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Sherin Wing

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Techne: The New and Improved SketchUp

If you have ever used SketchUp, you probably really like what it does, which is basically allowing 3D viewing and modeling of everything from furniture to cities, as the website declares. At the University of Washington’s , researchers in Computer Science and Architecture have decided that SketchUp needs some additional functionality. Why? Because, as they say, while “SketchUp may displace the use of physical models in design, has not eliminated difficulties in the ad-hoc navigation of digital models by non-experts, which often occurs during design reviews.” In fact, as they see it, SketchUp’s mouse navigation requires a great deal of skill. Keyboards and mice are clunky and difficult to use when examining 3D computer models, especially for non-designers, i.e. those who are unfamiliar with using the software frequently.

Techne / HEED: Possibilities for Energy Efficient Design

While many people are familiar with UCLA as a university, because it is so large, it’s difficult to track all the different important studies conducted there. Yet many of these can directly improve the lives of people right now. Take for example the HEED, or Home Energy Efficient Design program, developed at UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Begun back in 2002, it was created to help literally everyone improve the energy efficiency of their homes. For free.

What is it? Basically, HEED provides a set of tools that help anyone and everyone re-design housing to be more energy efficient. Even better, it can be applied to both new and existing structures. And while it was initially developed for California homeowners—they were identified by their utility providers—the software has since been reconfigured so that professionals in the building industry can also use them. The software now can be used by architects, contractors, engineers, and of course, individual homeowners. This free, downloadable software incorporates several advanced features that allow both individual DIY-ers and professionals to restructure and redesign the efficiency of new and existing structures.

Techne: Zofnass and Sustainable Infrastructure

In the design industries, sustainable ratings are too often parsed for single structures. What makes this approach inefficient is precisely that it fails to account for a more comprehensive approach to promoting sustainable strategies. Moreover, what comprises “sustainable” in one rating system may be completely ignored by another. Rather than implementing such piecemeal methods, the design and building industries need to consider a ratings system that accounts for categories ranging from resource allocation to quality of life issues.

Enter the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It grew out of a studio from 2008, but the program has long since grown beyond its original vision. The program has created Envision, a voluntary certification system. Envision helps cities and infrastructures deploy sustainable strategies “for the design, delivery, and operations of large-scale urban developments and infrastructures.” To help users navigate all its features, there is a downloadable manual.

Techne: A Living Lab of Renewable Energy

Carnegie Mellon University has a building in its School of Architecture that is a lab. No, the building does not house experiments, it is the experiment. It is called the Intelligent Workplace Energy Supply System and it provides the Energy Supply System (EES) for Carnegie Mellon’s Intelligent Workplace, which is part of the School of Architecture’s Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics. It is a physical construction from 1997 that consists of offices, meeting rooms, and work spaces for faculty and students, all located atop the Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall.

What’s the goal? To study the viability of providing power, cooling, heating and ventilation to a building using thermal energy and renewable, bioDiesel fuel. The specific investigations range from design and installation to evaluation of both individual components as well as their ability to work efficiently in concert with one another. Ideally, once all this information is compiled, more comprehensive design strategies can then be identified and used by architects everywhere.

Techne - Space Pen: Drawing in 3D on the Web

With the advent and proliferation of tablets, using a pen to annotate or even sketch is becoming more and more useful, if not necessary. Enter the Space Pen. Now, you can sketch or annotate 3D models on the web. Developed at the University of Washington’s Design Machine Group, this tool provides an ideal interface with another of the group’s projects, Spot, the daylight measuring tool for architects.

Is Space Pen really as simple as it sounds? Can you really just draw and edit any 3D model? Yes. But it is not just that you can draw on any surface, it also recognizes certain basic shapes to aid in the drawing process. It also automatically renders a 3D floor plan from one’s model in real time. Another boon is the addition of a “light pen” allows users to add directional light to the drawing. It’s also free.

Techne: MIT’s Mediated Matter

The MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group is perhaps not the first choice of exploration for architects and architecture students. What does “mediated matter” have to do with the design of urban and suburban space and structures? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Because the goal of this group is to develop “novel processes that enable and support the design of physical matter,” using computer design combined with “biologically inspired fabrication.”

Below, I look at three projects developed and directed by Neri Oxman, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Professor Oxman also received her PhD in design computation from MIT.

