Ipso Prestbro | from Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel

ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) 2016 last November was, as expected, the busiest, bustlingest building industry event in the Northeast.

And yet by closing day November 17, the aftershock of the national election had cast a pall over this liberal city, a gritty, torpid weather insinuating itself into the chasms of its convention center. Architects between workshops trooped past the exhibits, thoroughly glazed, emotionally whacked, assiduously avoiding eye contact with vendors, who themselves were beginning to fade after three days on their feet meeting and greeting

“Why bother with eco-engineered wood products when the top gun insists climate change itself is a hoax?” asked one ordinarily upbeat attendee. How about Rem Koolhaas’s oft-tweeted critique about there having been too much emphasis in the profession on designing cities at the expense of rural, red state areas? What meaning to give the national AIA and its “tone deaf” position, followed by a video apology, asked others.

Where, then, was the joy of creation? Had the Design Muse herself somehow flown the coop, snuck off before closing with a handcart to her van in the Harborside parking lot, there to sail for parts unknown? Hardly — she was right there all along, gamboling within an arched pavilion on the right side of the Exhibit Hall.

“See, it jiggles, it’s got the J-factor!” exclaimed a spokesperson for Make Tank, the group behind the project, shaking its spokes and hubs for good measure. Indeed, the irony was not lost on most observers: an arch, the very symbol of power and permanence was now rockin’ an’ rollin’ like Chuck Berry at the Roxy, as perhaps no structure that had gone before.

“Tessellation patterns like Bucky Fuller’s dome studies with their rigid hubs require a lot of complex math to figure the angles. We wanted to know, could we use flexible connections, nodes that can accommodate various load paths, allowing the arch can find its natural angles?” said architect and MakeTank founder Brad Prestbo, 43, about what makes the structure unique. Prestbo’s day job is heading up the Technical Resources Group of Sasaki Associates in nearby Watertown, Mass., and in Shanghai.

Sasaki Associates itself has a proud history of multi-disciplinary innovation, going back to the landscape architect and planner Hideo Sasaki (1919-2000) who gave New York City one of its first pocket parks. Why the Town of Lexington, Mass., where this modern master once lived and Prestbo now happens to live, has found it necessary to rip up the centerscape Sasaki so carefully designed is anyone’s guess. Design Muse, where art thou now that the pall has mushroomed far beyond ABX and the Boston Convention Center?

In June, The Boston Society of Architects, sponsors of the ABX show, gave Prestbo its brief: create a pavilion that exemplifies the latest in think/make culture, do it in a 10 x 20 footprint, and do it in three months. Fast, as in Ipso Prestbo!

And one other thing: when you call for volunteers, if less than eight show, forget it. “So, we had over 40 show at that first meeting,” said Prestbo. “Everyone saw the opportunity to build rather than just talk about building. We held charrettes, pinning up different tensile structures. We even had a Brontosaurus. Though people started calling me Captain Buzzkill, it was very important that the design process not be the Brad show. We were careful to encourage lots of voting, nominations and seconding of nominations.”

While Prestbo’s daughter and a succession of others gleefully scaled the arch, it would collapse under the weight of 200-pound guys, springing up again with a little re-jiggling. The profile of the nodes became critical to holding the form, key to making it flexible but not so flexible the whole thing would collapse. Prestbo and his Merry Make/Tankers started out using pourable silicone to cast the nodes, but found that the silicone wouldn’t bond properly to plywood. Polyurethane, however, loved plywood. A shot of styrene at the center of 150 nodes added just enough to make it possible to control the degree of flex.

Once MakeTankers realized lap joints between the plywood slats would wiggle themselves apart in such a dynamic structure, they used a CNC cutting machine to fashion ingenious spring-lock connectors. If the Brontosaurus was ruled out, these multitudes of large-jawed mini-crocodiles took up the slack. “They were something a woodworker could never do,” Presto said. Wood blocks, in case you were wondering, stabilized the arch’s feet.

If the Design Muse seemed non-committal at post-election ABX 2016, she, or he, made its presence known to Prestbo early on. Around Princeton, N.J. where Prestbo grew up, Toll Brothers and other homebuilders were rushing in, buying up farmland, and turning them into acres of construction sites.

“Toll made a big playground for us,” recalled Prestbo, “with real trucks, giant mounds of dirt, skeletons of houses we converted into fortresses. Later, when I was around 16, I started hanging out with the crews building the frames, asked a lot of questions, while pointing out what I felt were ‘mistakes.’ Fortunately, the crews were tolerant. And also, by that time in high school, I started working for an architectural firm, stacking blueprints, filing product literature and other sexy stuff. ‘This can’t be what being an architect is like,’ I told myself.”

