What’s Lacking and What’s NeededWhat I’ve come to believe is that architecture lacks a rigorous framework for understanding, analyzing, and applying material innovation. While there is no shortage of sources for material inspiration in architecture—look no further than the cottage industry of coffee table books devoted to concrete, wood, and brick—a more complete discussion of material application is generally absent. Sources generally neglect one or more crucial considerations that directly correspond to viability in practical architectural usage. By material innovation, I mean the development and application of materials and/or their technologies that lie outside conventional, codified construction techniques. Fantastic new technologies are being developed all over the world in various industries that may hold immense potential to improve our built environment. And yet, technology seems to come to architecture slowly. Notable exceptions include the mass timber being used throughout the Pacific Northwest or, to a lesser extent, carbon fiber, like that used at Apple’s Campus II and retail stores. These materials can seemingly offer striking new forms and architectural experiences, increase construction efficiency, and reduce environmental impact. A more complete analytical framework for understanding architectural innovation could help assist those who currently work in the building professions as well as those currently outside it. In my experience, many promising technologies and/or materials are hampered by a lack of familiarity with the long and complicated building process; indeed, those wishing to enter into the relatively opaque nature of building and construction from the outside will face numerous obstacles—gaining an understanding of the building codes is just the first of many.
Applying an analytical lensThe framework I propose in my new book Composite Architecture (Birkhauser Architecture) is structured on three cornerstones of understanding: (1) architectural purpose or ambition, (2) AEC process, and (3) life-cycle perspective. The first, architectural ambition, follows from the premise that there is an incredible diversity of distinct and valid architectural ambitions that varies with uses, users, location, designers, and builders. This differentiates architecture from other products where the uses may be narrower and the goals more self-evident. The second cornerstone is a good grasp of the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) process, which, with its many different stakeholders, contributors, and constituents, can appear convoluted to outsiders; understanding where a material or technology fits into that collaborative process is crucial. The third cornerstone is an expanded life-cycle perspective that measures the impact of any material or technology from its genesis to its end-of-life (or, indeed, afterlife). Within such a view, any accounting of building materials or technology will have to factor in development, installment, use, and disassembly. The three cornerstones presented here form a mutually reinforcing framework upon which architectural innovation can be studied, tested, and applied. A declaration of intent sets the cycle in motion, grounding all subsequent discussions about the suitability of any design, material, or technology. Furthermore, this context of ambition frames the communication for all the constituents and collaborators on a project. Any prospective material or technology soon faces distinct challenges and opportunities as it runs up against considerations of (A) feasibility, (B) design and engineering, and (C) construction. In the feasibility phase, it is subjected to cost analysis and building codes, while efficient means of coordinating design, engineering, and fabrication parameters play a part in determining its viability. Even if viability is established, it can still be overturned by contractors for reasons of experience or logistics. Assuming our material or technology has provided enough value up until this point, it must still be scrutinized according to its process of composition and development, regimes of operation and maintenance, and, finally, the potential for disassembly and reuse (its life-cycle).
