The new architecture of Carlo Ratti

carlo ratti

Who is he?

An italian architect and “urban change agent”[1] who divides his time between Carlo Ratti Associati, the innovation and design studio he runs from Torino, and SENSEable City Lab, the research laboratory he leads out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Ratti’s design and research work overlap significantly, both focussing on the transformative effect of new technologies on our built environment and daily lives.[2] The scope of his projects is incredibly wide, ranging from drone-based wayfinding to experimental furniture to citywide data mining.

Ratti was in Melbourne last month for a week of programs courtesy of the International Specialised Skills Institute. We attended the lunchtime seminar he presented at the University of Melbourne entitled, Decalogue for a [smart] SENSEable city. It was hosted in conjunction by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

What did we think?

Ratti began his seminar by quoting controversial American activist, George Gilder, who in 1995 claimed that “cities are leftover baggage of the industrial era… We are headed for the death of cities.” More moderately, fellow MIT scholar, Nicholas Negroponte, wrote in 1996 that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[3] Far from the death of cities however, Ratti observed that the past twenty years have instead witnessed their unparalleled prosperity. Global urbanisation is more widespread now than at any other time in history, with just over half of the world’s 7.1 billion population living in urban areas.[4]

Cities are thriving, but so is the penetration of digital technology into their fabric. “The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[5] Evidence of this physical and digital conversion – the cyberphysical – is everywhere: from the 4 billion smartphones in circulation globally and the infiltration of social media into daily work habits, to the proliferation of remotely controlled security systems and transport infrastructure.

For Ratti, the exciting extrapolation of this process is our ability to use digital technology to learn from cities in order to improve them. Many of his projects involve crowdsourcing tiny fragments of data that are in themselves meaningless but when gathered together form very large sets of useful intelligence. He seeks to convert the city into a realtime control system, with inbuilt feedback loops that improve its economic, social and environmental sustainability. A difficult undertaking with a simple justification: while the physical layers of the city – roads, buildings, services – are expensive to build and respond slowly to change, the digital layers are cheap to implement and able to evolve very quickly to changing circumstances. In essence, Ratti wants the digital to allow us to better use what we already have of the physical.

Ratti structured his presentation around a series of diverse themes of urban engagement, including Smart phone smart cityi-MobilityNew universities, and Living together. The projects employed a compelling cocktail of skill sets, involving among others architectural design, graphic design, algorithmic computing, electrical engineering and web app development. Intervening in the emerging overlap between the physical and digital space of the city, they convincingly capture Ratti’s inexhaustible inventiveness and hunger for urban change.

Though Ratti covered a lot of ground during his hour-long seminar, we will focus here on three projects only, the ones that struck us as most clearly demonstrating his multi-disciplinary approach to urban problem solving.

hubcab overall170 million annual taxi trips in New York City

hubcab journeyJourney from West 15th to East 54th Street

HubCab
www.hubcab.org
Project video via YouTube
i-Mobility
2014

HubCab is an interactive visualisation that allows users to explore every taxi trip taken within the City of New York in a year: a network of journeys that leave no lasting trace but nevertheless stitch the whole city together. Like many of SENSEable City Lab’s projects, the seduction of the visualisation masks an extraordinary backend algorithm processing vast quantities of information. According to the HubCab website, the basis of the project is “a data set of over 170 million taxi trips of all 13,500 medallion taxis in New York City in 2011. The data set contains GPS coordinates of all pick up and drop off points and corresponding times.”[6]

Employing an efficiency concept developed by Ratti’s team, shareability networks, the data set is analysed for potential redundancies i.e. whether a taxi trip travelling from point A to point B can be combined with a second trip travelling from point C to point D, thereby eliminating one trip entirely. When we click on a nominal trip, say from West 15th to East 54th Street (see above image), we can see that it forms part of a route with annual savings of $3.1m, 1.6m kilometres and 445,000kg of CO2. Ratti explained that employing shareability networks within a large, dense city like New York has the capacity to reduce the number of taxi trips in a year by a staggering 40%.

isochronic singapore
Map of Singapore where the scale is not measured in kilometres but travel time

formula one city
Maps of central Singapore comparing mobile phone usage on typical days (left) and during the Singapore Grand Prix (right)

LIVE Singapore!
www.senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore/
Project video via YouTube
Public engagement 2.0
2010

LIVE Singapore! is an exercise in citywide mapping, establishing “a feedback loop between people, their actions, and the city.”[7] It gathers useful information like temperature, mobile phone usage, rainfall, taxi availability and traffic, and maps them with localised detail in realtime. The project team curated the mapping process, for instance juxtaposing taxi availability against rainfall, or mobile phone usage against a popular sporting event.

