The ‘I’ in team: innovative technologies

This article originally appeared in the LEAF Architectural Review


Innovation in computational design is making architecture increasingly multidisciplinary and interactive, and where once practices would pore over blueprints, they can now use 3D-printed models and immersive computer simulations to develop projects. Oliver Hotham speaks to experts about what this technology means for their day-to-day work, and why computer scientists and aerospace engineers could be the architects of tomorrow.

I’m sitting in the offices of PLP Architecture in central London, and director of research Lars Hesselgren is gesticulating at me with an Xbox 360 controller attached to a laptop computer. “Come,” he insists. “Go for a ride!”

I tentatively take the controller and begin flying, bird’s-eye view, towards a futuristic skyscraper with Minority Report-style lifts.

I do a bit of exploring of the building’s nooks and crannies before unceremoniously losing my bearings and sheepishly handing the controller back to its owner.

Hesselgren designed this because the current way that lifts work is “completely mad”. He’s not enthused by the classic up-down design we’ve come to associate with them and thinks that, instead, they could run on a train or bus-like sequential system, in four directions, with travellers using a smartphone to choose their destination.

The building will likely never be built – although Hesselgren still holds out hope that an ambitious developer might one day let him construct the elevator shaft of his dreams – but the demonstration, as well as the 1m-high model of the building itself, shows that it could feasibly work. Without even being commissioned, PLP has developed a complex and experimental project purely for the purposes of exploring a concept.

The practice has built a leading-edge workshop dedicated to bringing ideas from the sphere of computational design into the real world. This is where Hesselgren’s dream lift, as well as the skyscraper, was planned and, on a smaller scale – he envisions a 1km-high building – built.

“It’s great to have these things on the premises to experiment with, but it’s also used in day-to-day work,” he says as we walk around the workshop, which sits in a corner of the top floor of PLP’s London office.

“This is the pod,” he tells me as he fiddles with a model of one of his utopian lift shafts. “It’s a slightly mad contraption I put together. The idea is to show how the doors might work, to show the concept.”

Background checks

PLP is far from the only practice pushing the possibilities of new design technology. Foster + Partners, for example, has been specialising in the use of computational geometric design technology since the late ’90s.

“It was started around the time that we were designing and building projects like the Swiss Re, the GLA, and the Sage in Newcastle,” says Xavier De Kestelier, a partner and joint head of the firm’s pioneering specialist modelling group. “These were rather complex geometrical projects, and we realised that we needed certain expertise in house.

“We really quickly understood that these are skills that you need right at the centre of your design; this is not something you can outsource.”

De Kestelier and fellow partner Irene Gallou took over a few years ago, and they now spend their days applying these often esoteric design concepts and technologies to real world projects. The team comprises 22 members of staff, not all of whom come from traditional architecture backgrounds. De Kestelier likes to take chances with more left-field candidates who, while not obvious choices, possess technical skill sets that make them adept at navigating the brave new world where complex IT and building design meet.

“Although it started off as a team of mainly architects, it has now grown to become fully interdisciplinary,” he says. “There are mechanical engineers, structural engineers, computer scientists, material scientists, some people with lighting backgrounds…”

Often, it’s a case of not knowing that someone’s skill set is specifically needed until De Kestelier meets them. He travels a lot, often to unconventional conferences and events, and meets talented people far removed from the world of professional architecture.

“Did I know I needed to hire a biomechanical engineer?” he says. “No, I only knew it when I met him.”

A common code

The specialist modelling group shows that diversified design technology has, in many ways, made the hiring process more flexible, but it’s equally important that these new hires “get it”, De Kestelier explains. One of the team’s computer scientists, for example, who had worked in finance and the automotive industry before studying architecture, had built a house for himself from scratch.

“I thought that was somebody who could be very interesting, who had a computer science background but also an architecture background,” he says. “I would never just hire a pure computer scientist – I don’t think that would work. People have to have a certain design feeling.”

Despite the divergent expertise on display, the team is united by a common language: they all know how to code. In fact, many members of the specialist modelling group develop software that is used across the industry.

“Being able to code, being able to design – that’s the glue that keeps it all together,” says De Kestelier.

“This means that you don’t buy things off the shelf – you design them from scratch, and that’s truly integrated design,” agrees Gallou. Kangaroo, a live physics engine and simulator that works within the Rhinoceros 3D program, was developed by a member of the modelling team, for example.

An aspiring tech-minded architect looking to get involved needn’t even learn to use one particular piece of software, and firms can try so many different things because their computer scientists are often free to develop what they need for their own specific projects. The result has been myriad open-source tools designed by practices.

“The studio uses a range of software,” says Ron Bakker, a founding partner at PLP. “Our approach is to widen the scope of knowledge and learn how to operate a multisoftware environment. With a huge range of collaborators, it is extremely important to understand interoperability and data exchange; each has a role, and the user’s experience often determines which one is used.”

Crossing the divide

The collaborative nature of the internet communities developing these tools, with the open-source format allowing a constant exchange of ideas and trends, fits well with PLP’s more open-minded and experimental approach, says Bakker, and the firm is a regular beta tester of new versions of software.

“It also leads to ‘convergent development’ – design software is becoming ever-more similar,” Bakker adds. “What is more important is the development of cross-discipline use of software, a good example of which is the recent adoption by the design industry of games engine technologies and simulation software from a variety of engineering disciplines.”

Using computer simulations to track how air could be ventilated through a giant office building, Foster + Partners has ended up designing what its developers say is the biggest cooling radiator that has ever been built. While De Kestelier specialises in mathematics, Gallou is an expert in using design technology for sustainability and energy efficiency, and the firm’s recent work on Bloomberg’s London headquarters is an example of putting digital design techniques and simulations into action.

“It’s a radiator, but you can do cooling with it,” Gallou says, as we flip through a coffee-table book illustrated with the modelling group’s projects.

“We had to come up with the output that was needed; they said we need to design something that radiates cooling, but the quantities are very big. We had to maximise the surface area of it, so we came up with this geometry, and it performs better than anything out there.”

“At the same time, it’s a lighting device,” chips in De Kestelier. “You’re combining two functionalities, and you can only do that with a team like ours.”

Bakker points to PLP’s recently completed project, a new office for auditing giant Deloitte in Amsterdam known as ‘The Edge’, as an example of where the client and the design team used computer programming to develop a new workspace technology that would maximise the building’s energy efficiency.

“The most interesting innovation is the use of an LED lighting system powered through Ethernet,” Bakker says. “It feeds back environmental data – picked up by 30,000 sensors throughout the premises – to the management system, allowing the building to respond to the way it is used at any time.

“Sustainability comes mainly from a commitment by client and designer to create a sustainable design – that is the important choice. Software is chosen to support those objectives.”

This all works a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill. The more that firms such as Foster + Partners or PLP develop their technology and their team, the more they are able to innovate and the more they need to diversify their team. This means they can work on projects that their competitors can’t.

“If you don’t have the right people, you won’t be able to do the prototypes to prove to the industry that it can be done,” says Gallou.

Walking around PLP’s workshop, this is all self-evident. We meet senior associate partner and head of model-making Neil Merryweather, a master craftsman. He was one of the first to use laser-cutting technology and an early pioneer of 3D printing. He’s currently working on enhancing the capabilities of the machines so they can produce complete models that don’t require complex assembly. “I’m pushing Neil all the time,” jokes Hesselgren.

The team are constantly working to turn ambitious design concepts into reality, treading the fine line between the scope of their plans and what can be put into practice. More often than not, they’re exceeding expectations.

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