UNStudio has spun off its own startup, UNSense, to focus on architectural technology and large-scale design problems. “UNSense is completely dedicated to sensory and speculative design,” UNStudio cofounder Caroline Bos told the British publication CLAD, “It’s quite exploratory.” UNSense, according to the company’s website, “combines design thinking and data technology" to create solutions at the scales of buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. The firm has currently organized UNSense into two service sections: “Design\Strategies” and “Arch Tech Solutions.” UNSense’s Design\Strategies services are intended to help municipalities realize themselves as smart cities. “Sensorial technologies afford us the opportunity to fully understand how people use the city while living, relaxing, working, and commuting. Such data-based insights into human behavior can be used as a foundation to continuously improve and equip the city according to the needs of its users,” the company explained. Not merely speculative, it's already at work with a number of Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, as well as abroad in Milan, Osaka, and Bangalore. Other projects include feasibility studies to create a “living lab” out of a 100-house smart district in the Netherlands and tech-forward transformations around the Amsterdam Arena. The Arch Tech Solutions are projects sometimes produced in collaboration with tech companies. Projects include UNSense's recent Solar Visuals product, a photovoltaic cladding system developed as part of the Dutch Solar Design consortium and which won the Clean Energy Challenge put on by What Design Can Do this spring. Like UNStudio, UNSense is conceived as interdisciplinary, and its staff and collaborators includes everyone from architects and urban designers to data scientists and philosophers. “At UNSense we don’t believe in technology for the sake of technology,” its website says. “We think the combination of data and design creates a powerful force to improve the living conditions for people, and to ultimately create buildings and cities that are more humane, healthy, clean, safe, sustainable, and benefiting the environment.”
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Anyone who’s played The Sims (especially with cheat codes) knows the fun and ease of designing your own home with a few clicks of the mouse. Anyone who's designed an actual, IRL home knows that the real process is completely different. Homebuyers who want a custom home often encounter a frustratingly opaque and expensive process, or are stuck with pre-made plans that look like everyone else’s. They’re left, as Michael Bergin, cofounder and director of architecture at the startup Higharc put it, with “houses that are just left without design.” And even getting an architect to customize stock home plans, like those available online, Bergin said, can wind up costing at least in the low five figures, so instead, most go for pre-designed plans. “People spend their entire savings, everything that they have, on something that's not fit for them." Higharc believes there could be a “middle ground” in home architecture. To that end, it's developed a web-based home design app aimed at the everyday user and homebuyer. “We are trying to…address fundamental inefficiencies, structural challenges in the home building,” said Bergin. “The product that we are developing isn't going to replace an experienced 20-year architect,” he admitted, but it will, Higharc hopes, make customization much more accessible to a wider swath of new home buyers. Higharc is trying to embed “architectural intelligence” directly into its web-based software. The app uses, among other technologies, “procedural generation,” a computational technique borrowed from video games (one of Higharc’s founding members, Thomas Holt, has game industry experience), that generates graphics on the fly. “The difference between where this lands in gaming and our approach is that we're building in these heuristic or structural rules, so that no house that's produced in our system is structurally deficient,” explained Bergin. “[Higharc] looks at the international building code and prescriptive span tables and ensures that every house that we are producing is something that's buildable.” (A recent Curbed article reported that many of these code data come from the International Code Council, which recently sued the startup UpCodes for republishing building codes.) Higharc said that as it expands into new markets (it's currently beginning its first role out in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area), it is also incorporating regional building codes. To help with siting, Higharc pulls in public GIS data. Users can pick a plot anywhere in their area from a Google Maps–like interface and try out building their home. They can then take their design and see how it fits on another plot, and Higharc will adjust the home accordingly to make sure it fits just right on the new site. Right now, The Sims comparison might go a little too far—those 3D characters don’t have to worry too much about structural integrity, after all. Higharc allows users to choose from a series of options—preset aesthetics, number of bedrooms, guest suites, number of floors, the size of each room, etc.—and automatically generates a home optimized for the user selections and the chosen plot, immediately adjusting and restructuring the entire home as the homebuyer switches options. All the while, the software displays an estimated cost range that adapts with each change to help users stay on budget. “We’re making [home building] a fun process, making it an accessible process for everyone,” said Bergin. “Ultimately, we just want to make better neighborhoods and give home buyers and builders choice—and agency.”