The selection of information types and process of juxtaposition reflect the true agenda of this project: “giving people visual and tangible access to realtime information about their city enables them to make their decisions in sync with their environment, with what is actually happening around them.”[8] If traffic congestion mapping can accurately tell us how long it will take to get somewhere, we can leave early enough to arrive on time. If we know that taxis are likely to get snapped up whenever it rains, we can take the train (or authorities can ensure greater supply).

trash trackThe tracking device used in TrashTrack

trash tracking map
Movement of waste after two months

TrashTrack
www.senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack/
Project video via YouTube
Waste tracking
2009

This project asks the question, “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?”[9] It suggests that our interest in the supply of local produce does not extend to waste processes in large part due to our lack of awareness of them. TrashTrack seeks to highlight the movement of our waste products from household bins to final destinations.

Using a simplified version of technology found within mobile phones, Ratti’s team developed a tracking and broadcasting device that could be attached to pieces of waste. The team then invited 500 volunteers to tag regular pieces of household rubbish, 3,000 items in total ranging from old sneakers, to empty cans, banana peels and dead batteries. Once the volunteers went home and threw out their tagged waste items, the tags started reporting their locations and establishing tracking vectors of their movement.

The tags, or smart dust as Ratti referred to them, established a network of tiny locatable electromechanical systems. The video of the mapping process is astounding: items of waste found their way from Seattle to every corner of the United States, in the case of some alkaline batteries not coming to a rest for two months.

What did we learn?

To understand Ratti’s work, we must consider the way he views the major forces affecting contemporary urban environments. The rapid growth in global urbanisation is his first and perhaps most important influence: Ratti does not deny the decentralising tendencies of digital technology, but attributes the city’s survival despite these tendencies to our deep need for social contact: people want to live together. His works are inherently social, interested in enhancing the connections between people and their environments. Rather than permitting digital technologies to alienate the inhabitants of a city, he wants to empower them with new and unprecedented control.

Second, and essentially the core area of Ratti’s interventions, is the aforementioned and ever-expanding blanket of networked digital elements. He is impatient with the slowness of hard infrastructure, far more interested in the opportunities presented by new digital technologies: data, networks, connections and apps that have the power to reach and affect millions of people at a time. He reasons that a city is not such a big place nor such a mysterious creature to understand, not when millions of people are already walking around in it, already absorbing and transmitting data about their environments.

For us, we are most impressed with the clear DNA of Ratti’s projects. They tackle issues of environmental sustainability, quality of life, resource use, cultural engagement and social spaces. If these questions seem familiar it’s because they are: they’re the same questions architects face. What the architecture profession traditionally addresses via urban and building design, Ratti addresses with digital, scaleable technologies. His is an exciting new world, one where the practice of architecture retains its worldview, but expands to encompass whatever tools and skills are necessary to get the job done.

This thinking has been recently manifested in a project not discussed by Ratti in his presentation but already receiving a lot of attention online and now available for pre-ordering, the Copenhagen Wheel. An electric motor that attaches to the rear wheel of a bicycle, it “transforms the bicycle into a hybrid e-bike that also provides feedback on pollution, traffic congestion and road conditions in realtime.”[10] This project is an exciting development within Ratti’s work, one that shifts his practice beyond demonstration into application. We look forward to seeing more of it.


Footnotes:

  1. Carlo Ratti in Melbourne; ArchitectureAU; 13th March 2014
  2. Studio synopsis; Carlo Ratti Associati; accessed 20th April 2014
  3. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  4. In 2011, 52.1% of the world population lived in urban areas. By 2050, this is projected to grow to 67.2%. Source: World Population ProspectsPopulation Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat; 2011
  5. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban design; Wired; 2nd October 2009
  6. Project description; HubCab; accessed 27th April 2014
  7. Project description; LIVE Singapore!; accessed 27th April 2014
  8. Ibid.
  9. Project description; TrashTrack; accessed 28th April 2014
  10. Project description; Copenhagen Wheel; accessed 29th April 2014

Image credits:

  1. Carlo Ratti. MIT Technology Review, author unknown.
  2. Annual taxi trips, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  3. Journey from West 15th to East 54th Street, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  4. Isochronic Singapore, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  5. Formula One City, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  6. Trash tag v2.0, the tracking device used in TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009
  7. Trash tagging map, for TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009

Construction

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 7th and final of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

7. Construction

construction

In this the final stage of a project, your house gets built. All the hours and weeks and months of design and documentation are rewarded by the wonderful experience of witnessing your dream home take shape. The responsibility for driving the project forward transfers from us to the builder. After all our hard work, this is a considerable relief.

