This is the fifth column of “Practice Values,” a bi-monthly series by architect and technologist Phil Bernstein. The column focuses on the evolving role of the architect at the intersection of design and construction, including subjects such as alternative delivery systems and value generation. Bernstein was formerly vice president at Autodesk and now teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. The topic this week in my practice class is “Scope of Services,” where we examine the architect’s relationship to the client’s work, to wit: What, exactly, does she have to do to deliver the project? The idea of “Basic Services” is central to explaining traditional practice, in that it’s the way we routinize our efforts through standard stages of effort (schematic design, design development, and so forth), structure decision-making, and, almost as important, create a basis for protecting our limited fees and invoicing the client. The idea of basic services or even “phases of design” has been under pressure for some time, mostly under the delaminating influence of technology. Long gone are the hand-drawn, single-line diagrams that once comprised the end product of schematics, just as transferring design intent to a builder may include BIM data or digital geometry in addition to traditional two-dimensional construction documents. The fluidity of digital data, and the purported insight that accompanies it, has blurred and expanded the system boundaries of services themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest thinking about the use of mass timber as a fundamental building material for cities, work pioneered by my faculty colleague Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture. Alan argues persuasively that there is an opportunity to rethink the systems of carbon, energy, material production, design, and construction by the thoughtful and systematic use of engineered lumber—a renewable resource—in urban construction, where the forest is not just another source of raw material but also a place to store carbon. His thinking is not unlike Kiel Moe’s at Harvard, who posits that buildings aren’t independent objects that merely coexist with the systems that produce and sustain them, but rather are integral parts of those systems. Architects should ignore the resulting system boundaries created by constructs like, for example, the idea that our work be something called “Basic Services.” Both Organschi and Moe believe that architects must change the scale of their influence beyond the materialization of form by understanding, incorporating, and (dare I say it) controlling the flows of capital, energy, materials, and production. We need to replace our understanding of the supply chain with an overt ability to create and optimize it. This idea is immediately appealing, harkening back to the original assertions of modernism and its putative benefits for production and society, but equally daunting and intractable. This is precisely why Organschi’s claims about mass timber are so important: They represent a clear “through-line” from the means of making to the creation of form that is at the heart of the architect’s design proposition. Architects have always been part of a systems-design problem, and today’s digital tools that allow the representation, analysis, and optimization of systems fit perfectly into these new responsibilities. The digitization of design has blurred the traditional boundaries of our “systems of service,” but there are new opportunities emerging as design is informed by new technologies like systems engineering, big data analysis, and optimization, machine learning, and integrated network design. These tools will wend their way into innovative practices like Organschi’s, necessary to increase the architect’s understanding of and span of control over the supply chain. Organschi’s work thus challenges the entire idea of “Basic Services” as it currently drives practice—calling into question the roles of technology, research, professional certification, even the compensation to the architect for taking on such responsibilities. A “net zero” building means nothing if the systems that delivered it generates huge amounts of unaccounted carbon. We’ll need to reconsider and remediate all the systems boundaries of design—our internal protocols and processes and our relationship to the supply chain—to have true influence on the implications of our buildings. The efforts around mass timber described in this issue are some of the best thinking on this front so far.
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This is a preview of our special November timber issue. Mass timber is having its Maison Dom-Ino moment. At the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, a curious structure sat on the grass near the international pavilion in the Giardini. It was an engineered timber version of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino, the seminal, prototypical reinforced concrete project, which was celebrating its 100th birthday. As a manifesto of sorts for modernism, the original Maison Dom- Ino sent shockwaves through the architecture world and the built environment at large. It was a replicable, scalable building system made from simple columns and floor slabs, which could be stacked vertically and horizontally like dominoes. The 2014 version was commissioned by Brett Steele, then dean at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He described the “afterlife” of the 1914 Dom-Ino as “a set of guiding, abstract, and idealized principles” that have shaped the world as we know it today. The choice of timber in this case is an interesting one, as mass timber seems to be today’s material that looks promising for the future, much like steel and concrete did in the 20th century. As outlined in this issue, timber has a litany of benefits including carbon sequestration, lower embodied energy than steel and concrete, psychological benefits for inhabitants, less construction noise in tight urban sites, easier on-site construction in general, and many other positive aspects. It would reorient wood from light-frame suburban development toward mid-rise dense urban development. Taller and taller timber towers serve as the “Eiffel Tower” moments for the rapidly expanding timber industry, as pointed out by Jimmy Stamp in the Smithsonian Magazine article, "Is Timber the Future of Urban Construction?" And these important projects have brought attention to an otherwise niche building trade. Alongside these "Wow!" projects, there is another, less sexy side of the timber revolution that could help to change the way we build in America. New technologies abroad are already making mid-rise construction cheaper and more viable at larger scales. This incremental progress is taking place among manufacturers, architects, engineers, and designers as we speak in places like the nearly 600,000-square-foot Arbora complex in Montreal, Quebec. And companies, such as Nordic Engineered Wood, are expanding in the U.S. market, a place known for innovation that makes things cheaper and more market-ready. Once the market can produce mass timber structures more cheaply than steel and concrete, there could be a seismic shift. And as timber becomes more viable for safety concerns, and more legal through local codes adapting ("The State of the Art of Timber"), we could see timber proliferate at the same rate as the early-20th century saw the Maison Dom-Ino’s system spread across the world over the next 100 years. But of course we are speculating a bit in this issue. The future is not so clear. A fight is brewing in Congress ("What Wood You Do?") over the bipartisan Timber Innovation Act (and along with it, lobbying antics from the steel, concrete, and sand industries). If U.S. governmental agencies and private companies—namely manufacturers—come together, the costs could come down. It is possible that architectural knowledge-research and development could bend the markets so as to impact both economic and environmental resource allocation networks toward a lower-carbon future, as architect and timber expert Alan Organschi told AN in a conversation. The arms race is already on, and the National Forest Service has awarded $250,000 to Boston-based IKD to develop a hardwood-based cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is an important incremental step in the process. This issue speculates on a future where entire blocks might be built with green technologies including mass timber, and whole cities could be filled with beautiful wood buildings layered onto the stone, brick, steel, glass, and concrete urban fabric. How this revolution might play out is unclear, but we are seeing glimpses of what might be to come, such as Framework by LEVER Architecture in Portland, which will be the tallest timber building in the U.S., or the work of Michael Green Architecture in Vancouver, or Gray Organschi Architecture out of New Haven, Connecticut, which has been researching mass timber at the Yale School of Architecture. We also look to Europe and Canada for success stories that might be examples for the future of mass timber in the U.S. As Steele said of his 2014 Maison Dom-Ino, “This initial installation will remind visitors not only of modern architecture's most foundational project, but of an architectural instinct made even more apparent today than it was at the time of its original conception; namely that architecture always operates in the space created by a contrast between architecture as already known, and what it might yet become.” Can we imagine a partially wooden future? This article will be updated with links to other articles from the November timber issue.
Kathryn Gustafson, founding partner of Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol has been awarded the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an annual award honoring an architect who has made significant contributions to architecture as an art. Jury member James Polshek noted in a statement, "The power of her imagination and the precision of her execution have enriched the many natural and man-made places she has touched with her magic." The Academy also awarded five Arts & Letters Awards to Hilary Ballon, Marlon Blackwell, Elizabeth Gray, Alan Organschi, and Michael Maltzan. The awards will be presented this May in New York City.