Indeed, at Syracuse’s School of Architecture, the Design Muse began revealing her joyous, make/think side for real, bodying forth at the tail end of a studio session. “Our professor had us construct a model of a single-family home with 4” x 4” cubes, using X-Acto blades and rulers. He then proceeded to take everyone’s first cubes and put them through a form. Either they were too loose or too big. Really getting the thickness of the material in your hands was key. Only two of us got it right; a guy who eventually dropped out and myself.”

After five years at Perry, Dean, Rogers, highlighted by a collaboration with Stephen Holl on MIT’s Simmons Hall, Prestbo joined Sasaki where he’s been for the past fourteen years. But, as in those high school days filing blueprints, the Design Muse played hard to get. “Sasaki was trying to find a place for me. I was just a drafter, or project architect. Then one day, about ten years ago, one of the partners took me aside. He said he’d been watching me, and noticed that I had a real knack for helping younger people succeed. That’s how I see our Technical Resources Group, as a platform help people grow.

“For the longest time, we were married to Revit. For new hires this was tough. They’d already spent five years learning Rhino/Grasshopper for shape making, an under-utilized ecosystem of zoo animals. All those skills were atrophying — which I saw as a missed opportunity. I started championing a Visual Programming Practice, but the upper management remained firm,” Prestbo explained. Then, finally, Sasaki’s intransigent BIM manager left. Once again, recalling Asher Benjamin and the Master Builder days of yore, fabrication came to itself as an integral part of the design process, but now equipped with high-tech tools.

Now prototypes regularly emerge from Prestbo’s FabLab, where computationally rich programming breaks everything down into easily made components, from park benches to pavilions, even a chicken coop in Sasaki’s backyard garden. “The prototypes allow us to test things out first and at the same time increase client engagement while decreasing their fears,” said Prestbo.

If this is Captain Buzzkill, a gentler, more-ready-to-be-helpful giant would be hard to find. And as for his Merry MakeTankers, had the Design Muse texted about what’s for ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) 2017, or has the Design Muse set her heart on jiggling a red state out the West?

Is There Life Beyond Sustainability?

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA

The 140-bed hospital complex stops time, like a long-lost friend you run into where you’d least expect to. In such a surprise occurrence, past and future appear to come to a standstill.

Here, just outside Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, it’s impossible to ignore that the site once held a police outpost in the whirlwind of mass murder.

Kaleidoscopic images of those days in 1994 bring forth anguish and terror as if they were happening today. At the same time, in this stillness, one can’t help but rejoice at the sight of the new hospital building and the national, multi-ethnic renaissance it embodies. Read more

Mix Master

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA 2016

In his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, studio last year Charles Goldman was reading the New York Times. After weighing its symbolic value as a “spreader of information,” he launched a series of “plop sculptures” out of mashed issues of the Times. “Then I left a bucket overnight by accident,” Goldman recalls. “In the morning I kicked it over. The contents had become solid, and I kicked them out of the bucket.”

Charles Goldman

At that point, Goldman realized he had happened upon a building block of recycled waste— “in fact,” he says, “an entire building system.” He could replace sand and gravel with his own recipe of newspapers, CDs, dryer lint, junk mail, electrical wire, Styrofoam packing, Latex paint chips, and credit cards mixed with 5% Portland cement to make…Re>Crete.

Two weeks ago, Fast Company published a piece that asked Andrew Dent, the curator of Material Connection, the world’s largest materials library, for some recommendations on the latest and greatest. Right up there with advanced 3-D printing compounds, environmentally friendly ceiling tiles, and multi-color chrome coatings, Dent proposed Re>Crete as one of the 11 Exciting New Materials Designers Should Watch. Since then the article has gained ever-greater traction online, with architects and engineers calling Goldman at his studio, hoping to turn his conceptual product into something they can use in the concrete sense.

And why, indeed, not?

C&D (Construction and Demolition) debris amounted to 534 million tons in the US in 2014, the last time the EPA counted, 70% of which was concrete, with an additional 14% asphalt concrete. That’s a lot, more than enough to keep a conscientious architect up at night, while inviting the possibility of regulatory pushback.

“I don’t have an end-game in mind,” Goldman says. “People call and I’m interested in seeing what happens.  Re>Crete uses what’s around, what’s local, and it can adapt to many uses. Here in Brooklyn, it’s one thing. In India, I can imagine it would be quite another, a very different recipe. As such, it’s very much a 21st-century adobe. I see it used for home building, or high-end furniture, 3-D printing of entire cities using Re>Crete, or perhaps I’ll simply make the molds along with the recipe” he adds, standing between the cement mixer, paper shredder, and wood chipper in his yard. The chipper, he explains, is for the Styrofoam packing.

The mixer churns all the ingredients for an hour before the concoction is poured. Early tomorrow morning, in fact, Goldman, 50-ish, will go out hunting through the streets of Brooklyn with Banks, his German Shephard mix, filling his backpack and occasionally his little white Toyota pickup with more junk to feed the machines in his yard. He will then head into Manhattan where he has been teaching art at Parsons for the past nine years.

