Wednesday, February 01, 2006

thesis toughts and Architectural Record

Technology transfer remains a nascent movement,
but more architects take up the challenge
By Lynn Ermann

In 1999 Mike Skura, vice president of architectural design at CTEK, a company that specializes in prototype glass for cars and airplanes, was startled by a phone call from architect Frank Gehry. "He said he had searched high and low for someone to do complex, compound curved glass," recalls Skura, "and wanted to know if we could do it." They had to try, of course. Skura broke a lot of glass struggling to bend large sheets into the tight curves of the Gehry-designed, glass-enclosed cafeteria in the Condé Nast headquarters in New York, but the eventual success solidified a partnership between Skura and Gehry and their separate industries. After that, CTEK got so many calls from architects for glass projects that it introduced a separate architectural division to accommodate the huge demand for complex, curved architectural safety glass.

By searching outside the confines of standard construction-industry methods and materials to find a business that supplies the automotive and aerospace industries, Gehry engaged in what is called technology transfer—simply the movement of processes or materials from one industry to another. (Of course, he had already made that leap with his much-publicized adaptation of CATIA—aerospace design software—to help rationalize the exotic geometries of his buildings.)

Technology transfer is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it's increasingly widespread in all industries, facilitated by both the Internet and federal legislation. The Space Act of 1958 required NASA to make its discoveries and inventions available to private industry. Early imports into the consumer marketplace from the aerospace industry included power drills, medical devices, Velcro, and Mylar. Countless other inventions have come from the military, including plastics, titanium, the earliest computers, rockets, and transistor radios, to name a few. Since 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities, not-for-profits, and small businesses to have ownership of inventions created with government funds, technology-transfer facilities have sprung up at universities across the country. Legislation in 1980 and 1986 made all federal laboratory scientists and engineers responsible for technology transfer, while over 700 laboratories were gathered under one umbrella organization, the National Technology Transfer Center.

Studio as laboratory
A renewed interest in materials and processes may also be related to the imaginative, fluid forms made possible by sophisticated software programs, especially in university architecture programs. "We feel we can control materials more now," observes Ron Witte, an associate professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design (GSD). Osram Sylvania, for example, one of the largest manufacturers of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), has sponsored LED studios at the GSD for research, while scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories have worked with students to produce aerogel tiles from a solid form of the material.

Architecture schools that are closely allied with engineering programs tend to have more financial support for technology-transfer explorations. The Illinois Institute of Technology's (IIT) direction is particularly promising: The architecture program requires all undergraduates to take an Inter-Professional Curriculum (IPRO)—a series of courses that require students from different disciplines to work together on "real-life" projects. One such project for Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) in Chicago had the students focus on the integration of energy-saving elements into SOM's newly designed convention center in Phoenix. The IPRO teams investigated the effect of using a building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) system, particularly in the exterior walls. The results were positive and provide an example of how IPRO-generated innovations have spawned a strong relationship with IIT's technology-transfer department.

Slow but steady change
The introduction of unusual materials to architecture is incremental. In the near future, technology transfer will find its way increasingly into the development of more efficient construction methods and processes, such as factory-built components. "For the most part, exteriors are still glass, steel, and concrete. A builder is more likely to use a new lamination process borrowed from the auto industry or a joint from the sailing industry than to incorporate a totally revolutionary material or process," speculates Andrew Dent, director of the New York–based Material Connexion, a library of over 3,000 carefully reviewed innovative materials, including foams, fiberglass weaves, and photovoltaics.

There are other embedded obstacles. According to Mike Skura, part of the problem stems from the fact that insurance policies are not lenient, and there's a chain of liability that can result in expensive litigation if materials or systems fail. There are also issues of regulation. For instance, national testing requirements generally dictate that materials be tested and rated for flammability only, but local testing regulations around the country can be more restrictive.

And yet there are success stories. Even before the experimental Gehry found a company to bend glass for him, New York–based FTL Design Engineering Studio was emerging as a hybrid practice—part design, part engineering, part R&D, all innovation. Twenty-five years ago, Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, and Todd Dalland, FAIA, founded FTL to pioneer lightweight, tensile-structure design and other fabrication technologies. According to Goldsmith, this pursuit has less to do with inventing technologies than with finding new applications for existing ones, which is another definition of technology transfer. "We didn't invent photovoltaics," says Goldsmith. "But we did figure out a way to embed them into tensile structures." This transfer, of course, is not a simple or risk-free one. FTL conducts extensive analysis with its customized software and uses digital simulations to model the performance of materials and complex fabrication techniques.

