Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

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Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.

 

My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.

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Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.

Studio and the Seat

Having spent my first several years in practice immersed in workplace design, I bore witness to the changing paradigms of what might be considered a “modern” work environment.

Despite the range of industry types (ranging from advertising agencies to biotech to executive search firms to a multi-tenant non-profit center), relevant dialogues and design thinking related to wellness, flexibility, choice, and culture became central to the process and outcomes of the resultant environments.

As employers continue to adopt mobility programs, champion shrinking physical footprints, and invest in collaborative and shared amenity spaces, I remain somewhat ambivalent about the future of the architectural studio/office; a workplace typology that feels rightfully caught between the past and the future, between rich and evolving traditions paired with the uncertainty of the unknown.

Why the confusion?

Because, after many discussions with industry colleagues and peers, I’m still not sure if an architectural studio (a space type presumably based on daily team collaboration paired with explorations, iterations, and discussions of physical models, pinned-up drawings, and digital media) can translate as productively within the confines of remote-work and online sharing as it can by spinning my chair around at work and asking a teammate what they think of a sketch I’m working on.

Unlike professions that thrive with a high concentration of individual contributors, the team-like structure and iterative nature of design work seems to lend itself to the benefits of face-to-face communication as a means of problem-solving, constructive critique, and ultimately, team-based decision-making.

If I’ve dated myself with this previous statement or made the reader sigh with contempt, I don’t apologize, but rather ask you to share what’s working; that is, if you’ve found solutions for your office or firm that empower the employee to be more mobile and flexible without suffering from a sense of absenteeism or lack of energy in the studio/workplace, what have been the tools for your success?

While the transition from desktops to laptops and creating robust online-collaboration and communication capabilities are obvious first steps to facilitating workplace mobility, I am curious about the broader implications of an architecture studio that thrives on virtual presenteeism and collaboration, or, alternatively, an “alone together” approach in which people are encouraged to engage in individual work and to come together for less spontaneous, less frequent but theoretically more “productive” collaboration time (along the lines of this recent discourse: https://hbr.org/2014/03/why-you-should-stop-brainstorming/ or http://www.fastcompany.com/3033567/agendas/brainstorming-doesnt-work-try-this-technique-instead)

I welcome, as always, any discussion on the topic as a response to this blog post.

Guest Post: A Multidisciplinary Approach To Architecture

Partners

Audrey and Alex Worden, recent Boulder transplants and multidisciplinary designers

Is Boulder the new Brooklyn?

I had to ask myself this question after my first meeting with recent Colorado transplants and designers, Alex and Audrey Worden. Co-founders of the Boulder-based design firm, Studio TJOA, Alex and Audrey left their jobs at Enclos in New York and moved West after Alex landed a job with Studio NYL, a progressive structural engineering firm based out of Boulder, Colorado.

With hopes of finding home in a new city with the presence of an emerging design community balanced with a tangible ease of living and creating, in the few short months since their move Alex and Audrey have already become contributors to the design, parametric, and maker communities that continue to grow rapidly both in Denver and Boulder.

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Lily pad by TJOA

With Alex’s background in architecture and Audrey’s education in product design, Alex continues to explore the synergies between architecture and structural engineering for NYL, while Audrey continues to explore design, fabrication, and representation through a wide range of scales and media.

Having both explored alternative career paths than their traditional architecture and design backgrounds might prescribe, Alex and Audrey serve as co-authors of this week’s post, exploring the benefits of multidisciplinary architecture and the opportunities it might provide…

Thanks Alex and Audrey! – Beth Mosenthal, Assoc. AIA

 Guest Post: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Architecture

by Alex and Audrey Worden

Entering the field of architecture requires years of study, beginning with a foundation comprised of core classes followed by a concentration in art and design, culminating with an intensive focus on architecture. Through this process, the general field of vision becomes narrower and more myopic. Following undergraduate studies, designers generally join firms whose focus is not just on “architecture” in a general sense, but rather a specific practice area such as commercial, residential, transportation, healthcare, etc., design. As a result designers tend to become more specialized.