Two Brooklyn-based construction entrepreneurs began their business with a simple observation: steel rebar, used in concrete construction throughout the world, isn't always easy to work with. Ian Cohen and Daniel Blank noticed this when they were watching wind turbines being erected. “Watching the process of people manually moving these huge, heavy objects looked dangerous and difficult,” Cohen explained. Often made from scrap metal, rebar is a “really sharp, dirty material for humans to interact with.” They pivoted their URBAN-X accelerated startup, Toggle, which they founded two-and-a-half years ago with a focus on renewable energy, to the even more fundamental work of making the production of reinforced concrete faster and safer through automation. Rebar steel is “traditionally manually picked up and erected into cages and shaped to hold reinforced concrete structures in place,” explained Cohen. These cages may be as long as 50 feet. That’s hard work for humans but is exactly the kind of job robots are suited for: taking very heavy things and moving them precisely. Using customized industrial robots, Toggle made modifications that allow the automated arms to “achieve bespoke movements.” The design-to-build process is also streamlined, with custom software that takes a design file, evaluates types of cages needed, then derives a build sequence, and goes straight into digital fabrication. Currently, Toggle, which is in the early stages of its technology, is using a “cooperative process”—a human and robot working side by side. The robot does the dangerous work and heavy lifting, picking up and manipulating the bars, while the human does just the final wire tying. Toggle is in the process of automating this step as well, aiming to increase productivity over all-human rebar processing by as much as five times while halving the cost. The two also plan on adding a linear track that would allow the robot to produce larger meshes, though currently, they are operating at a fairly substantial maximum of 20 feet. No mere experiment, the robot is currently being put to work, fabricating rebar for projects in New York City and the surrounding area. Part of the plan is to develop a system that works something like vertical farming, Cohen explained, where production happens close to where there is need, minimizing the logistical demands and long-distance transportation and “allowing civil infrastructure to be developed and constructed in the societies that need them most.” New York, of course, is a perfect testing ground with its constant construction. Currently, global labor shortages, including in the U.S., make infrastructure construction expensive according to Cohen. Toggle’s goal is to “reduce cost and accelerate construction projects around the world, all while maximizing safety.” The intent, Cohen says, is not about getting rid of human labor but about “taking work away from humans that is not suited for them and putting them in jobs that are better for humans.”
In Jorge Luis Borges’s 1946 one-paragraph short story "On Exactitude in Science," a fictional 17th-century individual, Suarez Miranda, tells of a time that the "Cartographers Guilds" made a map of their empire so accurately that it matched it entirely, at 1:1 scale, point by point. Of course, this map was utterly useless. This meditation on mapping and empire seems increasingly prescient today, as every last plot of the Earth becomes represented and possessed in cartography, in satellite imagery, in Google Street View, and through intricate digital models. Enter Cityzenith, the Chicago-based startup where the CEO's reported mission, according to the trade publication Building Design and Construction, is to “replicate our entire world,” one hopes with more utilitarian results than those in Borges’s cautionary tale. Cityzenith’s digital twin technology is part of its Smart World Pro software suite, which pulls together data from builders, developers, building owners, cities, and IoT devices to create hyper-detailed "supermaps" of buildings and cities. As Cityzenith CEO Michael Jansen explained to the BBC, "[a] digital twin is a virtual representation of physical buildings and assets but connected to all the data and information around those assets, so that machine learning and AI algorithms can be applied to them to help them operate more efficiently." With these twins, users—building owners, urban designers, environmental engineers, governments—can both monitor existing infrastructure, and simulate the effects of new buildings or what different conditions like temperature change or congestion could cause for existing architecture and for city dwellers, all from a single digital dashboard. Information from everything from Excel sheets to GIS data to social media posts can be dragged and dropped to help create models, incorporating over 1,000 datasets. While Cityzenith is not the first company to push digital twins as an option for developers, builders, and planners, it's one of the first to propose using the technology as a way to design a city from the ground up. Cityzenith claims the Foster + Partners and Surbana