More recently, CTEK's Skura and New York architect Joel Sanders designed a prototype for a chain of budget hotels in London called easyDorm. Prefabricated fiberglass units will be installed in the shells of gutted buildings. Mass customization allows the unit costs and maintenance costs of the hotels to be reduced so that the savings can be delivered to the customer. The modular system facilitates ease of installation, allowing the length and width of the rooms to be modified according to the dimensions of a given building or site. In rehab conditions, the system is not constrained by exterior window/wall configurations: A prefab translucent window/wall panel built behind the existing façade allows the transmission of borrowed light. The prefab components can be easily assembled on-site using local, standard construction methods and materials.

In another example of applied technology transfer, architect Christian Mitman was experimenting with a metal mesh created by a honeycomb process first used in the aerospace industry when he became so enamored of it that he developed a whole line of panels. Trademarked as Panelite, it was first used in interiors, but is now used in high-profile outdoor commissions, such as Rotterdam-based architect Rem Koolhaas's curtain wall for a new student center on the IIT campus, a panel that lets in natural light while muffling the rumblings of a nearby elevated train. Mitman's company has now progressed from adapting materials from other industries to developing them in-house, including a proprietary panel for the Koolhaas-designed Prada stores, as well as mica laminates and structural fabrics.

Technology-transfer advocates, Philadelphia-based architects Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and James Timberlake, FAIA, (page 34) are convinced that technology transfer will eventually change the way buildings are designed and constructed. "Our hope," says Kieran, "is that there will be regular affiliations and alliances with materials scientists and product engineers, working together as models of collective intelligence, making large parts of buildings in high-quality, controlled settings, using materials they're not using now, purposeful materials, not just collections of neat-looking materials."

Images courtesy of FTL Design Engineering Studio

FTL Design Engineering Studio applied its expertise in lightweight, flexible structures to design (in collaboration with Honeywell and Clemson University) an inflatable airlock for NASA. The two-layer fabric container (click above to see) is made of about 180 pounds of fabric sandwiched on either end by metal hatches that together weigh about 3,200 pounds. On other earthbound fronts, with its eye on the future, the firm has developed a recyclable, portable skyscraper (above) with the innovative use of standard clip-on construction methods, borrowing event-industry stackable toilets (click above to see), and housing the infrastructure and HVAC systems in truck trailers on the ground.

Images courtesy of Illinois Institute of Technology

At the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), students must participate in the Inter-Professional Curriculum (IPRO) program—a semester-long, multidisciplinary research and design studio that emphasizes “real-world” scenarios. The team project shown here focused on integrating energy-saving building components for a new convention center in Phoenix, designed by SOM. The group investigated applying Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) systems, particularly in the exterior walls.

Images courtesy of CTEK

CTEK has extended its capability as a supplier of complex safety glass to the automotive and aerospace industries (see Ford’s Forty-Nine Dream, click photo above) to create complex contoured forms for innovative architectural applications. Gensler chose CTEK to manufacture glass landscaping boulders (click above) for a theater and retail complex in Hollywood. CTEK made templates based on real rocks and coated the final pieces with its proprietary weatherproofing resin. CTEK has also done a building system and cladding study for a new Frank Gehry sculpture (above), which will eventually be covered in titanium shingles.

Images courtesy of Joel Sanders Architects

EasyDorm is fabricated out of prefab modular mix-and-match panels (shower, toilet, sink, bed/storage, and flex-strip) that combine to create two standard room types. This kit-of-parts permits the fabrication of customized units as well. Materials are high-performance and easy- to-clean. Waterproof fiberglass, painted in the company’s signature orange, is used in wet and high-traffic areas. Mattresses and cushions are wrapped in durable vinyl. When guests depart the entire room can be wiped clean with only a damp cloth.

Images courtesy of Fran Pollit

Panelite is a remarkable bonded sandwich construction using aerospace technology. The honeycomb cells act like the web of an I-beam, making the panels resistant to deflection. Panelite’s in-house material development division researches, creates, and tests new materials. It also collaborates with designers to develop efficient fabrication processes, such as the two New York projects shown here: govWorks (above) by A + I Design and a loft (Click to above see) by Archi-tectonics.


