing interest in who has control over the entire process. There’s a fork in the road ahead – do we want to see a future that holds the Architect as an asthete or as one in a position of control? Finally, he ended by proclaiming that reinvention of the business model is critical to the change. Software technology will follow, and should not lead the charge.

To start the Q&A session, Mr. Bernstein posed a “what if” question to the speakers: what if Mr. Prince-Ramus was hit with a lawsuit on the Seattle Public Library? How would the legalities and responsibilities work out? Mr. Ashcraft spoke of the importance of developing a strong client relationship to head off the lawsuit. He advised that an architect call the client immediately to show that she was being proactive and was working to solve the problem that drove the lawsuit. Mr. Simmons advised firing 10% of your clients each year, and more pragmatically, involving your employees in the “ownership” of the design. Doing so increases morale and project quality rises. Ms. Sharples repeated the importance of crisis management, and that when the owner and contractor see your involvement, the crisis becomes much less severe. The overarching response was: be honest. Show you want to fix the problem.

The next question was about “doing the extra work” for the 3d model, and how (if) it was reflected in the architect’s fees. Mr. Prince-Ramus was able to secure a percentage of the General Conditions from the contractor on a particular job, since he was doing the shop drawings in his model, but that’s so often not the case. Ms. Sharples’ firm takes the opposite approach by rolling it into (what she hopes is) a higher overall fee.

From the audience, James Timberlake brought up the role of “the Academy” in the educational process, and if it places the emphasis on individuality and isolation rather than collaboration. Dean Stern defended Yale by describing the design/ build studios and co-op programs. Mr. Prince-Ramus thought that students need to learn the notion of “other” in the design process, namely one who cannot be convinced that the student’s design is the way to go. “Collaborating with like-minded people is easy,” he said. “What you need is denial.”

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