We begin with a project that combines local and global-based knowledge as they relate to construction. The Rapid Craft project basically mines local construction designs and techniques and combines them with the latest design technologies.

Techne: The Eco-School

There are a lot of different approaches to making buildings more efficient with finite resources, and some of them have been highlighted in this series. Strategies like green roofs, passive heating and cooling, as well as more advanced technologies like newer materials to fabricate solar panels, are all important developments. And as we have seen, different architects and designers have deployed these strategies successfully. Most often, however, these strategies are just applied to a single building. It’s rare that an entire campus will be built using multiple strategies that try to re-use, preserve, and even incorporate such approaches into the curriculum.

Enter Muse, located in Calabasas, California. The brainchild of actress Suzy Amis Cameron and rebuilt by Ecovations, a design/construction/consulting firm, the school exemplifies a sustainable approach on a grander scale.

Techne - NetLogo: Easy 3D Drawing from MIT

There are admittedly many differences from architecture school and working in the profession. One major difference is that while in school, people are in a mode of exploration, and any and all tools to facilitate that exploration are welcome. By the time one reaches the stage of “doing the work,” the suite of tools becomes far more narrow: AutoCad, Revit, Ecotect (maybe), and the occasional 3D program like Rhino. And if a person decides to hang out their own shingle, the computer tools becomes even more limited because of cost issues, unless bootleg copies are something you want to risk.

Techne - See Spot Measure Daylight: Architecture Tools

The at the University of Washington is a cross-disciplinary group from the College of Built Environments and the Department of Architecture. It’s directive is to explore and develop ideas “that will shape the future of design and information technology.”

Their research projects range from fabrication tools to new ways of rendering large-scale models. Amongst the most exciting is the SPOT tool. First of all, this tool is free, so anyone, anywhere in the world can use it. And because it was developed for architects, its features have the needs of architects in mind.

Techne: Virtual Tools for CAD

Architecture professionals often agree that CAD applications, whether in the PC or Mac platforms, could use some help. Revit of course offers some dramatic improvements but not everyone uses it. So some Engineering faculty at Washington State University have come up with an alternative solution. The Virtual Reality and Computer Integrated Manufacturing Laboratory or VRCIM offers a unique solution for increasing the effectiveness of CAD-based design and visualization.

The approach is very simple: embed VR capabilities into CAD to improve the tools and effectiveness of CAD. Basically, we are discussing the ability to perform such simple tasks as visualization and tracking to complete haptics drawing within the CAD platform. This first step in improving CAD involves the construction end of projects using VR and CAD. Thus, one can envision the assembly and disassembly of projects using VR versions of mechanical tools such as wrenches and the like. And the functionality is easily adapted to haptic devices. And of course, the team has designed templates that can be easily implemented.

Techne: Educating architects with VR

Virtual Reality used to be the stuff of third-rate movies and tv shows with really fantastical plots that made one think, “how did these people get this job?” Fortunately, there are many university researchers who have constantly toiled at making real VR a useful and integral reality.

Take the VR learning site at Columbia. For anyone curious about western architecture there are some interesting structures to explore. It’s true that Columbia and the core Art History class that initially inspired this site is unfortunately Eurocentric: for example, French structures seem overrepresented.

Techne: UCLA Software

I am, admittedly, a big fan of UCLA. At least in the U.S., college loyalty begins and ends as an undergraduate and if you happen to receive your graduate degrees at the same school, well, the deal is sealed, as it were. But we’re not discussing the basketball team, here. We’re actually talking about academic programs and research.

And it just so happens that because UCLA is a research university, there is a lot of interesting research going on there. For example, at UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, there is a program that was begun back in 2002. It’s goal? To help everyone improve the energy efficiency of their homes. For free. It’s called HEED, or Home Energy Efficient Design.

What is it? Basically, it’s a set of tools that help people re-design housing to be more energy efficient. That goes for both new and existing structures. And even better, while it was initially developed for California homeowners who were identified by their utility providers—the project began in 2005—the software was restructured to serve professionals in the building industry. That means it was re-made to serve architects, contractors, engineers, and of course, the homeowner to restructure efficiency for both new and existing structures.