Unitized Systems Are Raising the Level and
Complexity of Curtain-Wall Design
Factory-built components let architects achieve the quality clients now demand

By Sara Hart

Facade engineering has always been science. Now it’s art, too. As reported in this magazine last August, a building’s skin is no longer a passive wrapper articulated with spandrels, mullions, and low-e glazing. Because of growing client demands and technological innovations, making a curtain wall now requires a team of collaborators—designers, engineers, and fabricators. The linear path to creation has been supplanted by integrated teamwork.

A staircase behind the Burberry facade creates a zone that enlivens the showrooms for several floors, blurring the line between inside and out.
Photography: © Chun Lai Photography

This developing paradigm of collaboration is the logical consequence of a shift away from so-called stick building to unitized systems, especially in those projects that require small margins of error and demand a high level of craftsmanship. Whereas in stick construction everything is done in the field, as raw materials are processed and assembled on-site, much of unitized construction takes place off-site. The facade is engineered as a system of components, which are fabricated in the controlled environment of a factory or workshop. The components are shipped to the site, where they are usually hoisted into place by cranes and connected to each other.

Unitized construction is particularly well suited to the demand for high thermal performance, weather tightness, and increasingly, quality detailing. Although quite different in program and execution, the success of all three projects discussed here depended on a close collaboration among all the disciplines.

Written on the wall

Burberry, the London-based haberdashery founded in 1856, is so well branded by its signature check pattern of camel, black, red, and white that the clothes need no other brand identification. In New York City, where there is an epidemic of high-end, high-concept flagship stores, the dignified purveyor wanted a competitive presence on tony 57th Street without the flashy demeanor of Niketown across the street, yet as elegant as the opalescent LVMH tower a few doors east.

Burberry, New York City

At the Seele factory in Gersthofen, Germany, architects, engineers, and fabricators collaborated to detail the metal-mesh sections (right, far right). Eventually, the mesh was changed from steel to aluminum to reduce the weight of the wall. Seele determined that X-bracing (above) was needed to stiffen the members. The team built prototypes to study the connections.

Burberry commissioned the New York office of Gensler to create an envelope to enclose the elegant interiors crafted by interior designer Randall A. Ridless [record, March 2003, page 203]. The site of the new building consisted of the shells of adjoining town houses, the former location of fashion house Escada, and the current, aging and inadequate Burberry flagship.

Burberry, New York City

At the Seele factory in Gersthofen, Germany, architects, engineers, and fabricators collaborated to detail the metal-mesh sections (right, far right). Eventually, the mesh was changed from steel to aluminum to reduce the weight of the wall. Seele determined that X-bracing (above) was needed to stiffen the members. The team built prototypes to study the connections.

Before the “gymnastics of making two facades into one”—as the challenge was described by design principal Lance Boge, AIA—could begin, the architects had to investigate the integrity of the two independent shells, each one a structural hodgepodge, the result of decades of renovations. “There were three or four different types of construction,” says Belinda Watts, project manager for the envelope and structural renovation, and the problem was further complicated by the fact that the floor plates in the two structures did not line up.

The architects evaluated different ways the two buildings could be combined to meet the client’s growing needs. The resulting feasibility study summarized five options, ranging from the demolition of the existing buildings and the construction of a new medium- to high-rise tower to a minor renovation that would leave the dividing party wall intact. Analysis showed that a new building would require a long construction schedule and high capital expenditures. Due to a compressed time frame, the architects ruled out razing the stores and chose to perform a radical renovation instead, which included demolishing the structural masonry party wall and replacing it with a series of steel columns and beams to support the new floors. The redundancy of services—elevators, stairwells, bathrooms, and storage—could then be eliminated, capturing more square footage for the sales floors.

Gensler created a refined, layered facade for the Burberry flagship store in Midtown Manhattan out of Magny stone, clear glass, and bronze-colored aluminum. The partially unitized curtain-wall grid was manufactured in a factory in Germany (above).

Finally, with a plan to fuse the existing buildings into one, the architects could turn their focus onto creating a refined but visually animated facade. The complexity of this problem cannot be overstated. In typical New York infill buildings, the facade is often a generic curtain wall that repeats the rhythms of its neighbors and addresses the streetscape with varying degrees of distinction. Because of the stature of the client, Gensler’s mandate was more difficult. For Burberry, company image and urban context had to blend effortlessly.

From the onset, Gensler pursued the facade design as the expression of the iconic Burberry check, while understanding that the image had to represent a modern, revitalized purveyor of luxury goods. “It’s hard to take one context and reinvent it in another medium—the warp and weave of fabric to glass and steel,” explains Boge. Countless iterations yielded a sophisticated, asymmetrical, and layered grid, which was eventually rendered in Magny Jaune stone, glass, and bronze-colored metal mesh. Needless to say, there was a lot riding on—and written on—this facade, so craftsmanship in its execution became a significant priority.

