Out of Practice

dunescapeDunescape by SHoP Architects, New York, 2000

What was it?

The second Dean’s Lecture for 2013, courtesy of the University of Melbourne’s faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Held on Tuesday night last week, the speaker was Gregg Pasquarelli, one of the five founding directors of SHoP Architects based in New York. He presented a selection of projects with a collective narrative describing ways in which the office is seeking to establish new business models for architecture practice.

SHoP Architects were formed in 1996 by Pasquarelli and his wife, Kimberly Holden, a second couple, William and Coren Sharples, and William’s twin brother, Christopher. All five came to architecture through other disciplines, including history, finance, science and engineering; a diversity they continue to encourage in their close to 100 staff, many of whom also have past lives in other fields. This cross-disciplinary interest is closely tied to SHoP’s relentless pursuit of opportunities beyond pure design: including construction, manufacturing, finance, business and media.

Pasquarelli presented an eloquent argument for this strategy: the more they know about the broad socioeconomic armature of architecture production, the more liberated they can be in design, the more free they can be in “exploring beauty, aesthetics and art”. SHoP ask questions like: how big is an uncut sheet? What are the 8 ways two panels can be connected? What thickness loss occurs when a sheet is bent around a radius? How many fittings come in a box? How is a box lifted off the back of a truck? By understanding the answers to these questions, they can design to minimise waste, maximise efficiency and improve the quality of their buildings.

A key manifestation of this philosophy, in which Pasquarelli referenced Robert Venturi’s both/and language, was the creation in 2008 of SHoP Construction, a sister company that focusses on construction management and factory fabrication of building components. The two companies share staff, expertise and office space. The use of sophisticated digital technologies like parametric modelling, CNC routing and as-built laser scanning has liberated complex form from the noose of expensive labour: if SHoP can minimise disruptions on site or eliminate waste from a facade system, they can deliver sculptural buildings for standard industry construction costs.

What did we think?

Pasquarelli’s discussion of the armature of architectural production – his constant and refreshing references to construction and finances – resonated deeply with us. It touched a chord that goes all the way back to a theory class we took while studying architecture at the University of Melbourne, The Political Economy of Design. Taught by Professor Paolo Tombesi (who participated in a follow up round-table discussion to Pasquarelli’s Dean’s Lecture on Thursday afternoon), the subject examined the history, politics and economics of architectural production and urged us to consider both the storm of influences that inspire, and the far-reaching consequences of, any architectural work.

Tombesi’s systematic method for thinking about architecture is exemplified by SHoP’s output. Here is a practice determined to expand their role and influence beyond the traditional confines of practice, and in so doing sustain and improve the quality of their architecture. It seems there is no arena that SHoP won’t explore. Indeed, Pasquarelli structured his entire presentation around their incursion into the associated territories of consultant, builder and client: he spoke about incorporating financial management into their facade designs, where parametric modelling engines return realtime material costings; he articulated in great detail the various pre-fabrication processes in which they have become expert; and he discussed the increases in apartment sales revenue that their designs have generated.

Two project examples are particularly worthy of note:

porter house
Porter House, New York, 2003

Porter House is a 5,100sqm apartment building, part renovation to an existing, 6 storey heritage building and part 6 storey addition (with 2 storeys overlapping). This is one of an increasing number of projects where SHoP acted as their own client, establishing a joint venture partnership to share both the risk and rewards of a speculative residential development.

Pasquarelli related the story of the new building’s facade, which is clad in zinc. When SHoP approached local zinc installers during the design process, they were told that it would be far more expensive to install than a standard steel or aluminium skin. Where a steel system might cost $700/sqm, zinc would cost $1,000/sqm. But, they asked, zinc is only marginally more expensive a material than steel, so why should this be so? The response was polite disinterest, so their next question was, Where does the zinc come from? France. So they got on a plane to France, met up with a supplier and returned home to New York with 1,000 sheets of zinc. They then designed a complex cladding system with 12,000 panel pieces divided between 750 unique templates, parametrically tweaking the system to eliminate waste.

porter house facadePorter House, facade detail

Pasquarelli noted that a simple brick facade costs $500/sqm, while a slick Richard Meier curtain wall might cost in the order of $1,200/sqm. The Porter House zinc cladding system cost $430/sqm. Ultimately, the project was delivered with a 0% increase over standard construction costs, but thanks to its high quality design outcome, returned a 17% increase over budgeted sales revenues. For the first time, SHoP had hard data to back up their argument that good design has quantifiable value.

barclays centreBarclays Centre, Brooklyn, under construction

Barclays Centre is a basketball stadium for the Brooklyn Nets with a procurement story straight out of a book on the world’s most improbable buildings. Originally a project designed by Frank Gehry that comprised the stadium together with four residential towers at each corner, the start of the global financial crisis in 2009 crashed funding for the apartments and the project had to go back to square one. But the client now had another major financial issue: if the building were not in the ground within 7 months, a change in the local tax laws would remove $400m of tax incentives and kill the project entirely.

So Gehry bowed out and the client went to a major stadium builder in the United States. Even they said 7 months for design and documentation was too short a timeframe. However, if the client wanted, they could hop in a helicopter and visit all the stadiums the construction firm had previously built, pick one they liked and use the existing shop drawings to get construction underway. Which is what happened.

