Building as a Verb: Designing a Building That Works Harder for You

What do you get when you throw 60 young architects into a room for 10 days and teach them new parametric software tools, concepts about bio-inspired design, and give them a bunch of servo-motors, sensors and actuators to play with? Well, you get some pretty excited designers, for one thing, and you get some pretty interesting results, for another.  

I spoke about bio-inspired design recently to the international participants of such a workshop, Biodynamic Structures, hosted by the California College of the Arts (CCA) and the Architectural Association of London. The purpose of the workshop was to explore the integration of new ideas and technology in the design of better buildings. Can learning more about materials, biology and robotics inspire productively innovative designs? The participants were there to find out in a hands-on approach that included building their own working mechanisms.  

Their creations ranged from a ceiling that changed shape when stimulated by noise, to a wall that responded to the presence of people, to a light-activated hydraulic partition, to structural columns that mimicked the distribution of trees and branches in a forest. All were creative and ambitious, and all were developed with that breakneck reflection peculiar to architects in a charrette.  

Why is this important to any business? A “smarter” building will make you money, and just might help save your kids and grandkids from living like astronauts on a dead planet. Half of the world's population now lives in urban areas. Buildings and infrastructure in North America account for about 40 percent of material consumption and about a third of energy use. Saving energy, manpower and materials through the use of real-time building information is a business trend that will continue unabated and is reason alone to embrace this long-term strategy. 

There is an additional architectural trend, in my opinion, that may become as compelling. It is not in stride yet, but is evidenced in myriad developments in other technologies and in the nascent design efforts of young architects such as these at universities and firms around the world. It is the growing design focus on the human/machine interface. Unlike past utopian (or dystopian) dreamers, however, proponents seek to make the mechanistic more organic, rather than the other way 'round. The key to this approach, of course, is biomimetics and our greater capacity to understand nature. 

A more functionally organic building will be able to do more things. In other words, it will be a “verb,” and the distinction between shelter and tool will become blurred as workers make use of the material structure around them to communicate, transport, inform and manipulate in both individual and collective ways. One needs only to look at the revolution in personal communication to appreciate the steep trajectory of change possible for buildings and the people sheltered within. 

Professor Jason Johnson thinks that this kind of workshop represents the new trend toward “dynamism.” He sees a growing shift from the making of forms based on a discrete aesthetic, to forms that are “more continuous, interactive with the user, and that allow (themselves) to be modulated by the users. In the past, the users have been the 'actuators,' but now buildings will be more responsive and allow participation with users. Instead of users chasing the building, the building will begin to understand you.” 

Architects have long advocated good design as a path to better human performance: Efficient layouts, well-considered circulation, etc. What if your building not only made you more efficient, but also made you smarter? I doubt augmented reality, for example, will be contained for very long within small, hand-held devices. The opportunity for architects (and those benefiting from their designs) is unclear but it will be unique to buildings. 

Only within buildings can the electronic extension of self now include a collective experience that directly relates to the physical environment. Several elements of a new approach to architecture were on display at this very successful event: Buildings as responsive mechanisms, nature as a model for these mechanisms, the use of advanced CAD modeling methods for design, and the integration of electronics into typically static scale models. 

Participants were trained in several parametric modeling methods like Rhino and Grasshopper, treated to lectures by George Jeronimidis, a pioneer in European biomimetics and director of the Center for Biomimetics at the U.K.'s University of Reading, and Michael Weinstock, director of the Emergent Technologies Programme at the Architectural Association and author of “The Architecture of Emergence: The Evolution of Form in Nature and Civilization."