Conversation: Atelier 10

Today I met with Ben Shepard from Atelier 10. Atelier 10 is “a visionary consultancy providing integrated, full service engineering and consulting on environmental design, building systems performance analysis, lighting and daylighting design, fire engineering, benchmarking environmental masterplanning and strategic sustainability planning.” -from Atelier 10’s “about us” webpage.  Ben is the leader of the planning practice, and teaches courses on environmental design.

 Q: What sort of scope does Atelier 10 work on?
A: Atelier 10 was founded in 1990. TheNew Yorkoffice opened in 2001, and is a consulting firm (as opposed to a full engineering firm, like their office in London). A large portion of their work deals with energy and mechanical systems, as well as façades. Lighting is the next large portion of work. Their work often includes reports, illustrations, graphics- for example environmental section drawings. They do analysis and modeling for environmental, lighting and energy factors, using mainly software from the Department of Energy called E-quest.  

Q: In regards to modeling: if you are knowledgeable about the principles of design, you would think you can predict what a model would tell you.  Are there times where you were surprised by what the model suggested?
A: One example for this is an airport they initially thought would be driven by air conditioning loads.  In fact, the largest factor was the heat loss through the glazing on the façade. So they shifted additional attention to the façade. The modeling took what they already have some ideas about, and let them understand relative importance of different factors to improve the design.  In the iterative modeling, you can see all of the systems come together. This gives a picture of overall savings and the paybacks on the systems- it combines the environmental and economic aspects.

Q: After working with the various rating systems from various regions: BREEAM from the UK, US-GBC LEED, and Estidama from the Middle East- what are the most significant differences? Do they rating systems seems to reflect different conditions of their region, ie local environmental challenges or political cultures?
A: Estimdama seems to really take climate into account. For that reason, it will never expand outside the Middle East, but can be more effective within. It is also an easier system to use (like LEED).  BREEAM is hugely complicated and because of that often gets passed over. Even though some systems are critiqued for being too easy, or too developer driven, they constantly move the market and will develop over time.  A system like the Living Building Challenge might now be implemented frequently but will serve to push the envelope.

Q: How does Atelier 10 develop benchmarks for projects?
A: Benchmarking is not a design tool, but they help project teams define where they are, and where they are going. It can give you latitude to push certain elements of a project, create accountability and maintain a level or quality in construction.
Atelier 10 works with both a “framework,” the organizational structure of a project, as well as the “masterplan,” the physical structure of the project. They develop benchmarking systems that may work well with LEED or another guide, but are more specific to the project. For example, at NYU they were already doing a lot of good things, but the measures weren’t necessarily organized. For Harvard’s Allston campus, the university had 4 or 5 main sustainability goals, but what did they really mean for the development of a new campus?

Q: It seems like Atelier 10 is involved in both the large, conceptual thinking for new projects as well as the detailed technical aspects such as energy modeling and calculations for LEED points.  It seems that we’ve come along way in understanding building performance.  Now, aren’t designers are starting to look at larger scales and systems, such as planning and other larger systems?
A: Yes.  People wanting to understand the bigger picture, and are realizing that the way you get to carbon neutral, net zero, and all these big issues is by thinking at a larger scale. Part of it is practical. In today’s economy, when you don’t have funding to start building a project, when you don’t want to outlay that much, design is still relatively cheap in comparison. In a way, it is a really opportune time to be involved in environmental master planning.  People are taking more time to think about what they want to do- and as they see things like energy prices and news about global warming, there is real interest in it. Any maybe everything doesn’t get integrated at first, but as the plan evolves and gets updated more is integrated.


Conversation: MASS Design Group

“Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. We thought of it as a kind of engine.” Michael Murphy, MASS Design Group

Today I met with Michael Murphy, founding partner of MASS Design Group and 2007 Hart Howerton Fellow.  The opportunity for the firm’s first project, Butaro Hospital, grew out of Michael’s research in Rwanda that began with the fellowship.   Michael recently completed his Master in Architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  MASS Design Group believes that ‘humanitarian architecture’ is architecture, and that the social and political are integral, not optional, aspects of design. 

One of MASS Design Group's renderings of proposal for PS1 courtyard installation

Q: How did the ideas of MASS Design Group translate to an academic thesis at the GSD?
A:  The underlying question of the thesis was:  what is the hybridization of architecture called “social architecture?” It traced the ontological discussion about the theory of architecture, but through the lens of those people who question the political.  There were several key players who have been thinking about this question for some time.  The idea was to understand social issues, and the social agenda, through that lens.  The thesis was a paper based theoretical one.  Had it been a design thesis, it might have manifested as something like MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Competition.