Jurong–designed $6.5 billion planned city Amaravati, to be the capital of Andhra Pradesh, India, will be the world’s first city “born as a digital twin.” This new capital was deemed necessary after the shifting of state lines left Andhra Pradesh without a capital. The city is being planned from the ground-up as a smart city for 3.5 million people, in part by leveraging Cityzenith’s Smart World Pro software, the latest version of which launched this winter. Data about construction, design, current and projected environmental conditions, mobility and traffic, and climate can be viewed in the desktop interface, and simulations that leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence can get ahead of what’s happening at a variety of scales. For example, if simulations of high-temperature conditions show most pedestrians will be forced to seek shaded streets during rush hour, how does this congestion shape the city? And how can the city be shaped to prevent it? Permits can be drag-and-drop submitted, and zoning, traffic, and environmental analysis for the entire city is streamlined and accessible from a single window. Builders and developers can get info from a simple web interface. A video from Cityzenith shows a Siri-like natural language search web tool, as well. The company also proposes a “digital twin user ID” for every Amaravati citizen that will let them visit government portals to access tools from their city's digital twin. In an era of big data, simulation, and hyper-detailed mapping, Borges’s 1:1 map doesn’t feel far off. One can imagine a future where we’re better off traveling on our computer screen’s representations of a “digital twin." Or we can just play SimCity instead. For more on the latest in AEC technology and for information about the upcoming TECH+ conference, visit techplusexpo.com/nyc/.
Now active in over 30 countries around the world, French startup Iconem is working to preserve global architectural and urban heritage one photograph at a time. Leveraging complex modeling algorithms, drone technology, cloud computing, and, increasingly, artificial intelligence (AI), the firm has documented major sites like Palmyra and Leptis Magna, producing digital versions of at-risk sites at resolutions never seen, and sharing their many-terabyte models with researchers and with the public in the form of exhibitions, augmented reality experiences, and 1:1 projection installations across the globe. AN spoke with founder and CEO Yves Ubelmann, a trained architect, and CFO Etienne Tellier, who also works closely on exhibition development, about Iconem’s work, technology, and plans for the future. The Architect's Newspaper: Tell me a bit about how Iconem got started and what you do. Yves Ubelmann: I founded Iconem six years ago. At the time I was an architect working in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iran, in Syria. In the field, I was seeing the disappearance of archeological sites and I was concerned by that. I wanted to find a new way to record these sites and to preserve them even if the sites themselves might disappear in the future. The idea behind Iconem was to use new technology like drones and artificial intelligence, as well as more standard digital photography, in order to create a digital copy or model of the site along with partner researchers in these different countries. AN: You mentioned drones and AI; what technology are you using? YU: We have a partnership with a lab in France, the INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique/National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation). They discovered an algorithm that could transform a 2D picture into a 3D point cloud, which is a projection of every pixel of the picture into space. These points in the point cloud in turn reproduce the shape and the color of the environment, the building and so on. It takes billions of points that reproduce the complexity of a place in a photorealistic manner, but because the points are so tiny and so huge a number that you cannot see the point, but you see only the shape on the building in 3D. Etienne Tellier: The generic term for the technology that converts the big datasets of pictures into 3D models is photogrammetry. YU: Which is just one process. Even still, photogrammetry was invented more than 100 years ago…Before it was a manual process and we were only able to reproduce just a part of the wall or something like that. Big data processing has led us to be able to reproduce a huge part of the real environment. It’s a very new way of doing things. Just in the last two years, we’ve become able to make a copy of an entire city—like Mosul or Aleppo—something not even possible before. We also have a platform to manage this huge amount of data and we’re working with cloud computing. In the future we want to open this platform to the public. AN: All of this technology has already grown so quickly. What do you see coming next? YU: Drone technology is becoming more and more efficient. Drones will go farther and farther, because batteries last longer, so we can imagine documenting sites that are not accessible