The facades consist of a unitized structural, silicone-glazed curtain-wall system, assembled off-site in modules (below left). Stainless steel and granite clad the envelope of this building. Vertical marine-grade stainless-steel fins (left and below) project through the structurally bonded glazing to create strong vertical elements on the facade.

Gensler enlisted Dewhurst Macfarlane, a structural engineering firm headquartered in London with an office in New York, to act as the curtain-wall consultant. Its facade-design group is known for innovative solutions for glass envelopes. Their primary role was to ensure that the facade was fully engineered before bidding the job, in order to stress the high level of craftsmanship to the bidders. The German curtain-wall fabricator Seele GmbH won the bid with a proposal for a modified unitized system. “Other bidders’ proposals were for more of a standard system approach, with room perhaps for some customization,” says Carlos Espinosa, project architect. Had they gone the standard route, “We would have had a very different facade,” he explains.

The facades consist of a unitized structural, silicone-glazed curtain-wall system, assembled off-site in modules (below left). Stainless steel and granite clad the envelope of this building. Vertical marine-grade stainless-steel fins (left and below) project through the structurally bonded glazing to create strong vertical elements on the facade.

Before the bids even went out, though, Gensler explored the limitations of the materials by making several mock-ups in a local ornamental metal shop. The team had chosen a mesh metal for the larger grid, and they wanted to see how it would bend. “If not for the thermal and structural requirements of the facade, it could have been fabricated in an ornamental metal shop, because elements were that thin and precisely detailed,” explains Belinda Watts. Mock-ups and experimentation continued at Seele’s plant in Gersthofen, Germany, where Seele, Dewhurst Macfarlane, and Gensler worked out the detailing together. Eventually the steel mesh became aluminum to reduce the weight, and bracing was added to make it rigid.

Unitized systems have another advantage. The Burberry site had almost no space for staging. When all the materials arrived, they had to be immediately installed or erected. The curtain-wall components arrived in batches that corresponded to the erection sequence of top to bottom. Tolerances were tighter than normally seen in U.S. construction, not greater than 3¼4 inch overall for alignments to base building and adjacent structures, but then shrunk to a few millimeters for the mullion system. The result of such finesse (matching the quality of the interiors) is a delicate scrim that evokes the iconic Burberry check without mimicking it.

Facade on delivery

George’s Quay is a commercial office development in central Dublin, Ireland, designed by Dublin-based Keane Murphy Duff Architecture for Cosgrave Developments. Buro Happold Facade Engineering, the international consulting engineering firm with offices worldwide, designed what it claims is the first example of a fully glazed, preassembled facade in Ireland, which required close supervision of collaborating local and international building-envelope contractors.

George’s Quay, Dublin, Ireland

Stainless-steel louvres clad seven pyramidal penthouse suites that form the roofline. The glass is coated in pure silver, which reduces heat gain and glare while giving a sheen to the building. The section shows the louvers and the inward-opening hopper vents that allow natural ventilation to be controlled locally.

The structural silicone glazing (SSG) was factory-installed. It was clear in this case that bonding double-glazed units to an inboard aluminum framework of horizontal and stainless-steel vertical mullions was best done in the clean and controllable environment of the shop. Over the past 30 years, structural sealants have earned a reputation for reliability, given that in many cases, such as during earthquakes, they have prevented glass from falling. Structural sealants also protect against other outdoor environmental factors such as sunlight, thermal changes, water, and atmospheric pollutants. “The silicone, therefore, acts structurally to hold the glazing in place, resisting positive and negative wind pressures,” explains Winser. “The vertical load of the glass, however, must always be supported by discreet supports sited along the glass unit’s bottom edge.”

Does unitized construction cost more than stick built? “Not necessarily,” is the answer from Winser. “This procurement strategy is not unusual for preassembled facade systems, as shipping costs are very competitive, and the cladding industry supply chain is fairly fragmented. It is the responsibility of the cladding contractor to organize this logistical network. In Ireland, this challenge is exacerbated by the lack of expertise with this type of preassembled facade system. Hence the partnering arrangement with a U.S. company [Kawneer].”

