Last week we explored different energy efficient, cost-efficient, and resource-conscientious approaches to architecture and construction. This week, we continue the conversation with ITAC director, professor Ryan E. Smith.
Let’s begin by examining the architect’s role in society. Too often they are seen as people who produce individual structures. And so architects and their structures seem disconnected from their physical environs as well as from larger social discourses. But professor Smith argues that architects who teach and practice must reframe their understanding of how they and their buildings function in society: “It is well documented by the Department of Energy that buildings account for 39% of the overall energy consumption and contribute 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in the US; they consume 70% of the US electricity [produced from coal fire power. We can’t reduce ‘sustainable,’ ‘green,’ ‘eco,’ and ‘environmental’ to materials and offered amenities in buildings only. We have to apply holistic methods and perspectives that take into account the network of systemic factors.”
Solar Retrofit (in product development phase), image via itac.utah.edu
Architects, therefore, need to reconsider the types of buildings they are designing as well as the materials used during the construction process. For example, how are these produced and transported? What is the building’s energy profile during construction? “Many architects take at face value what the market has given them, being relegated to an assembler of information and products from catalogs,” says Smith.
New ways of envisioning architecture, design, and construction are being created at ITAC (Integrated Technology & Architecture Center) by a team of professors, students, and industry professionals.
The lab focuses on what co-director, professor Ryan E. Smith calls a “building ecology.” Specifically, it centers on what many in the architecture and building profession know as “green” building. Unfortunately “green” is often the latest trend in establishing design cred, and fortunately the approach at ITAC is much more thoughtful and comprehensive.
Professor Smith offers some insight into the work at ITAC and on the larger discourse on “green” building. He begins with the terms people use such as “eco,” “enviro,” “sustainable,” and “green.” Many of these terms are often viewed as proxies for a “liberal” political agenda (for example, global warming), which can produce resistance to the terms themselves as well as to useful design and building strategies. He argues that part of the problem is the simplicity of these constructs: “‘Eco’, ‘Enviro’ ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Green’ all presume that humans and nature can find an ultimate balance.”
The debate, Smith explains, must transcend the labels of “green building” and “eco” because, those terms “seek a conceptually, but physically impossible, balance with nature. The human and nature dialectics of buildings are not to be reduced to morality (liberal agenda), or neglect (conservative agenda). Rather, the systemic relations between man and nature provide yet another more literal and measurable context against which we can evaluate design decisions. Therefore, rather than reducing the question of buildings and the natural environment to efficiency or conservation alone, architects need to view buildings more systemically. We chose Peter Graham’s word to describe this movement: ‘building ecology.’”
Lifecycle Energy Accounting, image via itac.utah.edu
What is a fab lab? You may already know it as a workshop or laboratory that allows digital fabrication of all sorts of interesting products. But while fab labs are ubiquitous at universities, few conduct research aimed at humanitarian ends. Enter Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where the d[fab]lab is not just used to help students realize their projects. It’s a place to explore concepts that can help real people. Now.
Take for example the project conducted on versioning, which the team at CalPoly defines as “a methodology that uses digital tools to compress design, testing, assembly and production into a single process.” They are, in essence, giving a different definition of design/build, one that is not often associated with architecture. In versioning, there are no in-house or affiliated contractors, unless you count the fabrication laboratory.
Analysis of different panel types, image via www.arch.calpoly.edu
Among the best and most interesting examples of successful crowdsourcing is the reCAPTCHA project by Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab. In it, indecipherable words from old manuscripts are used as part of the CAPTCHA identification strings. The goal here is to help scholars, through crowdsourcing, as they try to decipher these old texts. If enough people identify an indecipherable word as “butterfly” for example, then the researchers know there is a good chance that word is, indeed, “butterfly.”
At the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Design (BID), the value of crowdsourcing has taken another turn. A communitysourcing vending machine, created by computer scientists and information scientists, harnesses the unique skills of students for specific crowdsourcing projects. Communitysourcing targets higher-order tasks that can only be performed by specific populations that possess unique skill-sets and knowledge. That is exactly what the researchers of the Umati vending machine discovered.
Another important aspect of communitysourcing is harnessing the skills of specific target groups. The designers of the Umati vending machine decided that this was best done through a physical outlet, a vending machine they located at a site that would attract the targeted crowd. The researchers’ goal was to test the value of how a physical outlet can take advantage of a potentially large participant pool with self-identified knowledge or expertise in given topics. The targeted crowd then receives a reward: in this test case, credit for snacks.
Communitysourcing vending machine, image from bid.berkeley.edu
When you imagine uses for open-source 3D imaging software, medical applications don’t immediately spring e to mind. But at The Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and The Center for Integrative Biomedical Computing at the University of Utah, the focus is precisely on how to apply 3D imaging and visualization to help advance medical treatments and therapies. Even better, they have gone on to develop 15 different open- source software programs that do everything from processing images to rendering complicated 3D models. The researcher team includes biologists, bio-engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and medical doctors among others, so it’s clear that they’ve thought about a lot of angles that might be missed by those focused in on just one research area.
Here are two examples of the open-source software anyone can download and what it can do. Seg3D is a tool allows users to explore images comprised of 3D volumes using “volume rendering and orthogonal slice view windows.” But what are the practical applications? For one, it can be used to simulate bone growth, as illustrated in these images, under electric stimulation. The study is built upon other clinical trials that showed bone growth improve with electric stimulation. Using the simulation offered by Seg3D, which includes generating accurate skeletal, as well as neuromuscular segment models, the study was able to expand upon earlier clinical findings significantly.
3D reconstruction of bone using Seg3D, image via www.sci.utah.edu
Architecture school. It’s where students design buildings, right? Not at Carnegie Mellon’s CoDe Lab. This is an interdisciplinary, multi-university (it also includes faculty and students from the University of Pittsburgh) research lab in the School of Architecture. Clearly, a lot of their projects come out of the environment of working on architecture projects.
Posture suspenders, image via code.arc.cmu.edu
Take, for example, the Posture Suspenders. Okay, it’s true, not a lot of men under 50 wear suspenders these days, especially if they are partial to baggy pants. And the suspenders do look rather ordinary, don’t they? But here’s the thing. These aren’t just any old suspenders; they are made to correct poor posture. Toward that end, the stretchy device has two layers of stretchable fabric. The inner layer is conductive and is embedded with a vibrator that gives the wearer feedback. When your posture is bad, the second layer registers that fact and using small electronics, alerts you to straighten up. Pretty neat, and given the right outfit, this device could start a new fashion trend.
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