to us, because they're in a rebel zone, for example. Cameras also continue to become better and better. Today we can produce a model with one point for one millimeter and I think in the future we will be able to have ten points for one millimeter. That will enable us to see every detail of something like small writing on a stone. ET: Another possible evolution, and we are already beginning to see this happen thanks to artificial intelligence, is automatic recognition of what is shown by a 3D model. That's something you can already have with 2D pictures. There are algorithms that can analyze a 2D picture and say, "Oh okay, this is a cat. This is a car." Soon there will probably also be the same thing for 3D models, where algorithms will be able to detect the architectural components and features of your 3D model and say, "Okay, this is a Corinthian column. This dates back to the second century BC." And one of the technologies we are working on is the technology to create beautiful images from 3D models. We’ve had difficulties to overcome because our 3D models are huge. As Yves said before, they are composed of billions of points. And for the moment there is no 3D software available on the market that makes it possible to easily manipulate a very big 3D model in order to create computer-generated videos. So what we did is we created our own tool, where we don't have to lower the quality of our 3D models. We can keep the native resolution quality photorealism of our big 3D models, and create very beautiful videos from them that can be as big as a 32K and can be projected onto very big areas. There will be big developments in this field in the future. AN: Speaking of projections, what are your approaches to making your research accessible? Once you've preserved a site, how does it become something that people can experience, whether they're specialists or the public? YU: There are two ways to open this data to the public. The first way is producing digital exhibitions that people can see, which we are currently doing today for many institutions all over the world. The other way is to give access directly to the raw data, from which you can take measurements or investigate a detail of architecture. This platform is open to specialists, to the scientific community, to academics. The first exhibition we did was with the Louvre in Paris at the Grand Palais for an exhibition called Sites Éternels [Eternal Sites] where we projection mapped a huge box, 600 square meters [6,458 square feet], with 3D video. We were able to project monuments like the Damascus Mosque or Palmyra sites and the visitors are surrounded by it at a huge scale. The idea is to reproduce landscape, monuments, at scale of one to one so the visitor feels like they’re inside the sites. AN: So you could project one to one? ET: Yes, we can project one to one. For example, in the exhibition we participated to recently, in L'Institut du monde arabe in Paris, we presented four sites: Palmyra, Aleppo, Mosul, and Leptis Magna in Libya. And often the visitor could see the sites at a one to one scale. Leptis Magna was quite spectacular because people could see the columns at their exact size. It really increased the impact and emotional effect of the exhibition. All of this is very interesting from a cultural standpoint because you can create immersive experiences where the viewer can travel through a whole city. And they can discover not only the city as a whole but also the monuments and the architectural details. They can switch between different scales—the macro scale of a city; the more micro one of the monument; and then the very micro one of a detail—seamlessly. AN: What are you working on now? ET: Recently, we participated in an exhibition that was financed by Microsoft that was held in Paris, at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, a museum that has replicas of the most important sites in France. They're 3D architectural replicas or maquettes that can be 3 meter [apx. 10 feet] wide that were commissioned by Louis XIV and created during the 17th century because he wanted to have replicas to prepare a defense in case of an invasion. Recently, Microsoft wanted to create an exhibition using augmented reality and they proposed making an experience in this museum in Paris, focusing on the replicas of Mont-Saint-Michel, the famous site in France. We 3D scanned this replica of Mont-Saint-Michel, and also 3D scanned the actual Mont-Saint-Michel, to create an augmented reality experience in partnership with another French startup. We made very precise 3D models of both sites—the replica and the real site—and used the 3D models to create the holograms that were embedded and superimposed. Through headsets visitors would see a hologram of water going up and surrounding the replica of Mont-Saint-Michel. You could see the digital and the physical, the interplay between the two. And you could also see the site as it was hundreds of years before. It was a whole new experience relying on augmented reality and we were really happy to take part in this experience. This exhibition should travel to Seattle soon.
