Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Tools, New Techniques for a New Architecture

The current issue of Technology Review has a photoessay titled "The Building, Digitally Remastered", which I highly recommend. The URL of the online version is:

Several examples of recently-constructed buildings are shown, all of them designed with the latest 3-D modeling software, which is beginning to revolutionize the way buildings are designed and built. The first image here is the Hearst Building, in New York City, which uses a design based on interlocking triangles to reduce the amount of steel needed for construction by over 20%.

New computer technology is allowing architects to explore radically redesigned structures, with curves and and angles rather than the traditional rectilinear form. The same technology enables the designer to make more efficient use of materials, cutting costs of construction, and to produce structures that are more efficient to run, cutting ongoing costs and minimizing the carbon footprint.

What does this have to do with BrightBuilt Barn?

Well, it turns out that the Barn was also designed with (simpler and much less expensive) computer design tools, and will be constructed offsite using computer-driven wood-shaping tools. Similar to the larger projects pictured in the article, computer technology helps us minimize waste in construction, forecast energy flows stemming from various design options, and in general create a much more well-thought-out structure that comes closer to meeting our various ambitious goals than would be possible with traditional manual techniques.

The second image is of 30 St. Mary Axe in London, which uses interlocking triangles, similar to the Hearst Building above, to very different effect. The curved shape reduces wind loads, and creates air pressure differentials that allow for natural air circulation to cool the building. Because of this, and other innovative energy-saving measures designed into the structure, the annual energy use of this building is approximately half that of a conventional structure of this size.

The inexorable march of computer technology, in which hardware doubles in capability approximately every two years, will soon make the power of yesterday's supercomputer available to all architects everywhere. This will enable a new breed of designers and builders to make buildings that are smarter, more efficient, more earth-friendly, and which incorporate a variety of beautiful new forms not seen before in inhabited structures.

Our final image is of the Chesa Futura in St. Moritz, Switzerland, a futuristic ski chalet which was built using many of the same automated wood-shaping technologies as are being employed in the construction of BrightBuilt Barn.

For more architectural eye candy, and a glimpse of the future of building design and construction, follow the link above to the source article in this month's Technology Review.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

The 200-Year House: Adaptability

Part of sustainability is building to last.

A significant part of the energy expended in the lifecycle of a building comes from the process of its construction. The longer the building remains functional, the longer the time over which that initial energy expenditure is amortized.

The goal is for BrightBuilt Barn to last for 200 years. In times past, this would not have been a particularly ambitious goal. Europe has any number of structures that are 200, 500, even a thousand years old. Here in the New World, such longevity is less abundant, but even here in Maine we have several 200+ year-old farmhouses within a short drive of the BrightBuilt barn site.

Nowadays, the average lifespan of new-built structures is measured in decades, not centuries. Many of our newest developer-built residences are not designed or built for much more, there being little economic incentive for the developer to create structures that outlast his working lifetime, or those of the original purchasers. In other cases, changing tastes cause perfectly functional structures to be demolished - if the rooms are too small, or the systems too antiquated, new owners may choose to tear down the old structure rather than remodel.

As noted previously, long-lived buildings must be durable, beautiful and adaptable. Here I want to explain some of the adaptability that is "designed in" to BrightBuilt Barn.

First, even though the structure's original purpose will be to serve as a workshop/home office/artist's studio, it has all the systems necessary for a (rather small) two-bedroom house, including a kitchen and full bath. In part, this is because LEED has no certification standards for artist studios, so we were forced to meet the standards for LEED Home if we wanted certification. But inspired engineering makes a virtue of necessity. By including all the elements required for a two-bedroom house, the BrightBuilt Barn becomes much more adaptable.

This adaptability will primarily serve future generations. Yet even we, the original owners, will benefit from it. Currently my wife and I are in a late middle age/early senior stage of life. Our children are grown and married, and we have four grandchildren, aged 4 and under. For now, as empty nesters and grandparents of toddlers, the workshop/studio option suits our needs perfectly. As the grandchildren grow, the structure could serve as a guesthouse/children's cottage. As we age, it might be employed as a caretaker's cottage. And ultimately, as we age further and become unable to negotiate the stairs in our multi-level main house, we may move into the Barn, where all the systems are on one floor.