Making a CaseLet’s now apply the framework to a case study material—mass timber. As an alternative to structural concrete or steel, mass timber structures present many potential benefits. The most oft-cited benefit is ecological or environmental: Mass timber—an umbrella term for standardized wood-based building products including CLT, DLT, NLT, glu-lam, and mass plywood among others—is a renewable resource that represents a potential reduction in embodied energy or carbon footprint. This may be particularly true when compared to alternative constructions using steel or concrete, but these benefits are diminished or non-existent when measured up against those using light wood (stick) framing. The onerous structural demands of mass timber present another problem, and it has diminishing benefits in geographic regions distant from sustainably managed forests (where transporting the material and/or unsustainable resource management would negate some of the initial/embodied benefits). Moving onto the feasibility phase, mass timber faces challenges from existing building regulations. The majority of current building codes in most U.S. jurisdictions allow for mass timber construction in only a limited number of cases. While this is changing quickly, due in part to concerted lobbying efforts by those in the timber and wood industry, it remains a significant hurdle to obtain a building permit for mass-timber constructions outside of limited building typologies in those jurisdictions. But additional benefits to mass timber use can be found in the construction phase, due to its ability to be partially prefabricated off-site. Again, this compares favorably with certain building types in certain situations, and less favorably in others. The visual and aesthetic benefits of exposed wood accrue in the design and operational phases, provided that regulatory codes for the building typology proposed do not mandate the fire protection of exposed wood surfaces. This is the case in certain building types and sizes, negating any aesthetic benefit to mass timber in those scenarios. This brief and concise application of the framework to the case of mass timber immediately yields several salient conclusions: In projects where certain ecologic ambitions are present; local material stocks are well-managed; jurisdictional building regulations are permissive; the alternative structural materials would be concrete or steel but not light-frame wood; there are available suppliers and installers, and a certain aesthetic is desired, mass timber may be appropriate. So we can immediately ascertain the situations in which mass timber would be a meaningful, feasible, and effective vehicle to advance a certain ambition. But we can also quickly understand where the obstacles lie that would prevent wider-scale adoption of this technology and how to address them. For instance, advocates of mass timber need to address regulatory constraints, develop resources among suppliers and contractors in suitable locations, and argue for a prioritization of the specific ecological benefits it contributes.
Facilitating InnovationThis analytical framework can be applied to any material or technology—as indicated above, the two are often joined at the hip—to gain insights into its applicability, potential, and specific points of challenge within architecture and construction. Hopefully, it will help engender a more complete and sophisticated discussion of architectural materials and technology, both new and existing. For instance, while mass timber is currently enjoying its moment in the sun, other materials like plastic find themselves on the opposite, downward end of the fashion cycle. The issue may be a misapplication of properties to appropriate uses. Durability and resistance to environmental degradation, which is a property of many types of plastic, is perhaps grossly inappropriate in single-use applications such as packaging or grocery bags. But that same property of extreme durability can be game-changing in the right applications. For instance, in civil infrastructural applications such as bridges and tunnels, the expanded durability and higher strength of advanced polymer composite materials should bear consideration—especially in comparison to materials with shorter lifespans and/or greater maintenance costs. The expanded perspective of a life-cycle assessment may illuminate benefits for certain non-conventional materials. For example, the extreme strength-to-weight properties of composite materials can provide novel architectural experiences, such as those achieved in the Apple buildings, and can benefit the projects where those ambitions are present. In any case, the goal of the analytical framework proposed here is to help facilitate the development of material innovation in architecture. With a more complete and comprehensive analysis, we can begin to contribute to a more meaningful assessment of the suitability of new materials and technologies in our diverse building culture. No analytic framework is ever complete, and the one that I am proposing is no exception. Each building and project team will have ambitions or considerations that are outside of those outlined here. However, the three-cornerstone method described above should provide a rough schema for coordinating development among those who do, and hope to, contribute to a more innovative future of building. This is relevant now, as much as it ever has been, given the changing nature of what, how, and why we will build in the future. Quang Truong is principal and cofounder of Polytechnica and the author of Composite Architecture: Building and Design with Carbon Fiber and FRPs (Birkhauser Architecture, 2020). Prior to founding his own practice, he worked at LEVER Architecture and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among other firms.
Not So Fast
When are museums in the U.S. reopening?
Low-carbon neighborhood takes root at former power station site on San Francisco waterfront
Letter to the Editor: Minnesota AIA leaders on the murder of George Floyd and destruction in the Twin Cities
We grieve and protest the murder of George Floyd.
We see the soul-deep exhaustion and pain of the Black members of our architecture community and of our broader communities.
And we realize the weight of this hurt is not just because the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was so inhumane, so merciless—it is because of the ever-evolving and unrelenting racism in daily life; the layers of disrespect, discrimination, and degradation built up over years, decades, generations, and centuries. As a predominantly White profession and organization, and as individuals, we recognize that through our own actions and inactions, through our own lack of care and courage, we have contributed to this exhaustion and pain.
We own our responsibility for doing too little in the past and needing to do so much more in the future to address the systemic inequities that pervade all aspects of life and work in Minnesota, including the practice of architecture.
People matter more than buildings. This must always be so.