New York firm SHoP Architects is hopping on the coworking train with a commission to design and renovate 335 Madison Avenue into the new home for Company, a vertical tech campus that combines working spaces and lifestyle facilities. Within the 350,000-square-foot space, Company will house “a curated community of top-tier companies that spans the innovation spectrum from venture-backed startups to large enterprises,” according to Company's description of the project. Company’s office building is located next to Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan. SHoP has recently unveiled a series of interior renderings that showcase the firm’s plan to renovate the atrium lobby and office floors of the building. They will also design supporting amenity spaces. The new spaces include “a bar, multiple dining venues, several event spaces, a two-story glass enclosed library, a wellness center and a gym, and a terrace.” The location will also create ample networking opportunities for the tenants of the building. The startup offices on the lower floors are furnished with “meeting rooms, phone rooms and breakout spaces optimized for productivity,” according to a statement from Company. Those offices range from 2,000 to 12,000 square feet. The enterprise offices will take up the upper floors of the 29-story building with open floor plans.
Morphosis Architects is one of the four winning design firms in the running to design Chengdu’s Unicorn Island in China’s Sichuan province, competing with Foster + Partners, a team of Arata Isozaki & Associates and Jun Aoki & Associates, and OMA. As China transitions towards a technology-oriented service economy, Unicorn Island was imagined as a centralized location where start-ups and established companies would be given the resources to grow. Whereas OMA’s plan for the island involved a crosshatch of different buildings for start-ups ringed by headquarters for the Unicorn companies (worth $1 billion or more), Morphosis has designed a series of curvilinear facilities that wrap around the island’s edge. While the island in Chengdu is small, Morphosis took the opportunity to bring big ideas, designing a campus that would be walkable, sustainable, and accessible via mass transit while also building up the city’s skyline. The firm broke the 165-acre island up into four quadrants, with each representing a stage of a Unicorn company’s growth. Flexible office space can be found in all four sections, as well as shared community amenities and a central park and hub for each. The northwestern quadrant has been set aside for education and will contain offshoots of the universities found in Chengdu proper, while the convention and showcase quadrant to the southwest will allow companies to demonstrate their wares. The eastern half of the island would be broken into north and south innovation quadrants, holding accelerator spaces, labs, and administrative support services. At the island’s core would be a massive “Unicorn Tower,” which would serve as the headquarters for the campus’s most successful companies. Other than the central tower, Morphosis chose to keep the other buildings low-slung and accessible from the ground level. Pedestrian access across the island was prioritized, and park-to-park walkways were overlain across the entire site. A proposed metro station near the Unicorn Tower would put most of the island within walking distance from mass transit. For their scheme, Morphosis worked with engineers Buro Happold. No estimated completion or start date has been announced yet.
Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, is rapidly transitioning towards a service-based economy and has enlisted OMA’s help in growing its local tech companies. Following an international design competition sponsored by the Chengdu government, OMA and three other high-profile studios have been chosen to master plan a Unicorn Island for startups and more established tech companies alike. OMA has designed a campus that weaves over the entire island, with skyways that overlap and interconnect, which they call a weave. At the island’s core is the Living Lab, a domed complex with working labs that will be open to the public. Branching out from the Living Lab will be the weave, which will hold startups and “Gazelles” (tech companies worth $1 million or more). The weave has been envisioned as a community space, and OMA has described the area as “village-like” in its project description; this interior section will contain residential housing for employees, a mix of office typologies, and amenity spaces meant to foster mingling between different companies. Along the island’s edge will be headquarters for the "Unicorns" (technology companies worth $1 billion or more), with room for expansion as the companies in the weave increase in value and relocate outwards. From the renderings, it appears that the complex will be massive and extend all the way across Unicorn Island. Interestingly, everything except the waterfront headquarters will be elevated; roads will pass below the floating weave, with four courtyards set aside, one on each block. OMA has also revealed some of the tower typologies that will be present in the weave, including a circulation tower, sports tower, education tower, and relaxation tower for the 16 cores. With such a tightly-condensed campus, parking had to be moved underground. From the site plans, it seems that parking will run under nearly the entire island, with the exception of the area below the Living Lab, which will become an underground plaza. The design of Unicorn Island was led by Chris van Duijn, OMA Partner and Director of OMA Asia. Mobility in Chain provided the traffic consultation and Transsolar acted as the climate engineer. No estimated completion date or project cost has been revealed at the time of writing. The other three winners of the design competition include Morphosis, Foster + Partners, and a team composed of Arata Isozaki & Associates and Jun Aoki & Associates.
