Top 4 Architecture and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of August 5, 2013

081113 Night out with bats. Using wood to build high-rises. Cultural vibrancy in Chicago. Effectiveness of user groups. Tweeting to help the homeless.

Night out with bats. Lake Flato talks about the nightly feeding exodus of Mexican Freetail bats from their roost at Bracken Cave, an event managed by Bat Conservation International which is a San Antonio group that seeks to educate people and protect bats.

Bracken Cave is home to the largest colony of bats in the world, with 15-20 million bats living in the cave. Before dusk, the bats steadily stream out of the cave for more than 3 hours en route to their 60 mile trip to feed, during which the lot will consume thousands of pounds of insects per night.

Via The Dogrun

Using wood for high-rises. Andrew Lawrence, a structural engineer at ARUP, discusses how urbanization is driving cities to build densely and sustainably and using wood to build tall buildings seems like a good alternative.

Wood is the only completely renewable building material and has almost zero embodied energy because it’s grown with solar power. Wood is also cellular material like bone, so it’s strong and light. Relatively easy to work with, wood lends itself to high quality prefabrication techniques. It’s light to transport to site, reducing transport costs and carbon emissions.

Via Arup Blog

Cultural vibrancy in Chicago. Keith Campbell, a vice president at RTKL’s Chicago office, explains why he likes to pay property taxes in Chicago – and why he thinks it’s a good deal.

The City of Chicago devotes a small percentage of taxes to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which is dedicated to enriching Chicago’s artistic vitality and cultural vibrancy.  This includes neighborhood music festivals, farmers markets, pilates, tai chi, yoga and zumba in Millennium Park.

Via RTKL Blog

Effectiveness of user groups. Martin Valins, a principal at Stantec, examines the validity of user groups, or if by asking the right questions, you can get what you need.

“Planning around the specific requirements of a user group (or in some cases, that of a dominant personality) can lead to a solution that is a net fit to that one view point. The result will probably be fine, but how often do we find that the person with the most dominant voice leaves before the project is even completed?” – Martin Valins

Via Stantec Blog

Innovative Social Media

Tweeting to help the homeless. A new program called Everyday Connect leverages social media to help the homeless in San Francisco. Project Homeless Connect’s team of staff and volunteers meet between 10 and 20 homeless children and adults each day with a specific, urgent need such as a wheelchair or pair of socks.  A tweet (via @PHCSF) is sent to the community asking for an item with the hashtag #EDCDailyNeed. Usually, it takes less than a day to fulfill the request.

Via VentureBeat

Top 4 Architecture and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of July 8, 2013

071413 Embracing daylight. Architect Barbie. Texas sand sculpture. Alternative outputs. Sharknado is Twitter bait.

Embracing daylight. Florence Lam, who leads Arup’s global lighting design team, discusses how daylight is critical to sustainable urban development in addition to a person’s health and well-being.

“Up until around the 1980s, architecture students were encouraged to develop an instinct for daylight and its qualities in different parts of the world. Today, I believe this part of their education has been neglected. The complex and crammed curricula of modern architectural education leave students lacking the necessary opportunity to observe, imagine and embrace daylight experience at the beginning of every design.” – Florence Lam

Via Arup Blog

Architect Barbie. Lisa Boquiren, chairwoman of the AIA SF communications committee, explores the changes needed to keep women practitioners engaged in the architecture profession which was discussed at the symposium The Missing 32%, which is the opt-out rate of women in the industry.

Boquiren looks at the advent of Architect Barbie, which was a partnership between AIA national and Mattel in which “architect” lost to “computer engineer” in 2010 for Barbie’s 125th career, eventually advising Mattel on “Architect Barbie’s” design.

Via Metropolis POV

Texas sand sculpture. Gensler’s Houston office was asked by Mayor Annise Parker to build a patriotic-themed sand sculpture for the city’s 2013 Freedom Over Texas Festival.

What emerged was a sand sculpture that included iconic American structures like the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bell, Washington Monument and iconic Texas structures such as the Alamo and the Houston skyline. In the center of the sculpture is a star above a map of the US and flanked by the US and the Texas flags. Special elements that memorialized the teachers, students, runners, firefighters and factory workers that had lost their lives were also included: a book, an apple, a hammer, running shoes, a rose, and firefighter’s helmets.

Via Gensleron Cities

Alternative inputs. Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG writes about how UK artist Ryan Jordan led a workshop in Montréal, building musical instruments out of geological circuit boards, an experiment in terrestrial instrumentation he calls "Derelict Electronics."

