New Technologies: New Processes

bmw edge

What was it?

A round-table discussion held at BMW Edge last Thursday, part of the Agenda series courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. It followed on from Gregg Pasquarelli’s excellent Dean’s Lecture held earlier in the week, discussed here, and addressed the changing role of technology in design and construction.

Chaired by Professor Donald Bates, the event comprised a hefty 9 speakers (originally billed as 10, but Nonda Katsalidis had somewhere else better to be) across two panels: Pasquarelli of SHoP Architects, Professor Paolo Tombesi and Paul Loh from the University of Melbourne, and Michael Argyrou from Unitised Building in the first; Hamish Lyon from NH Architecture, Ian Steedman from Brookfield Multiplex, Andrew Tsakmakis from ARUP, Rob Phillport from Aconex and Dominik Holzer again from the University of Melbourne in the second.

We believe the round-table was organised with very short notice to capatilise on Pasquarelli’s time in Melbourne, so kudos must go to Bates for gathering such prestigious panels of diverse expertise. Following on from the successes of the Dean’s Lecture and first Agenda in March, our expectations were high: we arrived early looking forward to an insightful and meaningful discussion.

What did we think?

Unfortunately, this Agenda was not as well executed as it might have been. With each panel member making a brief [sic] presentation prior to discussion time, the allotted two hours evaporated quickly and there was insufficient opportunity for vigorous debate. What little there was did not delve deeply enough into the topics raised, nor provide the multi-faceted dialogue we had anticipated.

Of the presentations, Pasquarelli was, once again, engaging. He steered clear of territory already covered in his Dean’s Lecture, instead elaborating on the unique relationship between SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction. On Barclays Centre, their stadium project in Brooklyn, the former worked for the client while the latter worked for the builder. This finely balanced independence reminds us of SJB‘s corporate structure here in Melbourne: a group of five companies (architecture, interiors, urban design, planning and administration) at times working together and at others separately. For both SHoP and SJB, this arrangement permits the development of unique ideas and skills within each arm, while also affording a significantly more holistic approach on project delivery than is otherwise possible.

Tombesi, who took us for both design and theory subjects during our architecture studies, presented a densely packed analysis of the relationship between key elements of the construction industry: client; design; manufacturing; construction; and regulation. Making us feel like undergraduates all over again, he described how innovation occurs either within these realms of activity or across the links between them. Link-based innovation crosses the boundaries between elements via both push and pull mechanisms: SHoP occupy the centre of the construction landscape and act across multiple fields, pushing design and manufacturing innovation into construction territories.

This framework stems from the key understanding that the design of buildings relies on, and is produced for, people. There is no building without people and no construction industry without building. This ecology is so tightly woven that architecture is fundamentally limited to only be as good or as bad as the society that commissions it. As Tombesi put it, “We get the architecture we deserve”.

Lyon spoke thematically about his recent experiences across large building projects in Melbourne. He touched on the impact of time on new construction ideologies, noting how the Melbourne Convention Centre was still being designed and documented while construction was already underway. He discussed the impact of location on the Myer Bourke Street redevelopment, which incorporated issues of access, streetscape and ongoing commercial activities in the rest of the department store. And he addressed geometry, specifically the dimensions and proportions of Margaret Court Arena, which all revolve around the confined precision of a tennis match.

Lyon concluded with the observation that despite the pervading nature of new technologies, construction today is not that different from construction at any other point in history. Gravity still exists, we still have to lift things up, things still get wet, wind and weather still get in the way.

melbourne convention centreMelbourne Convention Centre by NH Architecture, Southbank, 2009

What did we learn?

With the exception of the aforementioned presentations, we found the rest to be dry. Most remarkable was the difference in paradigms embodied by the architects and academics on the one hand, and builders, engineer and software developer on the other. Whereas Pasquarelli, Tombesi, Lyon and other academics spoke intelligently about the broader issues of architecture production and their ambitions for high quality cities, the builders et. al. showed themselves to be incapable of seeing beyond the confines of their specific interests. Argyrou, Steedman and Phillpot did not argue against the value of well built cities, they were simply disinterested in it.