“Newspapers and junk mail are pretty easy to find,” he says, “but CDs, wires, and credit cards are harder. If I see a pair of hot pink headphones lying in the street, I pick it up right away. Now that my friends know what I’m looking for they call with leads. I’ve even thought of turning the front of my studio into a collection station and designing special collection carts.” As Goldman told Steve Davison writing in Art-Hack last summer, those collection carts may come in handy in a post-apocalyptic world, “where we are forced to create our natural resources out of the detritus of civilizations that came before.”

Before we get to that scary place, the question remains how to bring Re>Crete from the conceptual stage to the construction phase. Baby step one occurred with an exhibit, residency, and research program called Charles Goldman: Re>Crete> (Factory) at UMass Amherst’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Young sculptors, engineers, and environmental scientists teamed up to see if Re>Crete could be manufactured on a consistent basis. Goldman found himself having to change from right brain to left brain, a feat he says he enjoyed. To make what he considers a concrete version of Eskimo ice blocks, he realized the molds had to be a lot stiffer. And while that stiffness was achievable, getting the blocks to weigh the same presented a greater hurdle. His hunch is that letting the blocks set in winter cold may have thrown off the results.

Goldman is also quick to point out that Re>Crete doesn’t come out smooth like regular concrete. If the cement ratio is off just a bit, one ends up with pockmarks, the building blocks of 21st-century ruins. Concrete and its minimalist surfaces have appealed to Goldman since he was a kid growing up in Berkeley. There he first encountered modernist architecture, Mario Campi’s 1970 “Brutalist” art museum of 1970, now gravely imperiled. “I first went to look at the paintings,” he recalls, “but then found the building itself was far more interesting.”

Later, in the 1980s, Goldman combined his early interest in minimalism and Brutalism with folk art, particularly environments made by outsiders. High in the Mojave Desert, he visited one of the most renowned Folk Art Environments, Hula Ville, where he struck up a friendship with its creator, Miles Mahan, who was then in his 90s. Sandblasted signs, abandoned dolls, anthropomorphic Joshua Trees, a mini-golf course edged with buried bottles were freighted with a symbolism that resonates with Goldman to this day.

Newspapers that spread information, credit cards that hold our identities and finances, packing Styrofoam for sending goods around the world—all are light things with weighty impacts on our culture in the form of Re>Crete blocks. Whether such blocks can possibly mitigate the impact of 534 million tons of demolition debris is a question architects and engineers are weighing seriously now, or soon will be.

Mamou-Mani, Maker | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA, Jan 5, 2017

Like explorers heading their tiny craft upstream, a pair of bicyclists float over the sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. A dust storm shrouds them from 60,000 more inhabitants of their pop-up metropolis at the 2016 Burning Man Festival, known as Black Rock City. While the bicyclists advance left, a 30-foot dream-like, flame-shaped apparition approximately 30 feet high appears to shift right. Read more

Messy, But Not Too | Graphisoft USA

By Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA | Feb 23, 2017

A 3,500-acre retreat in the Western Ghats of India: a 100-room lodge, a spa with 12 villas…cultural programming demonstrating the role of the music, art, and literature in promoting a sustainable way of life.

A  summons from the City of Philadelphia for growing grass over ten inches high around her house, as reported by Anne Raver in the New York Times, July 20, 2011.

A private park in upstate New York in the manner of an English estate: sculpted landforms, newly created bodies of water.

A private park in upstate New York in the manner of an English estate: sculpted landforms, newly created bodies of water.

A living water park in Chengdu, China, moving 200 cubic meters of polluted river water through a natural cleansing system every day, and one of the most popular parks in the whole city.

A winter garden for New York’s first LEED Platinum building: living green sculptures inspired by the fern canyons of Northern California. Read more

The Surly Strongman | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA, November, 2016

If you are one to break into architectural studios in the middle of the night, think twice about breaking into dO|Su in Los Angeles. There, its principal Doris Sung keeps her collection of critters, self-propelled, self-assembling, super-smart thermal bi-metal robots — requiring no batteries, just space enough to perform their backflips, scooches, summersaults and other behaviors that collectively would freak out any intruder at 3 a.m.

But all is not fun and games for these acrobatic inventions. Read more

Page Nation | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA / Archicad

How to reverse drastic declines in Facebook’s organic reach.

Let’s say you’re giving a lecture on architecture to five hundred of your most ardent followers. It’s something you care about deeply. Years in the making, multiple more-than-satisfied stakeholders, leading engineers working around the clock, advanced, sustainable technologies, major impact, along with a Pritzker thrown in for good measure. Read more

What Can Design Do, Really? | New England Home

by Louis Postel | Trade Secrets in New England Home| August 2016

Newton, MA-based architect and artist Lisa Reindorf and her partner Mitchell Goldman of Goldman Reindorf Architects have been consulting on a new film called Cortex with Josh Lucas premiering next year. Does not such a project point to the future of design itself, how the neurons and synapses in our brains shape the spaces we live in, and are shaped in return by those same spaces? And how fitting for Reindorf and Goldman to be the ones exploring this brave new frontier between architecture and neuroscience. After all, Goldman Reindorf just designed MIT’s Neuroscience Lab. Read more

Feel the Blur     

  by Louis Postel in Showboats International June 2016       

            

As luxury items become increasingly globalized and mass marketed, Ikat is leading the opposition.

