Honoring Reinvention in Architecture

MONDAY, JULY 28, 2014

Steel origami shelters, foundation greenhouses, stronger-than-steel fibers, and a 21st-century phone booth top the newly crowned best and brightest in architectural R&D.

Architect, the magazine of the American Institute of Architects, has anointed nine winning products, projects and processes in its 2014 R+D Awards.

The honored projects are more about reinvention than invention.

The winners, culled from more than 100 submissions, all conceived ways to improve or upgrade longstanding manufacturing and construction methods, overhaul streetscapes and cities, and otherwise "inject architecture with intelligence," AIA said.

“They weren’t only about making things,” juror Mimi Love said of the winning projects. “They were also about solving human-scale problems.”

AIA presented six awards, two citations, and one honorable mention. Summaries of the winners follow. Details are available under the project title link.



When a task force recommended the demolition of 40,000 rundown houses in Detroit, Archolab of Ann Arbor, MI, offered a better alternative.

The idea, by Abigail Murray and Steven Mankouche: Repurpose the concrete foundations of the homes as sunken greenhouses to grow subtropical crops.

“This represents an extraordinary opportunity to rethink how we use our land and how we use our cities,” said juror Bill Kreysler.

“And yet, the beneficiary of these ideas is not the kind of client that would normally come to a design firm.”

Breaking the Mold

Custom fabrication of building components allows architects to avoid numbing repetition in design, but it can also be wasteful. That’s where Blair Satterfield and Marc Swackhamer, principals of HouMinn (pronounced “human”) Practice, come in.

Located in Minneapolis and Vancouver, British Columbia, the pair streamlined the process by eliminating the need for a custom mold.

Ryan Lodermeier

Without molds, HouMinn Practice created the ornamental, acoustically absorptive VarVac Wall at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture.

“We’re creating a degree of sophistication in the product, but we’re doing it without an extraordinary amount of product, waste, or energy,” said Satterfield, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “As we actively reduce the mold itself, the material becomes more of a voice in the conversation.”

Building Bytes

3D printing has created some interesting structures. By tweaking his own printer, this winner has employed it to create clay bricks.

At Kent, OH-based DesignLabWorkshop, founder Brian Peters first tested 3D model printing of bricks in 2011 on a model for Amsterdam-based Dus Architects. He hasn't looked back.

With Building Bytes, he tackled full-scale printing one clay brick at a time with a modified desktop 3D printer.

The modification involved replacing the traditional printer’s plastic printer head with an air-pressure nozzle that delivers a homemade liquid clay.

Each brick takes about 20 minutes to make. The bricks are then air-dried for a day before fired for 12 hours in a kiln at 2,000 degrees F.

Brian Peters / Architect

DesignLabWorkshop modified a printer to create 3D-printed clay bricks.

To date, Peters has designed and printed four types of bricks: honeycomb, interlocking, ribbed, and x-bricks.

Exo Structural Tower

For Doris Sung, Assoc. AIA, and founder of Rolling Hills, CA-based Do|Su Studio Architecture, a smart building “is not just about having a Nest-type thermostat.”

That is “a smart gadget, not smart architecture.”

Smart architecture, according to Sung, assembles itself.

With the Exo Structural Tower, Sung used thermobimetals (laminated sheets of two metals with different coefficients of thermal expansion), a technology that she had been testing for seven years.

When heated, one side expands faster than the other, causing the material to curl. With her latest Tower, Sung harnessed the curling behavior to achieve fastener-free construction of a lightweight structural shell, or exoskeleton, that essentially self-assembles.

NYC Loop

Telephone booths may seem obsolete, but the quaint shelter was one of the few communication systems that remained operational in Manhattan during 2012's Superstorm Sandy, thanks to its independent network of copper lines.

NYC Loop
FXFOWLE Architects

Don't write off the phone booth just yet. FXFOWLE Architects has reinvented it as an urban multipurpose communication hub.

In 2013, New York City held a Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge to elicit ideas for a 21st-century phone booth. FXFOWLE Architects answered the call with NYC Loop, a piece of urban furniture brimming with features. Juror Bill Kreysler praised its “practical day-to-day applications.”

The proposed NYC Loop comes equipped with a Wi-Fi hub, touchscreens for maps and weather, a Bluetooth connection, a cellphone charging station, and a bench for people-watching.

One Fold

Vancouver, British Columbia–based Patkau Architects created an origami-inspired stainless steel shelter steel that it calls “One Fold.”

The project began as an experiment by artist Paul Jackson’s origami work with paper.

Justin Fantl

Patkau Architects was inspired to create "One Fold" after seeing artist Paul Jackson's minimalist origami.

But the process wasn’t easy. Co-founder John Patkau said that once the fold was made, it was nearly impossible to break using stainless steel. They had to find an alternative to bend it correctly.

In order to create a stainless steel “One Fold” structure, the firm developed a series of fold and bend machines to manipulate the larger sheets of steel.

“We had to invent the machine to do it,” Patkau said.



Anca Trandafirescu and husband Glenn Wilcox—assistant professors of architecture at the University of Michigan and principals of Area in Ann Arbor, MI—used carbon fiber to create architectural units that can be joined together to form framing and other lightweight construction.

They found that the carbon fiber was 18 percent stronger than aluminum and 14 percent stronger than steel.

Brian Kelly

Area created a 14-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide, 31-pound carbon fiber structure that is stronger than aluminum and steel.

To make their 14-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide, 31-pound C-Lith prototype, the pair worked with spools of carbon fiber filament pre-impregnated with epoxy resin, which stays malleable and sticky until baked.

Because the fiber would ignite in a regular kiln, the firm built an elementary oven powered by 18 infrared heat lamps with a maximum temperature of 260 degrees F. Once baked for for four hours, the pieces are soaked in water to remove the molds.

“This opens the possibility of what you can do with carbon fiber, but I don’t think it does anything more than be a sculpture right now,” said juror Gerardo Salinas.

New York City Streetlight

A decade of development and prototyping has gone into New York City’s quest to replace its high-pressure sodium (HPS) streetlights.

Frieder Blickle / laif

A decade in the making, the NYC streetlight is scheduled to be phased in throughout the city by 2017, according to a plan announced in 2013 by then-Mayor Bloomberg.

The fixture consume 250 watts each, which totals about 60 million watts on the streets of New York alone. In 2004, a team made up of architecture firm Thomas Phifer and Partners, lighting design firm Office for Visual Interaction (OVI), and engineering firm Werner Sobek, all with offices in New York, won a city-sponsored competition with its New York City Streetlight design.

They promised to cut energy consumption using LED technology—still experimental at the time—and to rethink the ubiquitous fixture completely. Their solution is to be phased in throughout New York City by 2017.

Honorable Mention

Timber Tower Research Project

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill decided to create a tower using timber instead of the traditional concrete and steel frame.

Conceived by associate and engineer Benton Johnson, the tower has a  carbon footprint that is 60 percent to 75 percent smaller than more traditional structures.

The preliminary hypothetical design is a 42-story structure built of mass timber columns and panels alongside reinforced concrete wall joints, spandrel beams, and link beams.

“It’s an engineering tour de force,” said juror Bill Kreysler. “With wood, you can select shapes that are optimized for the structure.”


Tagged categories: Architecture; Awards and honors; Building Envelope

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