Q:  MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 competition was chosen as one of five finalists.  What was the concept behind the proposal?
A: One fundamental question was, how do you add value through architecture? MASS was able to achieve this in Rwanda, but mapping that concept onto Queens presents new questions. There are key differences between a post-industrial and pre-industrial economy, and the value-add should to be thought of in different terms. One way of doing this is through the material choices; for PS1 the entire project wasto be recyclable.  This included 55,000 bottles that would be suspended to create a canopy, and later reformed into chair.  All of the other elements were recyclable as well.  The chairs could later be sold (with profits going to local area non-profit organizations). It is rethinking what it means to recycle; it is not just reusing but actually adding value. Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. Something as impermanent the PS1 courtyard installation can have a more permanent impact.

Q: The winning entry, from Interboro Partners, also addressed how the materials purchased for the installation could later be repurposed and benefit the community.  Was there a design brief from MoMA that suggested this kind of thinking?
A: There was no explicit prompt, but the fact that they were both chosen shows that MoMA recognizes the contemporary shift in architecture. It is a new questioning about our relevance and our value-add.  What is our ethical commitment? What is our social responsibility? What are the implications of our design decisions for a community?

The design proposal is shown in this animation:

Q: Is the concept of social architecture being explored in the academic world?
A: They are having more conversations about it within institutions, but perhaps still having the wrong conversation. It is still seen as an option.  Oftentimes, people talk about social architecture as if it was a trend, a hyphenated form away from capital A, typical, or this rarified art form we call “architecture.”

Q: In projects abroad, how did you incorporate local building practices, spatial ideas, and materials?
A: One compliment MASS received for Butaro Hospital was that is looked very vernacular, while at the same time very modern. The goal is to create a sensible, responsive design that is also contemporary. There are, of course, issues with being overly sensitive to vernacular, because it is not just about the form, but more about contextual responsibility.
When resources are scarce, sometimes it is cheaper to import than to use local materials. For example, concrete from China is often cheaper than local building materials.  So that material becomes the building material of the poor. The poor housing in Rwanda looks similar to the poor housing in Haiti. It isn’t necessarily the right answer, or what people want, but it is what they have. To change that is an imperative political act of the architect.  There is also the question of what the local builders are familiar with. There is a law in Rwanda saying all buildings made of mud must be demolished and rebuilt in concrete. Architects can show how better construction techniques using mud could be beneficial.
In Rwanda, we were able to incorporate some very locally sourced volcanic rocks, which turned out beautifully. We worked with the local masons to train them on construction of a new wall type. In our project now in Haiti, we are looking at incorporating more local materials.

Q: What does MASS stand for?
A: It stands for a “Model of Architecture Serving Society.”

Conversation: Brook Farm Group

“Neutral, benign, or ‘better than the baseline’ is not enough, far from it. Our work must also reclaim and restore beyond its own boundaries.”   -Kate Bakewell

Today I met with Kate Bakewell, the founder of Brook Farm Group, whose ecologically focused projects are sited in urban, exurban, and rural environments.

Image is from the Brook Farm Group website. The project is the Jose E. Serrano Center for Global Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Q:  How did she first become interested in sustainable design?
A:  Kate spent time in the woods as a child, and remembers being worried about pollution and environmental issues at a young age.  Living in Chicago, she got involved with Doug Farr (who later wrote Sustainable Urbanism). In the mid-80s there were people like him and John Todd who were early pioneers, doing cool things but at the fringe.  She went to graduate school for landscape architecture at the GSD.  To her, it was self evident that the ecological factors were critical, but studios were not effectively discussing those issues.  Conversations focused more on the symbolic, metaphorical, decorative or practical understandings of landscape. Ecology courses were still technical, although the professor, Richard Foreman, later starting writing about the spatial implications of ecosystems. After school, a successful entry for an ecological transformation competition reaffirmed her direction.

Q:  Are there certain frameworks that Kate looks to when designing a project? What types of analysis does she begin with?
A:  Generally, Kate does not consciously begin with a framework, just dives in to understand the ecosystems at hand, and the flows and movements of different systems. Working at larger scales, such as that of the watershed, region, or even patterns within the hemisphere, might seem abstract but can inform the project profoundly. 
There is a disconnect between landscape side people and architects working on a site. In landscape, there are no boundaries, because nature doesn’t have boundaries- it is all amorphic. It is hard to reconcile this when working on a real project with real boundaries.
Working in places such asChina and Brazilcan be difficult because you don’t have access to a great deal of information.  However, there are rock solid, universal ecosystem principles to fall back on.   On such concept is that of source and sink. Certain bio-rich areas act as a source, and if localized extinctions occur in less rich (sink) areas, populations move from the source to repopulate the sink. You need enough connectivity between areas to allow for that movement. This concept is not specific to one geographic area.
Another important part of the process is to embed real science in the early part of the process. Just looking at aerial maps is not enough.  For example, dunes may seem useless, but they are where species hatch and are integral to the food web.  That is the framework, the real science, how things are moving and connected to the beyond.

