4-D Design & More | New England Home

from Trade Secrets in New England Home http://www.nehomemag.com/ | April 2012   
Louis Postel
Former MIT Architecture Dean William Porter’s new design firm uses revolutionary new software that can predict a structure’s performance.

Design Generals in plumed helmets gather around a table where they’ve laid their battle plans. Obstacles along the march uncannily resemble New England’s idiosyncratic environment: Tropical storms from the South, blizzards from the North, snow-capped mountains inland, burning sands along the Coast. The generals plant their knuckles firmly on the table, knuckles visibly turning white with excitement! Everything rests on the exact execution of the plan: life or death, honor or disgrace! The cavalry will deploy here, the archers there!

 So it is with building a house, designing an interior or a landscape. There is no room for error! Great resources are at stake; a kingdom in dire need of a castle. Vast cadres of lawyers, accountants, realtors, bankers, mechanical, structural engineers have already deployed themselves for miles across the outlying hills. Multitudes of craftsmen under the command of general contractors will soon move to the front lines. Construction will begin, despite the occasional deserter. Once the foundation is laid there will be no turning back; the die is cast.

A war council such as this does not allow for one of the generals to suddenly admit to the embarrassing fact: he/she can’t read the blueprint to save his/her life. The elevations laid out on the table may as well be the scratch marks of a mouse or madman.  So this secretly blushing general merely nods in agreement: after all, my design team knows what it’s doing; if they didn’t Bob and Lucy wouldn’t have recommended them so highly!

Now let the drumroll begin.

But wait…The challenge of learning to speak a mutual design language, to read from the same page has never been as critical as it is now. Post 2008, every square inch of downsized space has become more precious; wasted time and materials, and other “bad surprises” far less forgiving.  Homeowners expect customized results; many want to “co-create” along with their designer. What kind of vocabulary can we expect from this design language and how will it find its way onto the battle plans we draw up virtually leading to nuts and bolts construction?

Some designers and architects are redoubling their efforts in making traditional presentations. They’re based ever more thorough client interviews, extensive feedback from concept boards, sample boards, clay models, hand drawn sketches inspired by humanist masters: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Palladio.  Other professionals are welcoming breakthroughs in technology.  A new generation of visualization software allows them to “co-create” with clients over the internet in real time. Rough sketches in 2-D can become high-resolution 3-D models in few clicks. 4-D time/space animations? No problem. Return from this virtual reality to 2-D for construction drawings, just click once more!

Architect Paul Lukez works in 4-D

“We use every tool we available to better understand the client whether the client is a homeowner or a large institution,” says architect Paul Lukez of Somerville, MA. http://www.lukez.com/ A former professor of design at MIT he’s clearly a leader at integrating high-tech presentation platforms into his busy practice. But low tech “humanistic” approaches are fully welcome.  “Even when a client says they don’t need to see something in 4-D, we’ll say ‘that’s great, that you don’t, but we do. We need to see how you would experience this building walking through it. Anything that helps us better understand what we’re doing is invaluable.” Lukez pauses at one of the work stations where a team of architects and designers are responding to clients half-way around the world, their computer screens aglow with interactive models.  Meanwhile, on a wall there’s a fourteen foot paper scroll tacked up from floor to ceiling showing a bow shape sketched vertically in Number 2 pencil.  “It’s a long wall we’re designing that curves as well as bows outwards,” says Lukez. “You can see the way we have it now the bow is too low. “

“For some clients not seeing a project in 3-D can be a huge leap of faith,” says Nicole Yee of New York Interiors based in Kittery, Maine. “A couple just asked me for an ‘interim kitchen makeover’: which mainly involved replacing the counter. I showed them how this would look in a program called Chief Architect and at the same time I gave them a second option. The plan called for removing the peninsula and re-facing the cabinets. As soon as they saw it they said: ‘you’re right; let’s do it!’ We took the design to a new level.”  Which is not to say that for Yee technology is a substitute for the basics. “We work hard at establishing goals, asking 1,001 questions; pulling hundreds of samples, tear sheeting everything of possible interest, communicating with our clients every step of the way.” In 2011, Yee was elected to the national board of the Interior Design Society (IDS).

Rachel Reider’s work comes alive with texture and light. “I suggest to my clients that they tape a sample of the actual material to the wall…That way they can get a real feel for it at different times of day and in different light,” says the Boston-based designer. “Computer renderings just don’t do a good enough job capturing textures. Often it can scare clients away if the interpretation isn’t attractive. Software programs are great for floor plans and elevations, but for interior materials nothing compares to actual samples you can see and feel.” A recent Reider recommendation: grass cloth wallpaper from Philip Jeffries through Webster & Co in the BDC. “Not everyone goes for a strong pattern in wallpapers, so this is an alternative: great depth, even the darker colors reflect light beautifully.”