However, what many students of design education are learning is that there are many career paths that can be launched from a design education.

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“ExpressGlam” product design

The skills learned in an architectural degree program are transferable to many different disciplines. These can include engineering, construction, industrial design, animation, fashion, graphic design, or manufacturing to name a few.

With a wider skill set, designers can be more flexible, often finding meaningful work outside of the traditional architecture practice. For example, after graduate school Audrey worked for a few years as an industrial designer for a branding firm, practicing skills in packaging, product displays, digital and CNC modeling, photography, and photorealistic product rendering. This opened up the opportunity to design a perfume bottle. Such a chance is widely valued by designers and architects of all kinds, but it all came about through the skills Audrey had fostered after studying architecture and digital fabrication.

TJOA_LilypadIn graduate school, Alex took a different approach to his studies. In his thesis, he proposed that the textile technique of crochet can be a perfect analog to the digital parametric tools architects have begun to use and explore. Alex then used the skills he developed from his research of integrating textiles and tools like Rhino and Grasshopper to join a facade contracting firm, Enclos. The experience gained as a facade designer has not only allowed him to gain an in-depth understanding of building enclosure systems but see how parametric modeling can aid in the optimization of the whole construction process from design through field installation.

These types of diverse design experiences can influence a designer’s thought process. For example, having knowledge of structure can streamline decisions during initial design phases, thus saving both time and money as the project progresses. Knowledge of materials and fabrication techniques gained from the industrial design field can allow designers to push the boundaries of these capabilities, extend the life of the building, or make routine maintenance easier.

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These facets of the design field can be learned a multitude of ways and for an infinite number of reasons. Specifically, we both deviated from the traditional approach to architecture. By working at a facade contractor, Alex had the pleasure of working on some high profile projects designed by a number of architects. The biggest benefit to working at Enclos, was having the opportunity to work with many different firms and getting a chance to help them realize their designs. By taking a M.S. Arch., Audrey could specialize in digital fabrication instead of the traditional M.Arch approach to a graduate degree. This allowed for a less rigid approach to architecture, while still being anchored in the field.

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Studio NYL Wall Assembly Study

 

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NYL Rendering

Our chosen paths have offered us the flexibility to design on a multitude of scales and explore many different mediums. Our diverse work experience has influenced our approach to design and our ultimately our decision to relocate to Boulder from Brooklyn. We both wanted to live and work in a place that is welcoming and has a community that fosters progressive thought and design. The plasticity offered by the skills we have both cultivated has allowed Alex to join Studio NYL as part of their SKINS Group and Audrey to move her practice, StudioTJOA to Boulder and begin working with groups like Boulder-based Live Architecture Network and aiding other firms with parametric and visualization needs. TJOA_HoneycombJust as the decision to go into architecture is hopefully owned by each individual, it should be remembered that each designer can choose how they want to shape their professional career and praxis. It should be noted that a hands on approach to learning the different facets of construction and design can have a more meaningful impact through practical application rather than study guides, flashcards, and exams can provide.Who knows, if you deviate from the path, you might come across something you never would have thought you would enjoy.

 

“The Problem with Parametricism”- Guest Post by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is Colorado the last to jump on the parametric bandwagon?  Here is Bill and Tobias’s demystification of the parametric design process and its seemingly limitless iterative possibilities.. (and by the way, the answer is no, Colorado’s grassroots design community is already on board, with 1-2 people per firm that seem to be familiar with the tools, as well as a handful of fabricators and engineers locally.)  Is that going to be enough to push Colorado’s design forward in terms of form and fabrication?  The jury is still out, but as I see it, the more tools our design and construction community has in their repertoire, the fewer limitations they might have in creating designs that transcend the limitations of software and machines to create design that responds to the needs and potentials of the 21st century.  – Beth Mosenthal, AIA Colorado blog contributor

“The Problem with Parametricism”  by Bill Allen and Tobias Hathorn

Is parametricism the new bee’s knees?  If you have attended or taught at any University in the last 5 years, you are well aware that the University is pushing this idea of parametric model building with their students.  They are using such tools as Grasshopper and Dynamo coupled with Rhino and Revit.  Students are coming out with this knowledge in technology, however you may ask yourself the question as an Architect in this industry, is any of this really applicable to what I do day to day?