The design and documentation process is not completely finished however. In addition to certifying payments, assessing variations, and responding to queries, we continue refining and improving your project. Unexpected problems arise on site, exciting opportunities present themselves, and mistakes are made. The builder might demolish a wall and discover a rotten section of ceiling that needs to be removed, covered or replaced; a specified tile, oven or tap may no longer be available; when the wall framing goes up we might discover an unanticipated but particularly beautiful view we want to capture. For all of these situations, we resolve detailed construction questions with the you and the builder on site and back in our studio.

The duration of this project stage is first and foremost dependent on the size of the project, and second on its complexity. While there is an economy of scale, more building typically means more time. Complexity requires higher levels of supervision and presents fewer opportunities for fast tracking. There is also a minimum time to construction. We have found that even the smallest construction projects, with barely 3 months of work to do, will take at least 6 months to complete.

In total, you can expect an architectural project to take a minimum of a year and a half from conception to completion. The maximum we’ve discussed here is 3 and a half years, though this is dependent on a number of potentially unquantifiable factors, including a drawn out town planning process and lengthy construction stage.

Stage duration = 6 – 18 months
Architect’s time = 200 – 600 hours
Specialist consultants = Structural engineer, building surveyor

Documents = Site details, progress payment certificates and variations
Scale of drawings = 1:10 – 1:5
Quantity = 40 – 120x A4 details depending on duration and complexity of project

farmer house construction


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credits:

  1. Construction. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer  House construction. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Tendering

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 6th of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

6. Tendering

tendering

In this project stage, we procure 1 or more tenders to build your project. A tender is essentially a quote, though more detailed and tied to both our documentation and the eventual building contract. There are a number of ways we can go about tendering a project, a topic we have previously explored here, but each essentially boils down to this:

  1. We submit our documentation set to 1 or more builders.
  2. We give the builders 4 weeks to prepare their tenders.
  3. We meet with the builders on site and respond to queries via tender addenda.
  4. At the end of 4 weeks, we negotiate with the preferred builder until you, she and we are happy with the scope and budget.
  5. We prepare duplicate copies of the building contract and documentation set for you and the builder to sign.

The tender period is typically set at 4 weeks, though the time required for the negotiation that takes place afterwards is dependent on how close to your project budget the tenders are. Since we carefully curate the builders with whom we work, all should be capable of executing the project. The only decision that needs to be made is on price.

Stage duration = 6 – 8 weeks
Architect’s time = 40 – 60 hours
Specialist consultants = N/A

Documentation = Tender addenda as required
Quantity of drawings  = N/A

Scale = N/A

farmer house tendering


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credits:

  1. Tendering. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House tendering. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Documentation

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 5th of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

5. Documentation

documentation

By the time the documentation stage starts, 99% of the design decisions are made. It’s now time to produce a documentation set that helps us perform three tasks:

  1. Obtain a building permit.
  2. Receive tenders from one or more builders to build your project.
  3. Build your project.

We lock ourselves in our studio and go non-stop until we’re finished. We produce a very large quantity of drawings, including a site plan, demolition drawings, floor plans, reflected ceiling plans, elevations, sections, stair details, construction details, joinery plans and elevations, joinery details, and a window and door schedule. We also produce a written specification with attending schedules and appendices. The drawings explain the where and the how much; the specification explains the what and the how.

We work closely with the structural engineer, environmental consultant and landscape architect, both guiding their work and coordinating it with our own. While larger projects often involve further specialist consultants, this list is typically sufficient for single houses. We pay careful attention to the overlap between the consultants’ documentation sets to make sure heating ducts don’t need to be where columns are, and neither need to be where the kitchen sink is. We also submit our documentation to a building surveyor, who assess it against relevant building codes.

Finally, we end up with a highly detailed set of drawings and specifications that cover every scale of the project from site setout, to structural grid, to joinery details to tile types. These documents, together with our ongoing involvement on site, ensure the many months we have spent on creative thought find their way into the built form.

Stage duration = 3 – 4 months
Architect’s time = 200 – 300 hours
Specialist consultants = Structural engineer, environmental consultant, landscape architect, building surveyor
Documentation = Full construction drawings and specification
Scale of drawings = 1:200 – 1:5
Quantity = 20x A1 drawings + 50x A4 specification pages

farmer house documentation


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credits:

  1. Documentation. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House documentation. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Design development

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 4th of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

4. Detailed design

design development

Once we have planning approval, we proceed to detailed design. On less risky projects, we sometimes get started on this a little earlier: after Council has indicated their support for our application but before they have formally approved it.

We begin by seeking your briefing input once again. As the name of the project stage suggest, this time we are interested in the details. We ask whether you prefer cupboards or drawers, what height you like your benchtops, whether you have a large shoe collection, how many game consoles you own.