Behind the BDC in the same enormous building architects and designers are finding a company called Artaic. Artaic’s technology makes it possible for them to create mosaics out of thousands of tesserae just like the ancient Romans. There’s one key difference, however. “The Romans had slaves to do the work and we don’t,” says Artaic’s founder Ted Acworth. “What we did is invent design software and robotic manufacturing systems to create custom mosaics. They can be wrapped in 3-D around a boulder, or backlit on a wall.” A former space scientist, telegenic host of the UFO Hunters on the History Channel, director of the advanced technology research portfolio at the Cambridge-MIT Institute, Dr. Acworth created software that almost anyone can use understand: savvy designers, spatially-challenged clients, even cranky robots. Look for large-scale results at Legal Seafoods in Boston, the Tropicana in Las Vegas or the Hyatt Resorts in Hawaii. Or, short of that, if you happen to find yourself in Roomba inventor Rod Brooks’ bathtub in Carlisle, MA check out the Artaic lotus at the bottom.

In Bath, ME, architect Steven Theodore likens 3-D computer modeling to playing video games like Syms.  Drawing by hand, maintaining a direct hand to eye connection is essential to understanding and communicating scale and proportion. Without that essential bit, Design Integrity can be easily lost. “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Just by changing a design with a few clicks doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any better.” Architect John Tittmann of Albert, Righter & Tittmann in Boston would add that he can draw free hand perspectives much faster than by using a computer, with much more information presented to clients in the form overlays.  “Generally speaking, the computer is very useful, but it cannot replace the artistic hand.” Tittmann’s partner James Volney Righter was inducted into the New England Home Hall of Fame in 2007.

Brian Anderson AIA

Architects Bill Porter and Brian Anderson of Cambridge, MA are inviting their clients to look at a different kind of map than has ever been seen before. “Up till now modeling has been about form; what we’re more interested in is performance. How does it address the triple bottom line: will the house work for people, for the environment and for those investing in its construction,” says Anderson. Teaming with an MIT spin-off called Ekotrope just down the street, Porter, Anderson and their clients can now play “what if” about performance, with instant results. What if we used solar panels and air exchangers with triple paned windows facing northeast instead of south? What incentives would this home be entitled to? How much energy could the homeowner sell back to the grid? Will this house actually make enough money to offset its mortgage?

“As architects, we want more freedom, but we also want to be completely engaged in the results, that’s what’s so exciting about working with Ekotrope” says Porter, a former student of Louis Kahn and as well as Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning from 1971-1981. Adds his younger partner Anderson: “Focusing on performance rather than form puts architects and designers back into a central role.  Rather than being marginalized as ‘the folks who make things pretty’ an ability to interpret and implement performance will be the overriding factor.”

Now let us return to the design general who was secretly befuddled by the big strategic map in front of him. Construction was about to begin, the battle lines drawn and he was just shrugging in agreement; better that than suffer terminal embarrassment. Can you read a blueprint, Sir? O, sure he would answer. Fortunately, much of that scenario has changed. Designers in the traditional mode are digging deeper, asking more questions, ever tuning their artistic hands. Those more at home with technology are exploring a new set of options that make design language far more accessible: 2-D sketches, 3-D models, 4-D animations, energy what ifs? of everything imaginable. Now let the bugles sound the alarm!



Moskow Linn Architects of Boston unveiled a 20-foot high musical sculpture on the Kennedy Rose Garden Greenway. NuHeat, known for its electric floor heating systems, donated the critically important hardware that make the sculpture clink so prettily. How? By installing NuHeat’s special cables through the sculpture’s canopy and melting the snow.  The melt proceeds to drip onto copper rods where it refreezes, creating icicles that chime in the wind. Get it?

  Does a sleek spa experience in a 1915 Colonial sound like an oxymoron? Not so! The National Association of the Remodeling Industry’s Eastern Massachusetts Chapter awarded Charlie Allen Restorations in Cambridge its 2011 Contractor of the Year Award in the bathroom category for just such a feat!


Abolitionist and suffragette Julia Robbins Barrett (1819-1900) of Lexington, MA wasn’t cut from the same old cloth. In fact, she was one of the first to enroll in the New England School of Design for Women in 1851. The following year she was commuting to the mills in Lowell designing carpets. Robbins earned seven dollars per week, more than twice that of a mill girl. Trouble was commuter tickets between Lowell and Lexington ran thirty a month.  For more detail (and intrigue) check out Robbins’ new biography In Haste, Julia by Mary E. Keenan (from Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/cf64gb8)

Representing New England on this year’s Architectural Digest’ AD100 were the architectural firms Allan Greenberg in Greenwich, CT and Shope Reno Wharton in South Norwalk about twenty minutes up Route 95. Additional congratulations to Greenberg on the imminent publication of his latest book, Discourses in Stone. It will include a piece Greenberg wrote on the St. Gaudens sculpture commemorating Colonel Shaw and his men across from the Boston State House. Unveiled in 1897 to a crowd of 20,000, the twelve foot bas relief was the first memorial dedicated to the defeat of slavery in the United States. Architect H.H. Richardson was the one who recommended the Irish-born St. Gaudens to the Shaw family and it was architect Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White who “in an unusual move… framed the bronze relief with limestone pilasters and an exquisite arch. He placed the sculpture on a low masonry wall that forms a U-shaped terrace, set apart from its surroundings by a single step.”