On a field of snow and frozen mud, Uzbek horsemen of Central Asia play a form of polo with a goat carcass. Another stands apart, about to release a falcon into the crystal air. But it’s their splendid Ikat clothing that catches our attention.

For Ikat’s unique designs, born of a painstaking tie and dye “resist” weaving process, bring us from the tribal to the modern mega-yacht world in a psychic second. Ikat’s blurred geometric patterns are soft, its rhythms a quiet breath in a noisy world. Read more

Through the Looking Glass

Trade Secrets by Louis Postel, first published in New England Home, July 2016

Transparency. Transparency. Transparency. Now, more than ever, we want to know what’s going on. Not the appearance of what’s going on, but what’s really going on. Transparency, after all, is the stock in trade of the design profession: the play of light and shadow, windows and walls.

Is that handsome, silver-haired politician merely the tool of lobbyists? Is that proud, global-thinking auto executive cheating at every opportunity? Is America’s favorite, pinochle-playing Dad also a rapist? Read more

A Straw in the Sky | Graphisoft USA

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA May, 2017

For a miracle machine, capable of nudging humanity back from the rocky ledge of eco-suicide, it looks inauspicious—like a fridge with waffle-like filters finning the air. It’s the kind of thing Sears will gladly remove and replace.

But hold on!

There’s something going on with this machine: it makes water from air, lots of water, using solar and refrigeration technology to suck it down like a straw in the heavens. Prices range from $1,400 for the 14-gallon per day office model to $28,000 for the 300-gallon behemoth.

Nice to know, but what does this have to do with architecture?

Plenty, according to David Hertz FAIA of Venice, California, who owns SkySource manufacturer of the machines, which are shipped around the world from his factories in Hyderabad, India.

“For the past thirty-five years, I’ve been working to go beyond sustainability, toward a restorative and regenerative architecture,” he says. “While I don’t like how invasive buildings are on the environment, I love building.”

That’s the paradox Hertz has spent a year trying to resolve; the ultimate challenge of reversing the impact of his own profession—designing buildings beyond LEED certification, to a net positive relationship with the world.

Hertz’s 747 Wing House turned a trashed plane into a treasured home.

Now with water from the sky, which contains more water than all the rivers on earth, cholera-plagued Haiti will not only have medical grade water, a project in partnership with screenwriter Scott Fifer’s celebrity-backed Go Campaign, but it will also have solar-powered buildings that feed the hungry, clad with well-irrigated vegetative surfaces, with all sewage treated and reused as fertilizer.

“Imagine an air-to-air heat pump whose main function is to transfer air into water rather than heat,” says Hertz. He first heard about the water-generating magic machine from a client who turned him on to its Miami-based inventor Richard Groden. Groden had taken his Sky Water company public just as the recession hit in 2008. The company quickly ran out of steam, and the entrepreneur retired to Miami.

This is already good news for Hertz’s residential clients in drought-stricken Santa Barbara, paying $5,000 per month in fines just to keep their trees alive. Good news too for the slum-dwellers of Hyderabad who now have free access to water stations at the base of the columns supporting Sky Source billboards, for the citizens out west whose new city office addition is well on its way to meeting the Living Building Challenge “efficient as a flower,” and for the members of the Open Temple in Venice, California, who draw water from Sky Source cistern to fill towers growing squash, cucumbers, butter lettuce, collard greens for the Sabbath.

Sky Source irrigating a vertical garden at the Open Temple

“I am a water and tea person and when things taste yucky I’m the first to know it,” says Open Temple’s Rabbi Lori Shapiro about Sky Source water. “I first got a taste of it from a spigot Hertz had set up for all the homeless people living on the boardwalk here. It was the most delicious water I have ever tasted. It’s like putting a straw in the sky to drink. And for growing food for our Sabbaths, Sky Source water’s like manna from heaven. We have a music studio here in the temple and occasionally you hear one of the musicians call out ‘Hey, Dude, want to drink some sky?’ They also tell me it’s a great pick-up line.”

Hertz’s twelve-person studio may be beachy and barefoot, but it’s busy in the pursuit of the restorative and regenerative; a pursuit which in many ways calls for the reinvention of the practice of architecture itself. As opposed to design clients seeking out a specialist, Hertz holds that the complexity of the challenges they face will call increasingly for a systems thinker, one who sees and understands the organic connectedness of all things: community, environment, health, and happiness. “Applying Sky Source’s adiabatic distillation technology feels more like a purer form of architecture than non-architecture: there’s a structure, a social benefit, and space making,” he says. “After all, from a historical perspective, the well, the fountain, have always played a central role in towns and cities.”