Argyrou focussed entirely on the technologies used by Unitised Building to facilitate construction of its unitised construction system. The company has a dedicated factory that looks after every element of a building, from superstructure to joinery. Each step in the assembly line is carefully managed: even the number of minutes it takes to a weld a join is estimated, monitored and reviewed. Apartments arrive on site fully built, even furnished, and assembly takes 16 days instead of the 110 it would take to build the same building using traditional methods. Despite this, the unitised apartments are marketed and sold like normal apartments: the buying public are not aware of the innovations that have taken place under their apartments’ skin.

Following discussion of this system, Pasquarelli asked a telling question: do many clients seek to use the efficiency of Unitised Building’s innovative construction process to achieve better design outcomes rather than cheaper construction costs? Argyrou confirmed that unitised construction is between 5 – 15% cheaper than traditional construction but dismissed the possibility of better design. His clients are only ever interested in the bottom line.

Tombesi also highlighted a potential hazard of the advent of unitised fabrication. Shifting construction off site and into factories has the reverse consequence of reducing in-situ expertise: manufacturing innovation pulls change from construction territories. If we want a construction industry that can achieve both low cost volume building and high cost craft building, we must be aware of the broad changes affected by individual innovations. Again Argyrou was disinterested, barely even registering awareness of the implications of Tombesi’s critcism.

the nicholsonThe Nicholson by Unitised Building, Coburg, 2011

Steedman and Phillpot were similarly tedious. Both touched on building integrated management (BIM) documentation, extolling its virtues, but their discussion ventured no further than their own areas of interest: construction costs, timely delivery and profits. It would have been enlightening to have Pasquarelli’s demonstrated expertise and Tombesi’s encyclopaedic knowledge pitted against such impassive self-interest.

We left this Agenda with more questions than answers. Most importantly, we ask what impact BIM and unitised construction will have on our built environment. Given the tendency for the profit incentive to drive decision making at every stratum of Australian society – from politics, through finances and development, to markets – what will prevent these innovations from doing nothing more than decreasing costs at the expense of quality?

During question time, we asked Pasquarelli whether there are any secrets to SHoP’s success in doing the opposite, in maintaining construction costs while increasing quality. His answer was notable for its reverberations echoing back across every technological innovation of the modern era: “We need cheerleaders for a high quality built environment. We need to advocate for this outcome with clients, builders and governments. Architects are the guardians of culture.”

So as always, poor built outcomes are still possible and advocacy is still necessary. It may be a brave new world, but quality vs. cost is still the same old battle.

Out of Practice

dunescapeDunescape by SHoP Architects, New York, 2000

What was it?

The second Dean’s Lecture for 2013, courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Held on Tuesday night last week, the speaker was Gregg Pasquarelli, one of the five founding directors of SHoP Architects based in New York. He presented a selection of projects with a collective narrative describing ways in which the office is seeking to establish new business models for architecture practice.

SHoP Architects were formed in 1996 by Pasquarelli and his wife, Kimberly Holden, a second couple, William and Coren Sharples, and William’s twin brother, Christopher. All five came to architecture through other disciplines, including history, finance, science and engineering; a diversity they continue to encourage in their close to 100 staff, many of whom also have past lives in other fields. This cross-disciplinary interest is closely tied to SHoP’s relentless pursuit of opportunities beyond pure design: including construction, manufacturing, finance, business and media.

Pasquarelli presented an eloquent argument for this strategy: the more they know about the broad socioeconomic armature of architecture production, the more liberated they can be in design, the more free they can be in “exploring beauty, aesthetics and art”. SHoP ask questions like: how big is an uncut sheet? What are the 8 ways two panels can be connected? What thickness loss occurs when a sheet is bent around a radius? How many fittings come in a box? How is a box lifted off the back of a truck? By understanding the answers to these questions, they can design to minimise waste, maximise efficiency and improve the quality of their buildings.