Undulating BeamsThis idea of parametricism is in fact is not a new concept at all, but in recent years has definitely become more main stream.  My journey began about 6 years ago when I attended an ACADIA parametricism conference in 2011.  I saw much value in the process during the conference, and decided to build my first parametric model using grasshopper.

My most recent parametric building….(clear throat)…“table” was a Design After Dark project with our team at OZ Architecture.  We used grasshopper to parametrically model a unique profile for every carpet tile.  We also programmed the tool to tag every carpet tile with a unique identifier and layer for fabrication of the table.

Build Table

You may be looking at these images, and saying to yourself, “well it only makes crazy curvy non buildable forms.  It’s great for making a wavy table, but there is no way that this can be applied to buildings”.  Well, allow me to enlighten you on some projects that I have been fortunate enough to work on.

 

 

 

Parametric vehicular canopy using adaptive components and dynamo

CanopyDynamo

Parking garage façade intended to simulate the mountains in Breckenridge,  Colorado

2014-05-09_8-46-322014-05-08_23-43-50Breckenridge Rendering

The Challenges:

These are the challenges I have come across personally when pushing and implementing these concepts in an architectural office.

  1. “It’s not buildable”

Inevitably when I show teams these types of projects, the criticism that comes up is that you can’t document it (or you will spend a long time documenting it) and you certainly can’t build it.  Tools like grasshopper actually offer us some amazing utilities to help us design functional and buildable forms.  Just one simple example of this is the planar test.  How planar is an object?

Planar

Also, digital fabrication has come a long way as well.  Rather than issuing “shop drawings” we can issue a “shop model”, and fabricate directly from a model.

  1. “I don’t want to be a programmer”

Below is a screen shot of the script I used to create the table with the carpet tiles I illustrated earlier.  No doubt at first glance an architectural designer could be turned off by the interface.  Give me Sketchup he or she says.

Grasshoper Script

The interface does take some time, but keep in mind that building an object parametrically gives you the ability to create an enormous amount of design iterations simply by moving graph mappers and slider bars.

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Additionally you can optimize your building design using Computational Design Iterations with Galapagos.

  1. “There’s no community”

With the advent of the internet and meetups exploding, this is no longer the case.  Grasshopper has its own community website at www.grasshopper3d.com.  Additionally in Colorado, we have created the Rocky Mountain Building Information Society (RoMBIS)  Boulder/Denver Meetup.  We recently hosted a discussion around the topic of “Construction and the Utilization of Parametric Technologies”.

RoMBIS Boulder RoMBIS Boulder (NYL)

In conclusion, I believe that there is a vast amount of resources and processes that we in the greater Colorado area have not even begun to scratch the surface on in the context of parametric modeling and Building Information Management.  I would like to invite you personally to come geek out with us at one of the RoMBIS meetups either in Boulder or in Denver.  Our meetups provide food, beverages, and knowledge.  Through your participation, we as a community will have a greater influence on the direction of our society and our industry.

 

 

The Art (and Instigation?) of Architecture

Gehry’s proposal for the Corcoran Museum of Art addition, Washington, DC 2004. The design was later tabled due to lack of funding. source: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2005/05/25/arts/25corc.1.583.jpg

A few weeks ago, I was surprised to find an email inbox full of swear-word related design updates, all related to Frank Gehry’s recent press conference for El Mundo in Oviedo, Spain.