The studio’s busy, but for all that business there’s no conference table for laying out blueprints. Working with Archicad, Hertz invites clients and staffers to walk around his many projects in virtual reality. There’s a trophy design for the World Surfing League, a hotel in Venice, a resort in the Grenadines (prefabricated from reclaimed wood from an old pier in Borneo, then flat-packed in Java), and a launch control facility Hertz is designing for SpaceX rockets.  In addition, there’s competing for a $1.75 million Water Abundance XPRIZE for a device that extracts a minimum of 2,000 liters of fresh water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.

As a systems thinker, young David Hertz didn’t have to look far for inspiration. His father, Robert, a surgeon, wrote three science fiction novels. One, Penumbra, imagines sunspots knocking out all systems on Earth.  He was also collecting and championing modern art with his wife, Joanne, who joined him in founding the Museum of Modern Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, as well as the fabled Gemini Graphics, which teamed with Robert Rauschenberg in 1967 in producing what was then the largest art print ever made: Booster, a 72-inch-tall lithograph/silkscreen self-portrait.

As a kid, David recalls seeing outside the car window rows and rows of 747 aircraft “desiccating in the desert.” Years later, in 2011, he persuaded some adventurous clients to buy one of the 357 million-dollar planes for $35,000, in order to clip its wings and use them as their new roof. He had the wings brought to the remote site by helicopter, saving money on gas for a truck and labor, floating the giant wings on steel frames over the glass walls of what’s now known to Arch Daily readers as the 747 Wing House. At dusk, the wings appear poised to lift off into the aerodynamically shaped mountain ranges surrounding the new Malibu home. “Aluminum aircraft takes so much energy to produce, we were glad to find another use for it,” says Hertz. “Though it took a while to convince Homeland Security and the FAA we weren’t a terrorist cell, but simply mining the waste steam.”

As a miner of waste streams, as a maker of water from the sky, Hertz is helping to resolve the paradox that continues to drive him, as well as many of his colleagues in his profession.  How to use systemic thinking to turn the architecture he loves into a resource-maker, rather than taker.  As for the aesthetics of Sky Source machine itself—just make sure Sears doesn’t cart it off to the fridge burial grounds by mistake.  The thing’s bound to precipitate and none too soon.

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Warm Cool Warm

by Louis Postel, first published in Ask Louis for Graphisoft USA , April 2017

What makes cities exciting, poetic, worth waking up for? The short answer is lights at night.

At 1 a.m., a bedsheet hung up to dry in Venice reflects the moon over a canal (reflected once more in the water). We are enchanted, mesmerized. At 2 a.m., a smashed window in a forlorn Cleveland underpass twinkles like a star. We don’t back away, afraid, but instinctually draw nearer. At 2:17, a.m., in Paris, the City of Light, a Belle Époque candelabra on the Pont Alexandre appears to bow its beams ever so slightly, engaged in deep conversation with a vagabond.

At 2:45 a.m., headlights fly like suns down a London street Orange neon from the Odeon Restaurant in New York City turns rain into romance. Is this what inspired Jay McInerney to write his 1984 classic Bright Lights, Big City? Had to be.

3: 15 a.m., Tokyo time, a lone jogger wearing a headlamp confronts a diorama of storefront mannequins.

And, a full hour later, at 4:15 in the 2011 Queens City Plaza project we’ve been writing about, illuminated trees and concrete benches create a jazzy rhythm that never fails to draw out pedestrians and bicyclists unfazed by the psychic blast of the elevated subways and four-lane traffic.

As increasingly hot nights keep people out of doors longer, and with high-tech making the search for real connection and community even more compelling, lit public spaces such as these have become increasingly important–for a sense of safety, for clearly defined spatial relations, and for wayfinding, not to mention the built environment at its arguably most exciting, poetic, and worth waking up for.

Dreaming in Color in Seattle

Nevertheless, night lighting the city is not on every practitioner’s daytime drawing board. This even though advances in LED’s have dramatically lowered energy use, and the careful use of down-lighting to keep light from leaking into the sky, confusing birds and confounding amateur astronomers.

“When we’re asked to think about a place, we don’t think about it at night unless we’re specifically asked to,” says Leni Schwendinger, the lighting designer who helped transform Queens City Plaza. While we don’t necessarily picture places first as they appear at night, city nightscapes can be the most exciting spaces and places in the world. Schwendinger’s hope is that designers, architects, engineers, urban planners, developers will realize that nighttime is an existing condition, like curb cuts, and one that needs to be addressed. She notes that while there are strict regulations in New York for lighting streets for cars, there are none for bicyclists and pedestrians. She sees this as a missed opportunity. “Innovation and creativity for bringing light to public spaces all over the world energize architecture, landscape, and urban infrastructure with the ultimate goal of connecting people to each other and their surroundings,” she writes in her bio.