A key manifestation of this philosophy, in which Pasquarelli referenced Robert Venturi’s both/and language, was the creation in 2008 of SHoP Construction, a sister company that focusses on construction management and factory fabrication of building components. The two companies share staff, expertise and office space. The use of sophisticated digital technologies like parametric modelling, CNC routing and as-built laser scanning has liberated complex form from the noose of expensive labour: if SHoP can minimise disruptions on site or eliminate waste from a facade system, they can deliver sculptural buildings for standard industry construction costs.

What did we think?

Pasquarelli’s discussion of the armature of architectural production – his constant and refreshing references to construction and finances – resonated deeply with us. It touched a chord that goes all the way back to a theory class we took while studying architecture at the University of Melbourne, The Political Economy of Design. Taught by Professor Paolo Tombesi (who participated in a follow up round-table discussion to Pasquarelli’s Dean’s Lecture on Thursday afternoon), the subject examined the history, politics and economics of architectural production and urged us to consider both the storm of influences that inspire, and the far-reaching consequences of, any architectural work.

Tombesi’s systematic method for thinking about architecture is exemplified by SHoP’s output. Here is a practice determined to expand their role and influence beyond the traditional confines of practice, and in so doing sustain and improve the quality of their architecture. It seems there is no arena that SHoP won’t explore. Indeed, Pasquarelli structured his entire presentation around their incursion into the associated territories of consultant, builder and client: he spoke about incorporating financial management into their facade designs, where parametric modelling engines return realtime material costings; he articulated in great detail the various pre-fabrication processes in which they have become expert; and he discussed the increases in apartment sales revenue that their designs have generated.

Two project examples are particularly worthy of note:

porter house
Porter House, New York, 2003

Porter House is a 5,100sqm apartment building, part renovation to an existing, 6 storey heritage building and part 6 storey addition (with 2 storeys overlapping). This is one of an increasing number of projects where SHoP acted as their own client, establishing a joint venture partnership to share both the risk and rewards of a speculative residential development.

Pasquarelli related the story of the new building’s facade, which is clad in zinc. When SHoP approached local zinc installers during the design process, they were told that it would be far more expensive to install than a standard steel or aluminium skin. Where a steel system might cost $700/sqm, zinc would cost $1,000/sqm. But, they asked, zinc is only marginally more expensive a material than steel, so why should this be so? The response was polite disinterest, so their next question was, Where does the zinc come from? France. So they got on a plane to France, met up with a supplier and returned home to New York with 1,000 sheets of zinc. They then designed a complex cladding system with 12,000 panel pieces divided between 750 unique templates, parametrically tweaking the system to eliminate waste.

porter house facadePorter House, facade detail

Pasquarelli noted that a simple brick facade costs $500/sqm, while a slick Richard Meier curtain wall might cost in the order of $1,200/sqm. The Porter House zinc cladding system cost $430/sqm. Ultimately, the project was delivered with a 0% increase over standard construction costs, but thanks to its high quality design outcome, returned a 17% increase over budgeted sales revenues. For the first time, SHoP had hard data to back up their argument that good design has quantifiable value.

barclays centreBarclays Centre, Brooklyn, under construction

Barclays Centre is a basketball stadium for the Brooklyn Nets with a procurement story straight out of a book on the world’s most improbable buildings. Originally a project designed by Frank Gehry that comprised the stadium together with four residential towers at each corner, the start of the global financial crisis in 2009 crashed funding for the apartments and the project had to go back to square one. But the client now had another major financial issue: if the building were not in the ground within 7 months, a change in the local tax laws would remove $400m of tax incentives and kill the project entirely.

So Gehry bowed out and the client went to a major stadium builder in the United States. Even they said 7 months for design and documentation was too short a timeframe. However, if the client wanted, they could hop in a helicopter and visit all the stadiums the construction firm had previously built, pick one they liked and use the existing shop drawings to get construction underway. Which is what happened.

Enter SHoP Architects. The client went to them for some assistance with a new facade design, the catch being that all the steel had already been purchased. SHoP said no. But that night, Pasquarelli and his fellow directors went to a bar, had a few glasses of wine and started drawing. Ideas emerged. The following morning they called the client back and said, We’ll give it a go. Give us three days and we’ll produce one image. If you like it, you engage us to redesign the building in its entirety: structure, facades, interiors, the lot. The client agreed, an image was produced, and the project was awarded.