We are also saddened by the destruction happening in the cities we love. We know, better than most, that buildings are extensions of people. Buildings are designed—by architects—to serve particular human needs. Buildings are designed—by architects—to protect the health, safety, and welfare of those who enter them and those whose neighborhoods they become woven into.
Nearly 300 businesses have been damaged so far, some of them destroyed completely. We know Lake Street. We know University Avenue. They are the connective tissue of the Twin Cities—vital and vibrant in the way “Main Street” is for smaller towns. We know that the areas of West Broadway, Penn Avenue, and other affected sites in our neighborhoods include the restaurants, bars, barbershops, convenience stores, grocery stores, nonprofits, health clinics, libraries, and cultural centers that are as much a part of our home as our own front steps.
We are angered by the mounting evidence that many of the violent actions and indiscriminate destruction of the past week appear to have been led by White instigators, some from outside our state, whose intentions are to leverage the righteous fury of Minnesotans for the purposes of fueling broader chaos and extremist causes.
Our brokenness is on display to the world. Peaceful and sustained appeals to our shared humanity and our moral compass following the deaths of Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, and so many others did not change us enough. If the video showing five excruciating minutes of George Floyd dying and the destruction of the built environment we feel such responsibility for does not change us, what will?
“Architects believe they can change the world.” When this is said, it is often with cynicism. Yet, there is another way to say it: “Architects believe we can change the world.” What comes next in the wake of all that has happened depends upon us shedding our cynicism and lifting up what we already know: that the best of the built environment, the best of any product, system, or community, has always been the result of deep collaboration; and that the more diverse, equitable and inclusive the collaboration, the more creative and lasting the solutions. Instead of architects assuming we know what is right and jumping in to assert our experience, expertise, and good intentions, we need to step back, listen, and be ready to learn, unlearn, and adapt.
Rebuilding what’s been lost is impossible—and it’s the wrong goal. The buildings, systems, and relationships that existed before came about through design and construction. Before rebuilding, the architecture community must join with others in rethinking, reimagining, and redesigning what’s next. Together, we can change our communities and ourselves for the better. But this will only be true if we reckon with our shared history, if we keep our hearts from hardening, and if we move forward with resolve and humility.
Karen Lu, AIA, NOMA, and Mary-Margaret Zindren, CAE. Karen is the president of AIA Minnesota and Mary-Margaret is the EVP/Executive Director of AIA Minnesota, AIA Minneapolis, AIA St. Paul, and AIA Northern Minnesota. The leadership of all AIA chapters in Minnesota stand united in this message.
Daniel Fernández Pascual awarded 2020 Wheelwright Prize
Sitting Pretty on Pico
Grimshaw unveils a new arts complex at Santa Monica College
“Celebrating the temperate weather of California, Grimshaw’s design is comprised of three distinct volumes that are linked through external, shaded areas providing ample opportunities for informal teaching and gathering in open-air weather protected courtyards. The external circulation and gathering areas drastically reduce the need for air conditioning, minimizing the overall energy use of the new complex and further supporting Grimshaw’s sustainability mission.”Each of the three volumes is dedicated to a different purpose or “arts education pillar” as Grimshaw puts it: student studios, teaching spaces, and workshops. Each volume, separated from the neighboring single-family homes by a landscaped buffer, is encased by a perforated metal screen that will “act as a backdrop for the life of the building: the artwork.” Another key design feature is a spacious entrance plaza that will “generate opportunities for programming such as exhibitions, potential media screenings, or impromptu gatherings.” “Working alongside the arts faculty of SMC to design a building that bolsters their visionary take on the importance of the arts in an evolving entrepreneurial landscape has been inspiring and energizing,” said Andrew Byrne, managing partner at Grimshaw’s L.A. studio, in a statement. Construction on the new facility is slated to kick off during the first half of 2022, and be ready for the 2024 academic year. North Carolina-headquartered Little Diversified Architectural Consulting will serve as architect of record on the project. Grimshaw maintains an active and growing presence in and around in L.A., taking on two high-profile, transportation-related projects in the city in recent years including the Metro Airport Connector project and the master plan for Union Station, both in partnership with Gruen Associates.