Schwendinger joined the New York office of Arup, the 13,000-person engineering, and planning firm, in 2013. As emblematic of her work as the Queens Plaza project is in showing her deft hand at turning on the switch in underutilized night spaces, she is better known for other work around the globe. Some highlights: her award-winning Dreaming in Color art installation for Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall theater (2005), the night-time design for Getsemani, a World Heritage Site in Cartagena Colombia (2015), the “visual chimes” in Park MGM in Las Vegas (2016), her many films and walking events for the International Association of Lighting Designers ongoing LightMap events.

Currently, Schwendinger is working with London’s Grimshaw Architects to upgrade thirty-three subway lines in New York City. She confesses to having—like most New Yorkers—a love-hate relationship with its system, however now she says it’s mostly love. Which is a good thing because she’s been spending so much time down there lately.

Schwendinger’s Colombian nightscape

Her plan is simple: Warm, Cool, Warm—a warm lighting tint as you descend into the station, cool, crisp and business-like where you buy your ticket, and then warm again as you move past the turnstiles onto the platform.  If on the Las Vegas strip, Schwendinger’s LED scheme of desert magentas, oranges, and pinks contrasts nicely with the Robert Venturi neon madness all around, the orderliness and defining nature of her Warm, Cool, Warm for subways contrasts just as effectively with the looming chasms of modern Gotham at 2 a.m.

Schwendinger loves to stroll Greenwich Village at night to work things out in her mind, emotional as well as theoretical, or meeting and chatting, or leading groups of designers to turn them on to what she calls “the vernacular”—the gleam off a light-post or a car. “A light in a bedroom window’s kind of fun,” she says. “Or storefront lights on a bunch of knick-knacks. They become transformed.”

As she recalls, it was driving around with her Dad to see Christmas lights that transformed her youth and may have set her professional trajectory. This was in Los Angeles, in the exuberant, post-war 1950s.  “I tried showing him how much our nutty dog liked the lights, just like us. ‘Dogs don’t see in color,’ my Dad said. But who cares?”

The city of angels had become just that.

by Louis Postel for Graphisoft USA 2017

Welcome to the New Free Marketing Economy

True or False?

Social media advocacy marketing just doesn’t work for design firms. The content being posted is just too subtle, or too confidential, and the stakes far too high.   

After all, what employee of an architectural firm in his right mind would risk blogging, sharing, tweeting or posting about a project voluntarily on his own Facebook page, or Twitter account? It’s a nice idea, but first consider the downside of all that free marketing, the possible negative consequences of channeling employees’ social media engagement on behalf of the firm.

Say, for example, a project manager innocently posts a homemade video of a just-completed LEED city hall and community center on his Facebook page. His excitement about the project goes viral: family, friends, colleagues, vendors share and tweet like mad. So far so good. But then comes the hammer blow. His Honor the Mayor happens to see the video and goes nuts when the video comes to his attention. In his view the project isn’t complete until it’s been capped by an iconic, forward-looking sheet-metal sculpture by Richard Serra that’s still in transit!

The embarrassment, recriminations, the dusting off of confidentiality agreements! Given the brouhaha and back and forth with the Mayor’s office, any exponential marketing power that lay within social media advocacy on the part of employees would soon come to an end for this hypothetical firm. All 175 employees would come away with the same thought: tsk, tsk, why put yourself out there on an individual social media account? Better to keep quiet. Better to confine myself to cute cat photos than share what I love most: my work. Better to let Corporate Communications broadcast the company line and move on.

“Frankly, I was surprised how much employees want to participate in social advocacy programs, how active they are,” says Carolyn Brundage, whose social media marketing firm, Oak Street Social, is based in Chicago. “Dell Computer is doing it now with all 10,000 employees. Given four hours of training, they all become evangelists for Dell, brand ambassadors that, when you add Dell vendors, comes out to be quite a lot.”

Brundage’s clients range from engineers to designers. All, she says, can benefit from the unfiltered shares by employees. “The mistake many companies make about social advocacy is to simply push employees out there as brand ambassadors without doing anything for them in return,” she says. “It really is a two-way street. There are so many ways to recognize someone and that recognition’s priceless for some. Consider publishing a Leader Board in a newsletter of top sharers on Instagram, for example.

Abigail Carlen
Abigail Carlen

“There are a number of software programs out there to help larger firms manage and promote social advocacy, using hashtags, curating content, and building advocacy teams. See http://www.everyonesocial.com.”

So how about that content? If content is king how do you help employees develop it? Abigail Carlen, AIA wrote and put into practice the first firm-wide social media plan for Perkins + Will back when social media was just getting on the radar. Now she’s heading up her own New York City firm, Turquoise Marketing, focusing on social media for smaller firms of two to five people.