Techne: Thinking Microclimates

Working in a large space, at work or at school, makes one extremely sensitive to the idea of microclimates. Whether there is a skylight or window that uncomfortably irradiates the immediately surrounding area, or if there is a thermostat that just can’t be set warm enough, everyone has experienced the discomfort of the unadjustable microclimate. It’s not unusual, though it might be a bit disturbing, to see a co-worker swathed in a blanket (I’m not making that up, unfortunately), or a foot-heater discreetly tucked under a desk. Or you might be one of the unlucky persons either stuck under the artful skylight or near a south-facing, floor-to-ceiling window. That’s because most office spaces are designed for a uniform, master-control HVAC system.

It’s important not to confuse the availability of different technologies with widespread, institutionalized use because to do so is to conflate two very different issues. So while this technology may have been around in bits and pieces, it has yet to be combined into comprehensive tools. And as for implementation, many in the architecture industry have experienced the resistance to both passive and advanced energy efficient technologies.

The Indicator: Iwan Baan…On Photography

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.

-Susan Sontag, On Photography

Julius Shulman was best known for photography that envisioned architecture as art. His images distilled architecture as paeans to its central function in society. As such, Mr. Shulman created a photographic trope that either ignored people altogether or portrayed them as props that highlighted architecture’s mastery. It is thus fitting that the winner of last year’s inaugural Julius Shulman Photography Award went to a photographer whose focus some might arguably say is people.

The Indicator: Living Sustainability

Courtesy of Mark English
Courtesy of Mark English

Sustainability can be associated with wildly expensive technological advances. Which not coincidentally can immediately turn off clients.

So how do we define it? What does it mean, from a resource-conservation standpoint, as well as from a business one? For one viewpoint, we turn to Mark English, AIA. He has promoted sustainability efforts on several different levels for years. That means that not only does he incorporate sustainable strategies in his designs, he also helps other firms implement them in their work. He has been involved in programs including the California Solar Initiative, Green-point Rating, and he is also a Director on San Francisco’s AIA Board. He also edits two online publications including “Green Compliance Plus” where articles explore such topics as Passive Houses and the debate on Green Certification, and which also assists other professionals in meeting energy-efficient goals. Another publication, “The Architect’s Take,” presents news from an architectural standpoint. In fact one of those articles provided the basis for some of this author’s work.

The Indicator: Made in China

19th Century Confectionary factory, via www.bbc.co.uk
19th Century Confectionary factory, via www.bbc.co.uk

“Made in China.” For so many in Western nations, this phrase conjures up a plethora of horrific images. There is the Human Rights argument: low wages, inhumane working conditions, and so forth. Then there is the issue of quality, as in, there is none.

First let’s talk about human rights in terms of manufacturing. The favored discourse is that Chinese factories exploit their employees and hence the resultant quality of the goods is far inferior. Sensational stories that support this conclusion always seem to cross international lines. Moreover, there are basic protestations of Human Rights’ violations and then the specter of Tibet is raised.

The Indicator: Learning from IBM

The Economist has some really interesting articles on doing business. The latest are on the 100th anniversary of IBM and another which measures the success of multinational business vs. philanthropy in changing society for the better. IBM came out the winner in the latter one. Not, however, because it is a multinational corporation but because of the way it does business. IBM treats its employees well which directly shapes its influence on the larger, now global, community. Moreover, while many think of IBM as a “tech” company and its stock is often listed as such, IBM actually categorizes itself as a service company.

There are five major strategies that have ensured IBM’s ability to withstand the vicissitudes of a dynamic business sector, three of which directly apply to architecture firms. First, IBM puts its customers first and foremost. They do this by using a significant number of their employees to foster and maintain client relationships. That makes it more difficult for other companies to poach their customers. Why? Because those other companies don’t think developing and keeping clients happy is a good use of their resources, i.e. employees. IBM knows better. Clients trust them precisely because of their long relationship. So when clients need something, they turn to IBM. That means a steady client-base of loyal customers who in turn recommend IBM to their clients and friends.

The Indicator: The $5000 House

The best of architects is not that they can use cool software or design buildings, or even that they can help create interesting spaces. If you think back to your school days, the best of architecture was problem-solving. You were given a challenge and then you had to think of good ways to address those challenges. That included addressing social, cultural, racial, environmental, and not least, spatial, needs.

Given the opportunity, architects use a myriad of tools and critical thinking skills to solve many different problems, not just strictly spatial ones. In fact, years ago, Guy Horton and I discussed the possibility of starting a round table or a colloquium, to brainstorm on different issues with others both in architecture and other academic fields, and to offer possible solutions.

More after the break.