We think of the BrightBuilt Barn as an organic, living sytem, that sustains itself and us by continuously adapting to our ever-changing needs. It is designed to keep on adapting for generations to come.
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Friday, December 21, 2007

Foundation going in - Images from Alan Gibson

Driveway/Entry to site (barn is going ahead on left)Getting started
Walls being poured into formwork

Completed foundation walls

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

As the holidays approach, the teams at both Kaplan Thompson and Bensonwood are crunching on final drawings.

Michael Wilcox (above) at Kaplan Thompson Architects and Chris Carbonne (below) at Bensonwood work on drawings for the BrightBuilt Barn.
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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Purposes of the Project

I have the honor of being the client on this project, which mostly means that I had the original idea, although the project has by now far surpassed my original conception. I had the good fortune to fall in with an outstanding team of professionals, and the product now is far more theirs than mine. Mainly, I consider my function to be somewhat like the grain of sand, unremarkable in itself, which serves as the stimulus that rouses the oyster to make a beautiful pearl.

Since this blog is conceived as a record of the project, I thought it might be useful to give an overview of the goals. After much discussion among the team members, we have settled on the folowing:

1. Utility - it needs to serve the intended initial function, which in this case is as a workshop/studio/home office for my wife, an artist, and me. Although this point may seem obvious, having this as an explicit goal keeps us from creating a structure that is more of a science project than a useful building.

2. Sustainability - we wanted to create a structure that would contribute to a more sustainable future for the planet. This meant first, trying to reduce the carbon footprint of the structure throughout its lifecycle, from initial build through ongoing operation. We in fact have set a goal of net zero carbon emission. It also means accepting that buildings ought to have longer lifespans than the people that build them, to better amortize their embodied energy, which turns out to mean that they must be beautiful, durable, and adaptable. Beauty is a surprisingly important characterisitic, but history shows that unloved buildings are torn down early, thus wasting much of the energy it took to build them. Durability is a self-evident requirement for a long-lived building. And adaptability is important, because times change, owners change, the local environment (both built and natural) changes, so only the adaptable building will stay built. Our goal for the BrightBuilt Barn is that its core structure will continue to exist in a functional building 200 years from now, however modified from its original form by succeeding generations.

3. Replicability - our goal is to make a building that is generative - that is, one that points the way to the design and construction of structures that embody the same or similar ideas. In this context, replicability does not mean the ability to push out exact copies ( in our view, a somewhat outdated 20th-century notion of mass production), but the ability to inspire other buildings based on the same ideas, and informed by the technical solutions we have devised or employed. This vision of replicability in some ways sees the building as a meme as well as an artifact. How does a building make another building? By inspiring other people to build.

4. Affordability - we usually combine this goal with replicability, since overly costly buildings will rarely get built. Yet in practice, we spend a lot of time considering the cost implications of our solutions, so that it does not become a one-off vanity project, but one that has real-world implications.

5. Disentanglement - by this we mean the separation of structures and functions in a way that allows modification of one element without affecting others. Currently, a building is usually framed in, then the electrician strings wires wherever convenient to his/her purpose, the plumber runs pipe in the same manner, and the whole tangled mess is then walled over. Years later, if you want to move a light switch or add a bathroom, a great deal of demolition and/or trial and error is required. Since an important part of sustainability is adaptability, we believe that the sustainable house has all systems neatly separated into chases, raceways, conduits, etc., to better serve the needs of the next owner. This belief has caused us to reject some otherwise attractive solutions, such as radiant heating embedded in a concrete slab. Although a technically elegant solution to a number of issues, this type of heat inextricably entangles the flooring and the heating systems in a way that makes future modification much more difficult.

6. Education - if we take seriously our concept of building-as-meme, then our goal of replicability requires that we make public what we have done, and why, for inspection and critique by all who are interested in the same problems we have tried to address. This blog, and the larger website in which it is embedded, are one attempt to get the word out on our failures as well as our successes, in the hope that others will find them instructive.
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Monday, December 3, 2007

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Hot images

Check out these great images from Michael Wilcox in our office.

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