SHoP now had 7 weeks in which to design and document a $1b stadium. A staff of 26 worked in two shifts around the clock to deliver the project on time. They got the work done, were in the ground before the 7 month deadline and the tax drama was averted.

The Barclays Centre story doesn’t stop there however. This is a project that offers further surprises and fascinating insight into the way SHoP have embraced cutting edge digital technologies and construction delivery processes.

barclays centre facade panelsFabrication and assembly line for the Barclays Centre facade

The stadium’s facade is made from thousands of unique panels of weathered steel. SHoP commissioned a factory to build these panels and run them along a production line that subjected them to successive wash and heat cycles to achieve the desired weathered finish. They then built an iPhone app that permitted the barcode of any given panel to be scanned, and detailed data returned on where the panel was up to in its weathering cycles, how many coats of finish had been applied, when in the construction process it was expected etc.

This system relied on the installation on site of a very precise structural frame. A series of connecting cleats matching each panel had to be absolutely perfect or else it could not be installed. SHoP undertook a three-dimensional laser scan of the entire construction site and overlaid it against their digital model. This process revealed that 15% of the cleats across the project were out of place, an error that would have resulted in a 3 month project delay. The timely discovery of the misalignment saved the delay and many millions of dollars in additional costs.

The lost apartment towers have since been reintroduced to the client’s agenda, with a commitment to a citywide best 50 / 50 division between market and affordable housing. SHoP have proposed a unitised (or modular) design, with the potential for broad rollout across the Atlantic Yards site. So interested in examining the potential cost savings of unitised construction were the client that they commissioned two teams within SHoP, a firewall between them and entirely separate consultants, to document the project in both traditional and unitised formats. Both documentation packages went out together, in competition against each other, and the unitised package came back 30% cheaper than the traditional. Construction of the first towers is underway.

atlantic yardsB2 at Atlantic Yards , Brooklyn, in design

What can we learn?

SHoP embodies a radical approach to architecture practice, an approach that arises in conversation regularly amongst our friends and colleagues, albeit on a much smaller scale and always with more questions than answers. The approach is to do more, to take back territories stripped over recent decades from the architect’s realm of operations. Once upon a time, architects used to be builders and engineers, we used to be environmental consultants, project managers, heritage advisors and quantity surveyors. Thanks to the global tendency towards specialisation, together with significant periods in history of our own malaise, expertise in these roles now falls on the shoulders of others.

Pasquarelli criticised architects for being risk-averse and challenged us to push the boundaries of our comfort zones: he believes architects are great generalist with far more to offer than the mere beautification for which we are regularly employed. Why can’t we employ engineers, landscape architects and quantity surveyors within our practices? Why can’t we take on construction management roles for our projects? Why can’t we finance our own speculative developments? Architects do not, after all, build buildings. We prepare drawing sets from which other people build buildings. The more we get involved in this complex transition, the better our architecture can be.

dunescape contextDunescape, in context

To this end, SHoP no longer draw plans, sections and elevations. They regard these as obsolete methods of building communication. Since their early project, Dunescape, a temporary pavilion for MoMA PS1 that explored the potential of digital technologies to achieve complex spatial forms via simple means, they produce elemental documentation more akin to aircraft design, or to our mind, the instructions accompanying a LEGO set. We wonder even if the systematised directions for Dunescape were inspired by the installations of 1960s conceptual artist, Sol LeWitt, another New Yorker.

sol lewittStraight Lines in Four Directions and All Their Possible Combinations, Sol LeWitt, 1973

We imagine SHoP would be pleased with these associations. For them, success is a documentation set that goes straight from their computer to a CNC router, neither paper nor dimensions required, followed by a construction site populated by builders without tape measures.

Dunescape might also provide insight into the origins of SHoP’s restless, outwards gaze. It taught them the value of experimentation, a lesson they have carried through to many later projects, Porter House and Barclays Centre included. And it taught them the value of engagement with the socioeconomic armature surrounding their projects. Speaking with their client, they discovered that their pavilion attracted 8,000 people each weekend, compared to the previous year’s pavilion, which attracted only 2,000. What did this mean for MoMA’s revenue?