The topic ricocheting through the social media channels and blogosphere supposedly went as follows:

Gehry was asked by a reporter, “How do you answer to those who accuse you of practicing showy architecture?”

Slowly, Gehry unfurled his middle finger, pointed it up and towards the crowd, and replied:

 Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s#*@.   There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone! We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work. I don’t have a publicist. I’m not waiting for anyone to call me. I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.

A radio silence fell over the crowd, as reported by El Mundo followed by a muffled apology that Gehry was “tired from his trip.”

This altercation, if you will, took me on a trip down memory lane of a press tour I attended that was hosted by Frank Gehry (in regards to an exhibition of his museum designs, including his proposed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a Beaux Arts building in the heart of Washington, DC.)

It also reminded me of the review that I wrote shortly thereafter for the GW Hatchet (my college newspaper) from the perspective of an art major and young writer trying to make an exhibition about architecture sound exhilarating to 10,000 twenty-somethings studying political science and international affairs…

To quickly recap, here is my brief remembrance of the event:

It was fall 2004. I had just returned from a summer in New York, and found myself in the brisk morning air with a small group of journalists,  board members, and of course, Frank. We entered the museum and moseyed casually through the great halls in which the exhibition was displayed. Listening attentively, we scribbled notes as Gehry made comments and conversation about his work, interrupted sporadically by a quiet line of questioning regarding his inspiration as well as how his addition might “relate” to the existing narrative  of the capitol’s historic architecture.

What struck me about the conversation related to Gehry’s competition-winning entry for the Corcoran, a proposal described by a Washington Post critic as “huge metal sails billowing elegantly outward…looking right at home in supposedly conservative Washington,” did not include any talk of his work being too “showy.”

This was an art institution, after all, and both its artists and its constituents were perhaps used to thinking “outside the box,” a term that Gehry continues to take to literal and engineered extremes.

My review at the time also reflected this attitude, and a major takeaway from meeting him; that Gehry’s ultimate desire was for his art to be architecture, and for his architecture to be(come) art:

This show comes in time for the beginning stages of remodeling and construction, ” I wrote, “which will transform the Corcoran into one of Gehry’s unmistakable manifestations of living art. This makes Gehry’s exhibit particularly significant, as it shows Gehry’s projected plans for the fate of the Corcoran Gallery. As a member of the D.C. community, one should attend, if merely to formulate his or her own personal opinion of how the landscape of the new Corcoran will contrast with the old.”

The later cancellation of the project due to lack of funding was lamented loudly by the Washington Post in an article titled “Crushed” by Benjamin Forgey.

So, the time has come it seems to assess the sad loss. It is sad because — let’s see, how simple can I make this — the Gehry building was going to be beautiful… The design was unveiled to immense excitement six years ago, after a high-profile international competition between Gehry and two other famous finalists — Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava. Then the Gehry design was changed, and changed again, and then again, until it fit the Corcoran site almost perfectly….

Still, the bottom line is that Gehry’s Corcoran joins the short, unhappy list of highly significant modern buildings designed for Washington but not built: Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s competition-winning 1939 design for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the Mall; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal Heights, the stunning mixed-use project he designed in 1940 for the spot where the Hilton Washington stands today.

Both of these potential modernist masterpieces were staunchly opposed by the city’s architectural establishment. By contrast, Gehry’s building won widespread approval. Not that it helped.”

The fact that Gehry was able to collaborate and rally a conservative city amidst the Bush administration to become passionate—not just excited—but passionate! about the potential of a sculptural, foreign sail-like entity to become a bold addition to a relatively homogeneous backdrop, was a feat in and of itself.

In working with the Corcoran prior to the tabling of the project, Gehry was working with one of many clients that did, indeed, respect the art of architecture.

While people are quick to critique Gehry’s work and whims, his disgruntled words at last week’s press conference have once again created a controversy that will inevitably rally people together, like the majority of his projects, to revisit the state of Architecture vs  “building” in today’s (too) quickly developing world.