We then thoroughly resolve a great number of design decisions. We select materials, finishes, plumbing fittings and fixtures, appliances, lighting, electrical fittings, heating and cooling systems, door and window hardware. In the sketch design stage, we might have proposed a ceiling be lined in timber, now we nominate the timber species, dimensions of the lining boards, supplier, profile and finish. We also design every built-in joinery unit, from wardrobes to vanity units to bookshelves to, often most important of all, the kitchen. We nominate the locations of appliances, sizes of drawers, types of cutlery inserts, and thicknesses of benchtops.

While this detailed process is unfolding, we also being consultation with a structural engineer, confirming the broad principles of the structural design, and a landscape architect, to collaborate with us on the design and documentation of outdoor garden areas.

Your involvement in the detailed design stage is dictated by your interest in its primary focus: some clients are happy to let us select everything, others love spending their weekends shopping for toilets and ovens. By the time this project stage is finished, we aim to have every significant design decision for the house made and approved.

Stage duration = 6 – 8 weeks
Architect’s time = 80 – 100 hours
Specialist consultants = Structural engineer, landscape architect
Documentation = Joinery and lighting drawings and schedules
Scale of drawings = 1:20
Quantity = 10x A1 drawings + 4x A3 schedules

farmer house design development


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credits:

  1. Design development. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House design development. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Town planning

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 3rd of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

3. Town planning

town planning

In this project stage, we meet with a representative from the town planning department at your local Council for a pre-application meeting. This helps uncover any potential thorny issues in our proposal prior to submission of our application.

Once we’re satisfied that our design is as compliant as we can make it (or not, if you are masochistically interested in pushing the planning envelope), we convert our sketch design drawings into a package ready for submission. This involves tweaking the whole set to alter their main purpose from communicating our design to you, to demonstrating compliance with town planning regulations. We produce additional drawings like a site analysis, design response and shadow diagrams, and prepare a town planning report that assesses our design against the relevant zoning and overlay requirements.

Once we submit, we wait. Council will assign our application to a town planner, who will review it and request additional information if necessary. She will then arrange an advertising period where neighbours are able to review the proposal, will consider any objections received and prepare her report. Depending on the number of objections, either the planning coordinator or a full sitting of Council will consider the report and decide the project’s fate.

This is a highly variable stage of the project. Simple applications can fly through Council in a matter of weeks, while those that receive significant objections can get bogged down in months of bureaucracy. The worst case scenario is that the project will wind up at VCAT, which can take the better part of a year and cost many thousands of dollars in legal and consulting fees. Fortunately, most single houses do not go down this path. These will receive planning approval within the maximum 3 month period allotted to Council to assess applications.

Stage duration = 3 – 12 months
Architect’s time = 40 – 60 hours (excluding VCAT hearings)
Specialist consultants = Town planning consultant and lawyer (for VCAT hearings only)
Documentation = Town planning drawing set and report
Scale of drawings = 1:100
Quantity = 12x A3 drawings + 10x A4 report pages

farmer house town planning


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credit:

  1. Town planning. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House town planning. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Sketch design

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 2nd of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

2. Sketch design

sketch design

We split the sketch design stage into two parts. In the first, we undertake a design-driven feasibility study. This involves exploring a series of layout options with you, each approaching your brief in different ways. We do this through simple, hand-drawn floor plans that encourage objectivity and open-mindedness. Each option is accompanied by a brief cost estimate based on its size and our understanding of your expected level of construction quality. We use this process to help you establish an accurate project budget attached to a defined scope.

In the second part, we flesh out your preferred design arrangement into a three dimensional building. We resolve the layout, form and materiality of your house, and communicate these to you via floor plans, elevations, sections and materials palettes. More evocatively, we build a physical model of the project from card, pasteboard and balsa wood. Often we produce a digital model also, though nothing beats the childlike joy of holding a miniature house in your hands and imagining yourself wandering its rooms.

Once you have given us the tick of approval for our design, we put together a written scope of works document and submit it, together with our drawings, to a quantity surveyor. She then prepares an elemental cost estimate of the project, refining our initial feasibility study by studying each component individually e.g. separate costs for structure, windows, joinery, plumbing works etc. If necessary, we work with you and the quantity surveyor to tweak both the design and your budget until they align. By the end of this process, we have produced a resolved design that you both love and can afford.

Stage duration = 10 – 12 weeks
Architect’s time = 80 – 120 hours
Specialist consultants = Quantity surveyor
Documentation = Sketch floor plans, elevations, sections and model
Scale of drawings = 1:100
Quantity = 8x A3 pages + model

farmer house sketch design


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credits:

  1. Sketch design. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House sketch design. Author’s own image, see here for further details.