Manaugh says we should “plug our cities not just into giant slurries of wood pulp, like thick soups of electricity, but also directly into the forests around us, drawing light from the energy of trunks and branches, is yet another extraordinary possibility that designers would do well to take on, imagining what such a scenario literally might look like and how it would technically function, not solely for its cool aesthetic possibilities but for the opportunity to help push our culture of gadgets toward renewable sources of power.”


Innovative Social Media

Sharknado is Twitter bait. Syfy's made-for-TV movie 'Sharknado,' which is about tornadoes that scoop up sharks from the ocean and dispense them on LA residents, inspired a feeding frenzy on social media. The show generated 318,232 tweets during broadcast and 5,000 tweets per minute at its peak.

Two key factors contributed to Sharknado’s social media success: smart buzz generation, led by Syfy's senior vice president of digital, Craig Engler, and participation by leading Twitter celebrities such as Wil Wheaton, Damon Lindelof and others.

Via Mashable


Top 4 Architecture and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of June 24, 2013

062413 Design is a research project. Pattern of blooms receives recognition. Renaissance in the Windy City. Women in engineering. National Zoo uses social media to find missing red panda. Design is a research project.

Peter Hourihan, an architect at Cannon Design, discusses how research opportunities are everywhere in a firm’s design work.

“There are a number of ways that project or design goals can be generated: overall client specific outcomes; design team design strategies; pressing or ongoing research topics; or novel, untested design innovations. Any of these categories can spawn specific large and small scale design goals. They can each become a hypothesis when the designer or team collects data and draws conclusions about the intended or possible outcomes of the design idea.” – Peter Hourihan

Via Cannon Design Blog

Pattern of blooms. OLIN Studio’s Lines in Four Directions in Flowers on the west lawn of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been recognized by the Public Art Network as part of the group’s Year in Review Program, which honors outstanding, exceptionally creative, or innovative public art works.

OLIN Partner Susan Weiler, who led the design team for Lines in Four Directions in Flowers,  said the team “spent months researching the color and flowering cycles of dozens of species and were able to design a system of plantings which ensures that there will always be an even pattern of blooms throughout the spring, summer, and fall.”

Via OLIN Studio Blog

Renaissance in the Windy City. David Broz of Gensler talks about how downtown Chicago is going through an urban renaissance as companies are returning, apartment construction is booming, and hotel stays are increasing.

These new urban inhabitants are digital native residents who expect a hybrid urban environment, different than what was previously in downtown Chicago. They expect pedestrian friendly streets, bicycle accommodating traffic lanes, a place to sit in parks and plazas, temporary pop-up-galleries and food trucks.

Via Gensleron Cities

Women in engineering. Emily Jones, architectural technician at Stantec, talks about Techsploration, a program that aims to increase the number of women working in science, trades and technology by promoting careers in these fields to young women in grades nine to twelve throughout Nova Scotia.

Jones, who became involved in the Techsploration program in 2011 while attending school, discusses events she was involved with and how girls are being encouraged to do anything they want to do in the fields of science and technology.

Via Stantec Blog

Innovative Social Media Campaign

Zoo social media swoop. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., turned to social media to find missing red panda named Rusty. The zoo announced Rusty’s disappearance to its thousands of Twitter followers in a tweet at 11:51 a.m, which was retweeted nearly 3,000 times in an hour. Politicians and journalists, including Newt Gingrich, joined the online search. Around 1:15 p.m., a Washingtonian posted a picture on Twitter of Rusty in a patch of weeds in the Adams Morgan district, not far from the 163-acre zoo.

Via The New York Times

Architecture Thought Leader: The Innovation Studio at MKThink

mkthink logoSelf-described as “the ideas company for the built environment,” MKThink has three practice areas that, on the surface, seem to contradict one another: An Architecture practice that designs new buildings and renovates existing ones, a Strategy practice that helps clients connect their business practices with their goals through the more effective use of space - thus avoiding the need for new buildings, and an Innovation practice that is currently incubating a technology that could help would-be Architecture and Strategy clients create new buildings and facility strategies with less need for a consultant.

Taking a closer look, you can see the logic behind these ideas.