Carlen sees showing and sharing process as a huge, undeveloped opportunity for architectural firms. Not the finished product, but what goes into it.

The backstory may seem too laborious or obtuse for insiders to contemplate sharing. But for outsiders, including potential clients, being in on an architect’s creative process can lead to powerful, personal levels of engagement and reach. A video of architects leaning over drawings discussing fenestration may out-compete one more perfectly lit portfolio shot among billions appearing on Designboom. “Sure it’s a beautiful building,” says Carlen, reading her market’s thoughts, “but how did it get there?”

One of her clients has been developing a large following by sharing process: The Up Studio, an architecture, interior, and brand design shop based in Long Island City. “While 90 percent of these followers won’t hire you, it’s the 10 percent that might,” Carlen says. “Name recognition. People have to know who you are to hire you. It’s the first step.”

So how would this sharing process work from a social media advocacy perspective? How to protect the Big Vision while at the same time having brand ambassadors get the word out in their own unique ways? “You could take a lot firms’ websites and replace them with another and you wouldn’t know the difference,” says Carlen. “Many make the same claim: We’re collaborative. We pay attention to details. We listen to our clients.”

“Especially when there are a number of partners involved in many lines of work, arriving at a single vision can be difficult. But if firms really pay attention to what they are passionate about it’s doable. Founders and other leaders almost invariably have some kind of vision about what they are doing.”

Once the vision sinks into the company culture, some training for employees in best practices helps a lot, says Carlen. These are simple things, but easy to ignore or forget: responding to compliments, inserting relevant hashtags, creating easy-to-find links back to the official site.

Given the vision, best practices, along with proper recognition and incentives, we would have to respond FALSE to our opening statement. Social media advocacy can indeed work, providing much-needed visibility for the firm in design’s increasingly crowded social media space, as well important ways for groups and individuals within the firm to share their expertise, their process, and their pride.

Links:

Carolyn Brundage of Oak Street Social: http://www.oakstsocial.com

Abigail Carlen, AIA: http://www.turquoisemktg.com

Designboom Magazine: http://www.designboom.com

The Up Studio: http://www.theupstudio.com

 

© Louis Postel 2017, first published by Graphisoft USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bore no More

While your bridges soar, your website bores.

What happens when an architecture or engineering partnership’s commitment to strength, utility and beauty falls short digitally—adequate but hardly excellent? There are still many who could care less: “Our reputation speaks for itself.”, “It’s only a portfolio.”, It looks on a par with our competition.”, or “We’re not in the business of creating the meaningless jabber characteristic of the web.”

“Unless you have twelve months of signed business, profit margins that allow you to do your best work, and are satisfied with your current client relationships, investing in your firm’s ability to do business is not only important, but essential,” says Brent Robertson, an expert on creating and maintaining a digital presence.

Brent Robertson
Brent Robertson

Robertson’s a partner in Fathom (http://fathom.net), the West Hartford company that developed the architecture firm Svigals + Partners website  http://www.svigals.com, a fast-growing mid-sized shop with 35 employees with outstanding projects like the new Sandy Hook school. In addition, Fathom recently completed the very unboring site of the construction firm Fuss & O’Neill (http://www.fando.com) with 280 employees, ninety years in the business, and seven locations nationwide.

“Even if your reach is small and local, and you are very specialized, the ever-growing capacity of full-service firms and the increasing reach of competing specialty firms makes for a landscape that puts a lot of pressure on firms to differentiate themselves. Add to this, the fact that more and more of the decision-making for acquiring professional services happens online before a potential client ever reaches out, makes a digital presence more important than ever,” says Robertson.

OK, we’re convinced, but how does one go about creating such a presence, especially when former efforts have resulted in essentially nothing? For one thing, one has to go deep, as in Robertson’s Fathom’s? philosophy. “Sites need to be a vehicle where the whole organization can communicate and share,” he adds. “So the first thing we did was interview everyone in the company from top to bottom, along with its key stakeholders and vendors.”

I get that,” I say, “but when I click on Svigals or Fuss & O’Neill, or even your Fathom site, I can’t tell what anyone actually does.  Svigals home page headline asks ‘What is the nature of community?’ With an invitation right up front to ‘Join the Conversation’, Fuss & O’Neill’s says ‘Creating works of life’, and Fathom’s reads ‘We work with leaders to design futures worth fighting for.’

Meanwhile, I can find barely a word on any of these three home pages that mentions the practice architecture, construction, or branding and web design and isn’t that the point? I ask.

“Nothing shuts down a conversation more quickly than just saying what you do right away,” replied Robertson over a barking lab. “If I as the potential client land on your home page and I understand right away it’s about architecture, then I’ll assume it’s just a matter of nuance differentiating you from other architecture firms. The message behind Svigals home page questioning as to the nature of community says ‘We want to enroll you in a club, an idea and the way that club or idea expresses itself is through the language of architecture.’”