There’s a perfect storm brewing in the AEC industry with respect to technology, and startup tech companies are stoked because the waves are finally rolling in. A number of factors are contributing to the sudden surge. An increasingly urban population along with a changing climate is placing unprecedented pressure on the built environment, according to Jesse Devitte, co-founder of Borealis Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm geared toward the AEC industry. Fortunately, mobile devices, cloud computing, and endless sensors capturing data have reached near-ubiquitous status just as a slew of game-changing technologies such as BIM, AR/VR, and Blockchain are arriving, he notes. “It really does feel like the industry is at a unique moment in time,” Devitte said. “I can tell you one thing for certain: in my three decades of involvement in AEC software I have never seen so much activity. In fact, I wake up to a new startup in my email every single morning, seven days a week.” As a veteran who was part of Autodesk’s former Softdesk team and who organized the company’s AEC business unit, Devitte is well versed in venture capital. Upon leaving Autodesk, he co-founded Borealis Ventures to support the next generation of software entrepreneurs. “Today, we are focused on overcoming the traditional fragmented and resulting industry inefficiency by backing startups focused on driving data across the entire building lifecycle,” he explained. The Borealis team identifies and works with teams and technologies materially improving how the built environment is designed, constructed, operated, and experienced—and the potential for a startup to achieve industry disruption has never been better, he says. “That doesn’t mean it is easy,” Devitte pointed out. “You are still selling to project-based businesses, which, on the design side, have more work than ever but are facing narrower margins,” he said. On the construction side, he paints a rather harrowing picture. Likening it to upgrading a plane mid-flight at low altitudes, Devitte says construction professionals are “attempting to safely deliver the highest quality product on time and budget for the real estate owners, who have their own challenges including the phenomena of ‘space as a service,’ which is the opposite of the long-term investment/cash flow ROI model that built the asset class.”
Welcome to the Start TankBut shifts of this magnitude are precisely what’s needed to create waves for real market transformation. “These big waves may indeed be the proof that digital transformation of this industry has reached an inflection point—and that is the ideal time to invest for maximum return,” Devitte observed. To those willing to test the tech-infested waters, they’ll have the opportunity to dive in during Start Tank, shark tank-like feature for exhibiting start-ups to pitch their winning ideas to potential investors and customers at this year’s TECH+ expo in New York City on May 22nd. Led by Devitte and featuring special guest judges Dareen Salama (Lehrer) Justin Hendrix (NYC Media Lab), and Greg Schleusner (HOK), Start Tank will enable startups to get their stories out to the market. “For potential customers it is a unique opportunity to learn about solutions they can deploy to advance their businesses,” Devitte said. “To make sure we deliver on both of those fronts, the judges are industry professionals who are potential customers for the startups. And as we say in the venture business, we will see if the ‘dogs eat the food,’ all while having fun in a positive environment.”
London skyline as battleground: Designers render 3D-printed chess pieces in the shape of iconic architecture
City skylines can seem at times like battlegrounds, with architects vying for superlatives of tallest, grandest, and bizarrest. Skyline Chess, founded by London-based designers Chris Prosser and Ian Flood, reimagines chess pieces as miniature models of the city’s landmark buildings. The ubiquitous terraced house, oft seen in indistinguishable cookie-cutter rows, is recast as the humble pawn, while the iconic Big Ben plays the rook, the London Eye Ferris wheel stands in for the Knight, and the Bishop is supplanted with The Gherkin. Meanwhile, Renzo Piano’s 87-story Shard in Southwark, London, presides as Queen, while the reigning honor of King-dom is bestowed upon the 4.5 inch-tall Canary Wharf, one of the UK’s two main financial centers. “In developing the idea we thought long and hard about suitable alternatives for the chessmen, both in terms of their architecture and symbolic value as well as their value on the chessboard,” the designers wrote on their website. “We believe that as individual objects they are beautiful and when arranged across the board represent something unique.” Lovers of architecture, Prosser and Flood developed their idea over a series of chess matches, modeled the pieces in 3D, and then 3D-printed them in injection-molded acrylic. Each piece is double-weighted and has a felt base. In 2013, the designers launched a campaign on popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but won just over $14,000 in pledges of the approximately $39,000 requested to fund their startup. While crowdfunding fell through, seeing as the site operates on an all-or-nothing funding model, Prosser and Flood secured investment elsewhere. In addition to trotting out its first architecture-influenced edition, Skyline Chess creates bespoke chess sets for lovers of the strategic board game, and has its eye on developing sets based on the architectural icons of Rome, New York, Dubai, and Shanghai.