The hybrid solution

One Plantation Place is a multitenant development in central London, and at over one million square feet, it is unusually large for that part of town. In contrast to the Burberry and George’s Quay projects, the client here, the British Land Company, was very specific about function and maximum flexibility, as it expected to attract up to 70 individual tenants.

The program mandated that Arup Associates, the international engineering firm’s full-service architecture subsidiary, provide the highest quality of internal air quality, with the additional requirement that the design must accommodate the particular needs of a variety of tenants. Facade design, then, played a major role in providing flexibility while regulating the internal environment, which, in addition to air quality, addressed the need for maximum daylight penetration.

Plantation Place, London, England

Two Plantation Place (above) is sealed and air-conditioned. However, air-conditioning intakes are as high as possible in order to maximize the freshness of the outdoor air. CFD modeling helped determine the environmental conditions throughout the year in both buildings. Blinds incorporated in the wall cavity are opened and closed by local photo sensors. Wind sensors lift the blinds in windy conditions to protect them from damage.

Whereas the facades for Burberry and George’s Quay are best described as unitized high performance, Arup facade engineers chose an unusual strategy for Plantation Place. They created a hybrid curtain wall—or perhaps a series of independent systems—that acknowledges that the environmental conditions existing at street level are different from those at the upper floors. For instance, the base of the building is sealed by a high-performance system and fully air-conditioned. It made no sense to promote natural ventilation where floor plates were too deep for fresh air to circulate through, and where the noise from the traffic would be uncomfortably loud. However, mechanical engineer Michael Beaven notes that, while he assumes the windows will remain closed, they are indeed operable, reflecting a cautious optimism that we may enjoy “silent, clean transport in the future.”

According to Russell Winser, project engineer, “preassembly ensures superior workmanship, because all fabrication is undertaken off-site in a factory-controlled environment. This type of system also allows the facade to be assembled independently of the on-site works, thereby mitigating overall building program risks. Also, there is no need for external scaffolding, as the preassembled units can be lifted into position using a floor-mounted crane.”

Unitized construction is often a global effort. Winser explains, “The aluminum framing sections were fabricated in Toronto and shipped to Dublin, while the double-glazing units were fabricated in Cork (using high-performance glass sheets—that is, coated with an invisible solar-control layer, made in Germany). Glazing units and framing members were finally assembled in Dublin and then delivered directly to site. Architectural Aluminum (AA), a Dublin-based cladding company, fabricated and installed the curtain wall.” Although AA had overall responsibility for the glazing system, detailing of how individual components fit together was developed by a separate contractor, Kawneer Special Projects, based in the U.S.

Above the seventh floor, where the building begins to clear the surrounding buildings, Arup introduced a double-skin facade. Above the noise and carbon monoxide, it exploited the potential for natural ventilation and maximum daylighting, while remembering the client’s instructions to give tenants options. Generally, a double-skin system consists of an external screen, a ventilated cavity, and an internal screen. Solar shading is placed in the ventilated cavity. The external and internal screens can be monolithic glass or a double-glazed unit; the depth of the cavity and the type of ventilation depend on environmental conditions, the desired envelope performance, and the overall design of the building, including systems.

The ventilation in the cavity can be either natural (buoyancy driven), forced (mechanically driven), or mixed (both natural and forced). The direction of the airflow (upward or downward) depends on the type of ventilation and the general system design. The internal screen can be operable for cleaning and maintenance. Depending on the system design, an operable inner screen allows for natural ventilation of the indoor environment.

Two Plantation Place is a separate, but connected, 10-story building—a discrete element of the larger Plantation Place scheme—and it adheres to some of the principles developed for the site as a whole, while establishing a clearly distinct identity for itself. The building is linked through its entrance to established public routes. Its massing is derived from its prominent corner location and the architects’ desire to respond to the surrounding context without losing the building’s visual and functional obligation to the greater whole. The use of load-bearing masonry in the perimeter wall is an innovative approach to the energy-led requirement of minimizing glazed area in similar office buildings. In terms of environmental control, this project is much more complex than the other two. Embedded with wind and photo sensors for natural ventilation, the facades have a certain autonomy because they can operate independently from the other building systems.

These three projects show decisively that “unitized” does not mean “uniform.” Each is very different from the others. Burberry’s strategy was explicitly tied to the craftsmanship associated with the Burberry brand. The designs of George’s Quay and Performance Place, being speculative projects, were driven by client demand for flexibility and energy conservation. In virtually all cases, when “high performance” is the demand, “unitized construction” in a controlled environment will continue to be the answer.



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