“Isn’t what you call enrolling someone in a club or an idea what’s normally called a Mission and Vision statement?” I ask.

“Mission and vision are confusing terms full of all kinds of BS and soundbites,” says Robertson. “Whose mission, whose vision one wonders. Before we go there we first ask ourselves and our clients, ‘What is it we would like the world to be like if we had a say? What do we have to do or provide to make sure that world comes to exist?”

Jason Weamer
Jason Weamer

Jason Weamer co-founded the Visual Identity Group fifteen years ago in Southern California (http://visualidentitygroup.com). Nominated for a coveted Webby Award for his Bugaboo Creek restaurant chain website, Weamer’s recent revamp of the PJHM Architects site -see http://pjhm.com, deserves equal recognition for innovative, stunning design. I especially liked the Sex Pistols-like black stripes Weamer centered across the large portfolio shots, allowing white to type to show easily over busy photos and renderings.

“Currently flooded with RFP’s, PJHM is an outstanding firm of about thirty in the educational and civic sector here in Laguna Hills. Unfortunately, their site wasn’t performing the way it needed to on the mobile devices which have become so dominant,” said Weamer. ‘In fact, Google now ranks sites with emphasizing their responsiveness, how fast images load above the fold on the home page.

“Fortunately, anyone can use this free tool Google launched in January called PageSpeed Insights at https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/. You just enter your site into its form and Google will analyze your site’s speed from one to one hundred for  both desktop and mobile. You would be surprised how many great sites are in the fifties — which means they have little chance of being seen by potential clients unless someone actually passes along a link, or spells it out.” A quick check with web-use analyst Kissmetrics at https://blog.kissmetrics.com/loading-time/ estimates that most mobile users will abandon a page if they are forced to wait longer than six to ten very boring seconds.

“Our goal for PJHM was to score one hundred. I’d never actually seen a one hundred score on PageSpeed, but that’s what we wanted and that’s what we ultimately achieved,” says Weamer, adding an asterisk, “though lately our perfect score’s gone down to a 97 through no fault of our own, (We chose Vimeo’s quality over YouTube’s to run video on the PJHM site, and Vimeo uses a Google tracking tool. The use of that tool cost us three points Google’s PageSpeed.” Go figure.

While Vimeo gets penalized a few points for slowness, Adobe’s Flash program found itself penalized out of existence last year for similar reasons. Ironically, it was Flash that turned Weamer on to the potential of web design in the first place. “I stopped in someone’s office and saw, this animation going on their computer screen, twirling and whizzing things all built with Flash. A vector-based animation system was now allowing developers to move pictures and objects in ways they couldn’t dream of doing with HTML,” says Weamer.

But Steve Jobs was the first to recognize a major flaw in Flash: too many dependencies, too many plugins needed to run on Apple and its iPhones and therefore banned Flash in early 2010. Read Jobs remarks here: http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/. Weamer sites an additional flaw, perhaps even more fatal to Flash: “Google can’t index the contents because in Google’s spider eyes a Flash program is just a movie. Sites just weren’t showing up and a lot of wonderful portfolios were just not showing up.”

Nevertheless, if you look at the PJHM site Weamer’s designed in a lot of the feeling and energy of animation testing the limits of CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets.  The use transitional 3-D boxes and other interactive features represent quite a feat given the site’s 97 PageSpeed score. For example, check out the social media mashup at the bottom of PJHM’s home page stacking and re-sorting like masonry blocks. Especially challenging was engineering the firm’s Twitter feed.

“Twitter,” says Weamer, “doesn’t just want you to take their text. They want the text in their own typography, which is also their branding.” Trouble was Twitter’s typography didn’t work with the layout developed by Weamer’s Visual Identity Group. The solution was to come up with a hack that in developer terms “scraped-off” the Twitter content while remaining within Twitter’s guidelines. Another challenge Weamer sees especially for the design community is the proliferation of-the-shelf, easily-downloaded site templates and WordPress themes. “Just because some are indeed so beautifully designed and architects respond to that. But, look, the problem with such themes are two-fold,” says Weamer.

“For one thing, theme developers often could care less about how they perform, just how they look. Which means that on PageSpeed your site can end up ranking in the fifties and that’s not good if you care about clients visiting organically, having found you on the first pages of their Google search. And two, know that if that theme is for sale someone else has bought it too and you run the risk of looking like everyone else. Who, for that matter, would want to build a building that looks like everyone else’s?”

In other words, if your bridge design soars, but your website bores, try Robertson’s notion of enrolling folks in your own uniqueness, your special club while encouraging ongoing conversations in the language of architecture. But whatever you do, don’t forget to check your PageSpeed.

© Louis Postel 2017, first published by Graphisoft USA