“Our goal is to create the most effective and appropriate places for people; new building is not always the answer,” says MKThink found and CEO Mark Miller.  By first understanding the role of the built environment with their clients’ goals, MKThink can help as much with cost avoidance through strategic planning as they do with the design for their new spaces. After several years, the firm struck a healthy balance of strategic and built environment work, but the firm was full of other ideas that they wanted to explore

Mark Miller unveiled Project FROG in San Francisco in March of 2006.

In 2006, before the Innovation studio existed, MKThink came to a realization that there were 380,000 “classrooms in a can” in the United States. Knowing there was a better solution than the modular learning facilities designed for no particular purpose; MKThink initiated research based on an industrial design methodology. By 2008, MKThink launched and secured funding for Project FROG (Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth), an energy neutral, building kit system that is currently being used as classrooms, community centers, healthcare facilities, retail stores, offices and more. Project FROG generated significant press coverage and provided opportunities for the founders to tell the product story and encourage other design-oriented entrepreneurs.  For MKThink, aside from its initial share of equity ownership, the most valuable payback from Project FROG comes as lessons in business and finance as well as a test case for the concept of an innovation studio within a design firm.

The Potential for Great Ideas

Contrasting MKThink’s approach with the more common form of design innovation, “Most architecture firms innovate for specific projects, but their focus isn’t on realizing the potential of ideas for broader application,” says Miller. The MKThink Innovation studio matches a creative team with a problem that needs to be solved and the markets that need the solution – then they invest in the resulting good idea to develop it further. The studio aims to invent scalable, marketable solutions, a goal that pertains to both its client work and its role as an internal R+D department. For its clients, MKThink Innovation functions as innovators-for-hire or as an incubation vehicle to help advance the ideas of bootstrapping entrepreneurs, public entities, private corporations and even community organizations.

It’s worth noting that Innovation studio’s billable work does not assume a higher priority than its internal role. The studio takes on one advanced internal incubation project at a time with the intent of creating a viable and profitable product. Internal ideas for incubation are generated in the first of three phases of the firm’s “innovation pipeline,” which is research, incubation and enterprise.

Ideation is at the core of the MKThink culture and the entire firm participates in some way. All staff– including overhead positions – are expected to participate in the research phase. Each is responsible for studying a topic of their interest and presenting their conclusions to the firm and sometimes to the public. Presentations could take the form of a photo essay, a white paper, or even a business plan or patent application. MKThink doesn’t restrict what subjects can be pursued, but they try to organize explorations into three themes: productization, where industrial design meets architecture; the impact of data and analytics on spaces; and  the environment and sustainability. These independent studies often spark ideas that eventually move into the incubation phase which is formalized within the Innovation studio. Miller notes “research goes where the findings take us. It’s sometimes hard to tell where an idea starts or ends.”

One employee's study of the relationship between artistic movement and architecture culminated as a photo essay and eventually a post on the firm's blog.

Role of the Innovation Team

The Innovation team is staffed with creative professionals with diverse backgrounds, training and interests - including an MBA who is also a professional ballerina. Miller describes his team as smart, engaged, overachievers, and thinkers.  Promising Innovation projects incubate, mature, and graduate as an enterprise. It’s not uncommon for some of the core staff who nurtured the idea to continue with the new venture. This opens doors for new creative talent with a crop of different backgrounds and perspectives.  Miller notes, “We recruit for general talents related to specific assignments, but in reality, when we find someone really good we figure out a new job definition to have them add to our capabilities.  ”

Ideas that could be interesting prospects for the firm are advanced to the Innovation studio for incubation. At a point somewhere between 6 months and a year from the project’s start up, MKThink decides the appropriate next step:

  1. Kill / Hold
  2. Progress as planned
  3. Enhance the progression with investors and/or partners

When ready as an operational prototype, the Innovation project is tested by incorporating it into the project work being done in the Architecture and/or Strategy studios. By introducing the product or service to a limited audience of clients, MKThink can observe the invention in real world scenarios, and, when appropriate, begin to realize revenue. Ideally, MKThink develops the idea to a point where the business case is self-evident, if not self-sufficient. Sometimes this requires bringing in outside resources as additional expertise is needed and, if suitable, introducing the case to professional investors for the purpose of scaling and gaining strategic input.  Thriving ventures are eventually spun off as an entirely separate company.

Embracing a Technology Enterprise

MKThink’s latest innovation, which is now in the enterprise phase, is the software and services company, roundhouseOne.   Its proprietary solution, 4Daptive technologies, is informed by the work done in MKThink’s Strategy studio to address larger problems by adding speed and scale to data processing. 4daptive logoThis tool generates real-time analytics on how people and cultures consume resources and interact with facilities and natural environments to determine and improve alignment with institutional goals. What was once tracked manually (and invasively), 4Daptive technologies collects better data, automatically, and makes it available to clients on demand.