6,000 people
x
12 weekends
x
$20 average spend
=
$1,440,000

SHoP’s earliest demonstration that good design has value.

Ultimately, the goal of SHoP Architects is to create good, sustainable architecture. For them, sustainability doesn’t mean installing photovoltaic panels on a building, but “creating buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years”. It means promoting high density living and healthy cities. It means exploiting the opportunities presented by new technologies to engage with the built environment at every scale.

Pasquarelli concluded his Dean’s Lecture by observing that we are standing on a precipice of radical change in the construction industry, driven by emerging technologies and rapidly evolving demands on our cities. He believes that architects, “guardians of culture,” are perfectly equipped to ride the waves of this change and must not be afraid to step up to its challenges.

The future

This is the 10th and final instalment in a series of articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

10. The future

delorean

When: The future
Important: High
Cost: Priceless
Difficulty: Low

You will not be a young architect with a new practice forever. One day you will be middle-aged and successful. One day you might even be old and a legend. What sort of success do you desire? What sort of legend do you want to be?

As we have discussed previously, there is no better time to think about the shape of your future than today. Architecture is often ruled by word of mouth, meaning each project you undertake and complete will pave the way, daisy-chain style, to future projects. Glenn Murcutt puts it slightly differently, arguing that the projects you reject have the greatest impact on your future projects. Either way, it is rare that a house renovation will lead to a stadium, or a restaurant fitout will lead to a museum: if these are things you want, then you need to plan for them.

A lesson in what happens when you don’t plan was examined in our recent article about Donovan Hill, recently merged with (read: acquired by) much larger practice, Bligh Voller Nield. From craft beginnings and the sublime C House, Donovan Hill accepted opportunities as they appeared, moving into commercial tower projects far removed from their previous sensitivity towards culture and climate. Merging with BVN was perhaps a natural subsequent step, but there is no getting around the fact that their old stuff is much better than their new stuff.

To help us avoid this honey trap, we have a 20 year plan that we put together in early 2011 and describes where we want to be in the year 2031.

  • It describes characteristics of our studio: sufficiently flexible to pursue new project typologies; comprising more than 10 staff but less than 20; structured to give us the freedom to study, teach, write and travel.
  • It describes our projects: most in and around Melbourne, some in other parts of Australia, and a few in other parts of the world; a mixture of project typologies, including regular entries into design competitions; firmly rooted in design research and experimentation.
  • It talks about our roles beyond our studio: we are leaders in our architectural community; we are heavily engaged with the wider profession; we encourage our staff to be the same.
  • It talks about recognition: we are worth waiting for at Presentations to Juries events; we are widely published; our reputation among our clients is for good design, environmental sustainability, adaptability and reliability.

If we want to achieve any of these ambitions by 2031, we need to be prepared to lay the necessary groundwork now and over coming years. We are well on our way in some areas (we are heavily engaged with the wider profession and regular entrants to design competitions) but not so much in others (our projects are almost exclusively residential and we have so far only entered the Presentations to Juries once).

Your future is what you make it. Understanding where you’re heading is essential, as is referring regularly to your goals and updating them as your expectations evolve.

Community

This is the 9th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

9. Community

membership

When: Later
Importance: Moderate
Cost: Varies
Difficulty: Varies

Almost every aspect of your architecture practice, from the quality of your designs, to your marketing strategies, to your financial management, can benefit from your involvement in the right communities. By this we do not only mean the people who live next door, but your cultural and professional communities too. In other words, other architects, designers and the institutions that support them: collectively these people are a ready-made source of advice, assistance and feedback.

The types of communities in which you might take part can be roughly divided into five categories: design, business, marketing, culture and tribal. To make the most use of these, be prepared to juggle the full breadth of media the world has to offer, from online forums and social media, to international awards programmes and local lecture series. You will need to spend plenty of time in front of your computer screen, but just as much time getting out to actually meet people.

You will know you have chosen the right communities when you find they keep overlapping. The truth in this was neatly displayed when we attended the Presentations to Juries a month or so ago: shuffling from room to room with us were people whom we follow on Twitter, with whom we share blog discussions, attend lectures and seminars, present at design talks, studied and worked.