Open offices have gone from unavoidable interior design trend to the target of some serious backlash. I moderated a panel last week for DisruptCRE's annual conference that tried to suss out what's driving office space design and culture today. I was joined by 1871 CEO Howard Tullman, Gensler global design leader and design principal Carlos M. Martínez, IdeaPaint president John Stephans and SpaceTrak CEO Kristine O’Hollearn. We met on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower. As the Chicago Tribune's Meg Graham put it:
Offices are no longer as simple as a couple of cubicles and a water cooler. But taking down walls and throwing in a ping pong table doesn’t automatically inspire innovation, panelists said Thursday at DisruptCRE. … The panelists discussed a growing hesitation toward the open-office trend. “We think that ‘open’ is over, that we’re going backward to more contained spaces, more identity, more sound control,” Tullman said. “We’re discovering that there’s a myth about multitasking — which is actually that you’re doing a lot of things poorly.”You can watch a video of the entire panel on Vimeo, and embedded here, in which we discussed how to encourage collaboration without embracing chaos.
As Detroit nears the one year anniversary of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, creative professionals in a busy downtown corridor are the target of a Washington, D.C.–funded “innovation district" that hopes startups will rev Detroit's stalled economic engine. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's book for the Brookings Institution, The Metropolitan Revolution argued that since Congress is frozen, cities must save themselves. In a follow up report, the authors argued for the creation of “innovation districts” to encourage startups and business incubators. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last month announced the city’s first such district would comprise a stretch of Woodward Avenue from the riverfront to New Center. The area has previously been branded a “creative corridor,” and already enjoys a growing startup culture—most of it formed organically. So what will the new designation change? Perhaps nothing by itself. But as Crain's Detroit Business reported, clusters of young professionals are happy to have the spotlight:
"The thing we have realized is that we actually have districts within this creative corridor geography," said Matt Clayson, director of DC3, a partnership between the College of Creative Studies and Business Leaders for Michigan. "There is a certain density of creative practioners [sic] that we did not have four years ago. That's a good 1,100 creative workers. Four years ago, no." … When Patrick Thompson was looking to open his interior design studio — which is well known for designing the Detroit Institute of Arts' Kresge Court — he was interested in being in Midtown. He didn't realize there was a creative cluster forming, but he liked the activity on the street and wanted to be around other design businesses. So when a first floor retail spot in The Auburn building opened, he moved in last summer. "As a landmark alone, it's been great," he said. "Everyone is starting to know this area. It's a pretty high-profile area, so it's been beneficial for our business being there."The three clusters with the most activity at the moment, writes Amy Haimerl for Crain's, are around Grand Circus Park, near Cass and Canfield Streets, and near DC3 and TechTown Detroit in the city’s New Center neighborhood. Mayor Duggan convened a 17-person panel to chart more innovation clusters around the future and help guide growth in existing creative communities. As must be noted with any story of rebirth in Detroit, the city’s challenges are beyond the ability of any one intervention to overcome. But “innovation districts” are far from the only solution proposed for Detroit’s problems. Immigration reform, perhaps tied to a special city-specific Visa, has been touted as a potential shot in the arm for the struggling city. And transit improvements, especially along Woodward Avenue—which now has national attention—are a long time coming.