Architects may come to know their buildings, but what connection do they have to the ingredients used to make them? Most buildings are constructed from a tried and true, albeit huge, repository of materials that is listed in the McGraw-Hill Construction Sweets Catalog File, advertised in magazines, and unveiled at trade shows, but how often do architects have the opportunity to experiment with new materials or untested processes?
The obstacles to innovation are tremendous: "Convention gets built; innovation gets published," as the saying goes; commercial developers are risk averse; public agencies have pit bull watchdogs; building codes ask for ASTM certifications; owners need insurance; building inspectors expect uniformity; contractors thrive on repetition; everyone has shallow pockets. Innovation takes time, money, and a leap of faith, but it does happen, and it is happening more, although it can't be called the norm of practice—yet.
Architects Peter Testa and Sheila Kennedy have very different practices, but both navigate the uncharted waters of innovative design through collaboration with manufacturers, multidisciplinary interaction, and the adaptation of nascent technologies. "The complexity of contemporary buildings is an enormous achievement, but we need to question how we came to the point of building with such complexity. We believe we need to rethink how we assemble buildings." These might seem like strange words coming from architect Peter Testa, who, with his partner, Devyn Weiser, has designed a carbon-fiber tower, a complex undertaking that proposes to build a high-rise tower out of composite materials. According to Testa, whose firm, Peter Testa Architects, is located in Santa Monica, California, the willingness to use complex computer modeling tools will allow the design of new buildings, materials, and products that just might transform the building industry.
Testa and Weiser are pursuing, in partnership with industry, a systemic examination of intermediate-level building systems. Manufacturers are the most willing to shoulder risk; they stand to profit from reasonable investment. The lure for many manufacturers is scale, an advantage not lost on Testa. The carbon tower project was envisioned with that strategic thinking. "The [construction] industry isn't completely fixed. If one finds applications for materials that are provocative and at a big enough scale, it is possible to engender new divisions of industry," says Testa. "We are interested in things that are realizable. We are trying to reach different actors and trying to create something the industry can understand and rally around." The ultimate measure of an innovation is when it becomes a reality.
Sheila Kennedy, AIA, principal and founder with partner Frano Violich, AIA, of Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) in Boston believes there is an exciting horizon for architects to return to the design of materials. One of the main missions of KVA and MATx, its materials research unit, is to expand the diminishing role of architects. Its goal is to forge a new relationship with materials, one that will draw on mass customization. "We have always taken existing materials and products and expanded the palette beyond their usual use. Research with new materials is an extension of what we have been doing all along," she says. Kennedy describes two main "design drivers" that she believes are changing how space is made and organized. The first is the advance in solid-state technology; the second is the wireless and hardwired distribution and integration of information infrastructure.
Innovators look for opportunities and mine for ideas. A seemingly unlikely arena for innovation is work commissioned for public agencies. For New York City, however, KVA is designing seven ferry landings along the Harlem and East River waterfronts in Manhattan. The work includes intermodal passenger shelters, commuter ferry boat docking facilities, site improvements, and community amenities.
"The ferry project will be the first public project built with substantial components that are digitally fabricated," explains Kennedy. "These are the tools that link directly to industry, since we can project the design right into fabrication." The technology also allows for rapid prototyping, which is especially useful in a multisite project. Although this kind of technology is becoming more common in the construction industry, Kennedy says they have often gone outside of the construction industry to metal fabricators or set builders who are more familiar with it.
In the spring of 2001, Kennedy began to work with DuPont on an initiative to incorporate solid-state technologies with translucent and transparent materials. "Internal and external market research supported the idea of integrating solid-state lighting with surface materials where we had good brands," explains Tom O'Brien, portfolio manager for DuPont Ventures, who had heard Kennedy speak about the subject at a conference. "However, it also called for a prototype that would demonstrate validity."
The KVA and DuPont teams focused on two DuPont products: Corian and SentryGlas Plus protective glass. They developed concept demonstrations—a combination of materials, solid-state lighting, and product information to stimulate discussion about applications. Although he can't talk too specifically about the results, O'Brien says the goal was to make the DuPont products smarter by integrating technology without compromising the integrity or features that have made them successful. O'Brien is now working with three DuPont businesses to turn these concept demonstrations into possible offerings.
The nature and methods of KVA's work involves risk, but Sheila Kennedy considers herself one of the architects who wouldn't enjoy her work if she couldn't affect cultural production. "But you can't proselytize the beauty of risk-taking," she acknowledges. "Still, as the technology and machines we use become more common, risk will diminish."