Design communities are those that allow you to present your design work and review the work of others. If all that happens once a project is presented is a round of applause, you are not participating in a design community. Reciprocity is essential to the success of these communities, as is the willingness of their participants to be critical about one another’s ideas. Given architects’ reluctance to subject themselves to negative criticism, even constructively offered, they are very hard to come by. We suggest you start one yourself, perhaps with friends from university whose journeys into architecture practice parallel your own. Every couple of weeks we catch up with one or two friends over lunch to discuss design and practice in a loose but longstanding arrangement affectionately referred to as the Round Table. We entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition together and, we must confess, could do better in heeding our own advice by presenting our work to one another more often. Design communities cost whatever you’re having for lunch.

Business communities are those that help you get better at any of the myriad skills and processes you need to keep your architecture practice afloat, from big picture things like time management and fee negotiation, to detail things like filing systems and contact lists. We take part in the Australian Institute of Architects‘ Small Practice Forum, a group of 30 or so architects that meets every two months to discuss subjects like marketing, fees, office manuals and, most recently, cloud computing. The Institute also runs plenty of continuing professional development events that are well worth attending: the oddly named but business-savvy Blue Turtle Management and Consulting (BTMC) have presented a few such events, one of which we discussed here. The cost of Institute membership varies and is generally hefty (we pay around $1,000 a year), however we feel its value is priceless.

Marketing communities are immensely abundant, require a huge amount of time to maintain and rarely pave the way for new projects. We say rarely, because every now and then they do, which will render every hour spent previously worthwhile. Houzz is an interesting tool that allows designers to upload photos of their work (1,000,000 so far an counting) to an indexed and searchable database that other people selectively add to ideas albums. It is also a useful way to have clients give you a summary of their tastes and design interests. New Architects is a series of casual design presentations run every couple of months with a strong emphasis on young designers. A website is on its way, however invitation is currently by email list or word of mouth only. Various agencies around the world, including Houses Magazine, Design Institute of Australia and Australian Timber Design Awards here, and World Architecture News and Architectural Review overseas, all hold annual awards programmes for both speculative and built work. There are many, many others. Finally, 70% of Australians own the houses they live in: the more you connect with your neighbours and local community, the more likely you are that you will get work from them. Houzz and New Architects are both free to join, though most awards programmes will cost $200 – $400 per entry.

Cultural communities will not necessarily win you new projects nor allow you the opportunity to present your work to the world at large, but they will increase your appreciation of good design and generally nurture your soul. Melbourne is blessed with a large number of organisations that foster such communities, including the Robin Boyd Foundation (RBF), ParlourMelbourne Open House (MOH) and C + A. Each has its own dedicated focus: modernist architecture for RBF; women in architecture for Parlour; public open days for MOH; and concrete for C + A. All run lecture and seminar programmes, publish journals and offer access to some of Melbourne’s best architecture both past and present. The cost of events varies, from nothing in the case of MOH’s annual open day to $65 for Parlour’s upcoming Transform workshop.

Finally, tribal communities are those you start yourself. They are generally online, often emanate from a blog or Twitter feed, and focus on one issue or interest area. They are not necessarily central to the architecture work you do, but revolve around it or are related to it. There are two important qualities of the tribal community: first, you are its chief; and second, you are its chief because you have been talking about its interest area before anyone else was. To paraphrase Texan artist, Austin Kleon, to whom we have paid tribute here, if everyone is talking about apples while you’re interested in oranges, you should start talking about oranges anyway. Eventually, when the rest of the world catches on to how great oranges are, you will be an established orange guru and natural chief.

Participating in any or all of these communities will grow what we have come to call your cultural capital i.e. the value you have to the culture around you. As your presence in awards programmes, forums, lecture series, blogs and design organisations grows, so too will your cultural capital. This capital will not necessarily win you projects and will certainly not turn you into a starchitect overnight. However, if you enjoy your communities without thought to future stardom, you will find your capital grows of its own accord, a development that we believe can only have a positive impact on your future design career.