By the nature of the technology solution, the roundhouseOne development team is closely aligned with the Strategy studio as the 4Daptive technologies is tested and advanced in Strategy’s active client work. While communication between these two groups is fluid, the firm of about 40 individuals encourages active informal exchange and critique of work, as well as structured firm-wide business review meetings a few times each year.  At these “all-hands” meetings, each studio presents what they are working on – external projects and internal projects. This gives everyone in the firm the chance to learn and exchange ideas about the challenges and advances in each of the practice areas.

MKThink’s inclusive approach to innovation is not about marketing and positioning, instead it is their way of scratching an itch to investigate, grow, and create. Their structured approach fosters an environment of thinking differently and taking measured risks. Its successful endeavors continue to fuel the firm’s confidence in its ability to create sustained change.


This is the second profile in our AEC Thought Leadership series. Walter Communications has partnered with our friends at the Cameron MacAllister Group to study the strategic role of thought leadership in the built environment professions. Our first featured firm was Eskew+Dumez+Ripple's research and testing program and we conducted an industry-wide survey of firms, which has now closed and is being analyzed.

Top Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of April 8, 2013

Gensler on types of urban interface. Manaugh looks at Arctic instruments. Preservation Nation features church like no other. Earth day with Ayers Saint Gross and Living Classrooms. The Dirt shows the power of flowers.



Urban interface. Sarah Mathieson, an architectural assistant from the Gensler London office, discusses how the London office explored how education campuses interact with their immediate surroundings, or what they call the Urban Interface, as part of the Education Practice Area Next Gen Initiative.

The group identified a series of Urban Interface typologies that define these current and future campus trends:

  •  Suburban/Rural: Has dedicated facilities separated from the surrounding environment, allowing for multiple interactions between educators and students; establishes a clear institutional identity but offers less real estate flexibility and less accessibility if the student is off campus.
  • Urban Cluster: Offers real estate flexibility, allowing for interaction with educators and accessibility both on and off campus. As students are more dispersed, however, interactions between them are fewer, and the sense of institutional identity isn’t as strong.
  • Urban: Has dedicated facilities allowing for interactions between educators and students and is accessible on and off campus, as it is based in the community. It offers less real estate flexibility.
  • Virtual: Possesses no real estate but is accessible from anywhere. As the institutional identity is digital, it is thus not part of the greater community.
  • Global: Real estate accessible in multiple locations exports the institutional identity and allows for interactions between educators and students. This reach could be seen as diluting the offer (exclusivity).

Via Gensleron Cities


Arctic instruments. Geoff Manaugh writes about at a trip students from the University of Lund School of Architecture took to the Arctic island of Svalbard last autumn led by David Garcia.

Students flew up to visit "the far north, beyond the Polar Circle, to Svalbard, to study the growing communities affected by the melting ice cap and the large opportunities for transportation and resources that the northeast passage now offers," researching first-hand the "urban structures in the extreme cold" with Arctic instruments.

Via BLDG Blog


Historic church gets mural makeover. Graffiti artist Alex Brewer, also known as HENSE, took to Washington, D.C.’s city streets last year to transform an abandoned, historic church into a work of art.

In several weeks, HENSE dove into his imagination and conjured up the beautiful, vibrant mural that now envelopes the church.

“Most of the tools I use in my murals and paintings are the same tools I learned to use by working in the street in the early years. I use rollers, brushes, spray paint, inks, acrylics, mops, enamels, paint sprayers and other various mediums and tools… Recently I've been experimenting in treating my exterior works similarly to my paintings.”

Via Preservation Nation Blog


Living classrooms. In honor of Earth Day, 14 volunteers from Ayers Saint Gross had the unique opportunity to help build 23 floating wetlands that will be planted and launched into the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 20..

Spearheaded by Living Classrooms and Biohabitats, the project will support the city of Baltimore’s effort to make The Harbor swimmable, healthy and fishable by 2020.

Via Ayers Saint Gross Blog


Flower power. Tyler Silvestro, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY), examines the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), one of the Earth’s greenest buildings and the latest addition to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, says the primary drive behind the Center for Sustainable Landscapes is to function “as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.” While the merits of this approach can be questioned, the pure essentials of this poetic gesture are there.

Via The Dirt