Enter SHoP Architects. The client went to them for some assistance with a new facade design, the catch being that all the steel had already been purchased. SHoP said no. But that night, Pasquarelli and his fellow directors went to a bar, had a few glasses of wine and started drawing. Ideas emerged. The following morning they called the client back and said, We’ll give it a go. Give us three days and we’ll produce one image. If you like it, you engage us to redesign the building in its entirety: structure, facades, interiors, the lot. The client agreed, an image was produced, and the project was awarded.

SHoP now had 7 weeks in which to design and document a $1b stadium. A staff of 26 worked in two shifts around the clock to deliver the project on time. They got the work done, were in the ground before the 7 month deadline and the tax drama was averted.

The Barclays Centre story doesn’t stop there however. This is a project that offers further surprises and fascinating insight into the way SHoP have embraced cutting edge digital technologies and construction delivery processes.

barclays centre facade panelsFabrication and assembly line for the Barclays Centre facade

The stadium’s facade is made from thousands of unique panels of weathered steel. SHoP commissioned a factory to build these panels and run them along a production line that subjected them to successive wash and heat cycles to achieve the desired weathered finish. They then built an iPhone app that permitted the barcode of any given panel to be scanned, and detailed data returned on where the panel was up to in its weathering cycles, how many coats of finish had been applied, when in the construction process it was expected etc.

This system relied on the installation on site of a very precise structural frame. A series of connecting cleats matching each panel had to be absolutely perfect or else it could not be installed. SHoP undertook a three-dimensional laser scan of the entire construction site and overlaid it against their digital model. This process revealed that 15% of the cleats across the project were out of place, an error that would have resulted in a 3 month project delay. The timely discovery of the misalignment saved the delay and many millions of dollars in additional costs.

The lost apartment towers have since been reintroduced to the client’s agenda, with a commitment to a citywide best 50 / 50 division between market and affordable housing. SHoP have proposed a unitised (or modular) design, with the potential for broad rollout across the Atlantic Yards site. So interested in examining the potential cost savings of unitised construction were the client that they commissioned two teams within SHoP, a firewall between them and entirely separate consultants, to document the project in both traditional and unitised formats. Both documentation packages went out together, in competition against each other, and the unitised package came back 30% cheaper than the traditional. Construction of the first towers is underway.

atlantic yardsB2 at Atlantic Yards , Brooklyn, in design

What can we learn?

SHoP embodies a radical approach to architecture practice, an approach that arises in conversation regularly amongst our friends and colleagues, albeit on a much smaller scale and always with more questions than answers. The approach is to do more, to take back territories stripped over recent decades from the architect’s realm of operations. Once upon a time, architects used to be builders and engineers, we used to be environmental consultants, project managers, heritage advisors and quantity surveyors. Thanks to the global tendency towards specialisation, together with significant periods in history of our own malaise, expertise in these roles now falls on the shoulders of others.

Pasquarelli criticised architects for being risk-averse and challenged us to push the boundaries of our comfort zones: he believes architects are great generalist with far more to offer than the mere beautification for which we are regularly employed. Why can’t we employ engineers, landscape architects and quantity surveyors within our practices? Why can’t we take on construction management roles for our projects? Why can’t we finance our own speculative developments? Architects do not, after all, build buildings. We prepare drawing sets from which other people build buildings. The more we get involved in this complex transition, the better our architecture can be.

dunescape contextDunescape, in context

To this end, SHoP no longer draw plans, sections and elevations. They regard these as obsolete methods of building communication. Since their early project, Dunescape, a temporary pavilion for MoMA PS1 that explored the potential of digital technologies to achieve complex spatial forms via simple means, they produce elemental documentation more akin to aircraft design, or to our mind, the instructions accompanying a LEGO set. We wonder even if the systematised directions for Dunescape were inspired by the installations of 1960s conceptual artist, Sol LeWitt, another New Yorker.

sol lewittStraight Lines in Four Directions and All Their Possible Combinations, Sol LeWitt, 1973

We imagine SHoP would be pleased with these associations. For them, success is a documentation set that goes straight from their computer to a CNC router, neither paper nor dimensions required, followed by a construction site populated by builders without tape measures.

Dunescape might also provide insight into the origins of SHoP’s restless, outwards gaze. It taught them the value of experimentation, a lesson they have carried through to many later projects, Porter House and Barclays Centre included. And it taught them the value of engagement with the socioeconomic armature surrounding their projects. Speaking with their client, they discovered that their pavilion attracted 8,000 people each weekend, compared to the previous year’s pavilion, which attracted only 2,000. What did this mean for MoMA’s revenue?

6,000 people
12 weekends
$20 average spend

SHoP’s earliest demonstration that good design has value.

Ultimately, the goal of SHoP Architects is to create good, sustainable architecture. For them, sustainability doesn’t mean installing photovoltaic panels on a building, but “creating buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years”. It means promoting high density living and healthy cities. It means exploiting the opportunities presented by new technologies to engage with the built environment at every scale.

Pasquarelli concluded his Dean’s Lecture by observing that we are standing on a precipice of radical change in the construction industry, driven by emerging technologies and rapidly evolving demands on our cities. He believes that architects, “guardians of culture,” are perfectly equipped to ride the waves of this change and must not be afraid to step up to its challenges.

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