Q:  Will it always be a process of trying to mitigate damage, or trying to convince parties to reduce the size and scope of a project?
A:  In her practice, Kate sets a high aim for projects.  It is setting a low bar for the profession to just attempt to do a less bad job on our project site.  Projects should restore, or reconnect, or renew beyond the boundary of the site. There is another way to think of how we approach project sites. For example, if the site is a 25 acre plot, treat it as though it is a 50 acre tract and how the larger systems are working.
One relevant approach for the ecologist on a project team is to ask: what can this place be and what does this place want to be?  A site can be imagined as a hyper functional ecosystem that provides services to people; seek within the interstitial spaces what is possible.  This strategy requires that everyone is on board early on in the process.

Patch and corridor concept

Q:  Since 2008, over half of the world lives in an urban setting. That means almost half of people are in less dense settings. Are there any strategies to deal with these less dense developments?
A:  The fundamental ecosystem principal of patch and corridor can be effectively implemented in both urban and less dense conditions.  If there are two different places that have some kind of habitat, you want to set up the processes that would occur anyways, where populations move between them. Humans can interact with nature in a way that speeds up the process, to keep pace with the degradation occurring. In this way, a project facilitates natural processes rather than disrupting them.
Patches are somewhat homogenous places, but not a monoculture. Large patches have interiors where niche species can exist, who need a different level of protection and habitat richness than found at an edge. One challenge is that the scale of the minimum patch depends on the species; for some animals it is huge, while for a certain species of bee it is 300 feet.

Conversation: Terrapin Bright Green

Today I met with Chris Garvin, a Partner at Terrapin Bright Green. Terrapin is a sustainability consulting firm that works with clients to rethink environmental strategy, policy, and design.  The firm has strong ties to New York architecture firm Cook + Fox, and frequently consults with architecture firms on projects ranging from the building to community scale.  They also collaborate with government and non-profit agencies on infrastructural and preservation projects, as well as helping companies develop sustainable and corporate strategies.

A few questions from the discussion:
Q: How did he first become interested in sustainable design?
A: Chris began his career studying and practicing architecture.  When he moved to New York City he worked with a firm interested in sustainability- one of only three or so at the time.  He found that element of the work most satisfying, and from there it was a natural progression towards making it his focus with Terrapin.

Q: When collaborating with architecture firms, what type of scope does Terrapin take on? What do you bring to the table as consultants that might not be as successful if taken on within the firm?
A: Terrapin does different types of things depending on the project.  That can include research, and oftentimes a report and visuals- a lot of communicating.  They help connect their clients with the best specialists that fit their needs, such as building energy modeling. Terrapin has many years of experience and specialized knowledge that is difficult to build up within a firm.

Q: Iceland has one large urban center that is home to the majority of the population, and then a series of small towns, or nodes that dots the perimeter of theIsland.  What is Terrapin’s concept of node and network?
A: Oftentimes infrastructure planning favors a massive centralized system.  Terrapin is looking at the ways systems can work efficiently at a localized scale along a larger network. A lot of that depends on what system you are talking about. For example, they are studying how waste might be gathered and converted to electricity for the city ofNew York, where as systems such as combined heating and power can work at a building or block scale.

Q: Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population has lived in an urban context (cities or towns).  There is a lot of interest in the design community about the urban context.  What about the rest of the world living in less dense conditions? Can they subsist sustainably? What about things like resort communities that aren’t accessibly by sustainable transit?
A: This is not necessarily easy. One solution, which was used for a project inCosta Rica, is for the developer to purchase carbon offsets for energy used for guests’ flights toCosta Rica.

Q: Will that sustainability become something that is worked into the code and becomes part of normal practice, i.e. accessibility or structural codes, or will remain a source of inspiration for progress and innovative design?
A: Certain things will get worked into the code- this will force less conscientious designer to bring their designs up to a certain standard.  But just as there is always cutting edge design, there will also be cutting edge sustainability- new challenges that require innovation. The next focus might be on water supply or food resources for the growing population.

Q: How do we know how much better a building or project is? Doesn’t it all depend on a baseline scenario, which normally is the one defined by ASHRAE- a uniform code that doesn’t take context into question?
A: Yes- and many buildings don’t go far enough.  For example they’ll use conventional systems and make them work 30% more efficiently. But if they went for 70% improvement they would have to rethink from the ground up and make a better system.   For example, one interesting program is the “Living Building Challenge” where they set very high goals and take the local physical and social environment into consideration.
For more information on Terrapin Bright Green, visit: