In 2007, Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and James Timberlake, FAIA, took their graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania on a trip. The partners of Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake wanted their Design-Research studio to explore how the study of architecture, coupled with the study of the human condition, could advance more meaningful design. The group traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, a densely populated megacity with a growing population and myriad ecological and man-made challenges. Located in a large delta, 80 percent of Bangladesh is a flood zone. The overcrowded city of Dhaka is quite literally sinking.
“This is a very intense place with extreme problems,” says Kieran. “We asked, ‘How can we, as architects, contribute to this place and the betterment of lives?’”
Eight years later, the Dhaka Design- Research Laboratory continues to investigate climate change, development, housing, and health in Bangladesh. In their new book Alluvium: Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the Crossroads of Water (ORO Editions , 2015), Kieran and Timberlake write of their approach to understanding place, one where social science is as valued as urban planning and design interventions are rooted in empathy as well as research.
“Oftentimes, the answers students come up with aren’t about architecture,” Kieran says. “It could be about developing clean drinking water. They may wind up designing a filtration system. To us, that is still architecture. We do the same for our clients. If there are other ways to solve a problem [besides a building], we climb in and help.”
At KieranTimberlake, the scope of the architect is elastic and expansive. It begins with questioning and researching the very way buildings are conceived, designed, constructed, and delivered, and continues through to material and product development and the ongoing study and management of buildings and places. The firm includes an affiliate business, KT Innovations, which now develops and brings to market software and products for the built environment.
Their business model raises a compelling question: What is the purview of the architect?
It is an inquiry that has preoccupied the profession for centuries, and one that has, of late, been answered with the steady shrinkage of the architect’s sphere of influence. “Everything has become so specialized that architects hold a very small portion, something like the middle 6 percent of the process,” says Robert Forest, FAIA, a founding partner of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) in Chicago. “Previously, architects were engaged as the master builder right from conception. We were approving sites.”
Ask architects when and how the scope of their work diminished and you hear a litany of reasons, from a general aversion to risk among practitioners and the increased pressures of regulation and litigation, to the complex, often fractured org chart of the building industry today. Slowly, architects have ceded their power to subfields—including some that didn’t previously exist, like owner’s rep—and the architect got sidelined.
Tomas Rossant, AIA, founding partner and design principal at Ennead Architects, dates this deflection point back to the 15th century. In his role as the 2015 president of the AIA New York Chapter, Rossant dedicated the year to exploring firms that, like KieranTimberlake and new practices like Alloy, Plastarc, and Situ Studio, are all pushing the boundaries of design.
During one of his “Dialogues from the Edge of Practice” panel discussions, hosted in February, Rossant suggested the profession’s shift began with the Italian architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti.
“Alberti, I think, is the father of modern practice,” Rossant told the audience. “With Alberti came a distancing from making. He didn’t hold the contract of the guilds; he didn’t sit with the stoneworkers.”
Brunelleschi was different. “He got his hands dirty. He was a maker,” Rossant said. “I think at the close of the last century the voice of Brunelleschi grew faint. He disappeared for a while, as a spirit within us. But in the last 20 years, many of us have picked up the DNA of Brunelleschi again. In my practice, and at others working on the edge, we are moving out of the small box of basic services for fees to play a bigger role to both design and implement productive environmental solutions that respond to our culture’s needs and problems.”
With this expansion of purpose comes a broadening of business practices and opportunities. In fact, these “edge architects” (as Rossant calls them) have endeavored not only to regain lost ground but to enlarge the practice into new practice areas. These firms are bringing design acumen not just to buildings and urban plans, but to leveraging technology; to products and materials; to information systems, ecologies, and urbanism. These firms are expanding the life cycle of the architect, making the scope of practice more elastic.
Rather than waiting to respond to competitions, RFPs, or client phone calls, some firms are seeding projects in nascent stages. One way to achieve this is to become more politically savvy. Susannah Drake, AIA, principal of New York–based DLANDSTUDIO Architecture, an interdisciplinary architecture and landscape architecture firm, once told me that she hires staff capable of understanding policy papers and politics. With urban projects in particular, the layers of bureaucracy and the whims of elected officials often dictate which areas develop and which projects get greenlit. Being tapped into the politics and the policies gives her firm an upper hand by helping to understand the flow of funding and the possibilities for new ventures.
At AS+GG, the firm sometimes tasks staff with researching renewable energy and tax incentives. “We need to be proactive and aware of policy shifts, or of tax incentives for things like photovoltaics. We get requests from all over the country, so we should be able to talk about this,” Forest says. “And since we work internationally, we’re also looking at energy policies in places like China.”
Another way to have a larger role in projects is to propose ideas. “In Chicago, there are lots of potential sites for projects,” Forest says. “If we think there should be a project, we ask how we might spur that on. We do research, put together a business case, and see if there are clients that could latch on to that.” The firm, for instance, completed a pro bono master plan for a neighborhood in transition, which led to other projects in the community.
In Baltimore, the firm of Ziger/Snead Architects earned the planning and design of a new film center and cinema after advancing ideas for an abandoned historic theater building. “Long before that project was officially offered to developers, we put teams together to try and make things happen with the owner,” says partner Steve Ziger, AIA.
Questioning is another tool for expansion. Today, many fee-for-service firms work to a client’s stated needs. The firm is presented with a project, and the architects respond. But what if you questioned the very proposal?
“You want to get involved sooner and contribute to the decision-making process, because if you don’t you are constrained by the preconceptions of what comes to you, or you are marginalized and you have to fight your way out of that spot,” says Gordon Gill, FAIA, design partner at AS+GG. “We got a call about putting a building on a lot. We said, ‘You don’t need a building, you need a park.’ It’s not about selling architecture, it’s about solving problems. And we got that commission.”
Questioning—and challenging—how architecture happens is the driving philosophy at KieranTimberlake. “Inquiry is the engine that motivates us,” Kieran says. “We begin projects with ‘RED Reports’—research and environmental design reports—which is a way to interrogate an opportunity. There’s tremendous interest in questions that lead to insights and inventions that might then provide something of value to clients.”
For the third year in a row, the Boston- and New York–based firm NADAAA won the top spot for design in the architect 50 rankings, owing in large part to their ability to bridge the chasm between designing and building. At NADAAA, they’ve taken steps to regain a relationship with the trades. The architects reach out to the building industry early in order to better understand the logic of construction and how their designs might come to fruition. “With each project, we look at its innate qualities, not only in terms of their material behavior, but how each navigates the protocols of the construction industry,” says partner Nader Tehrani. They also invent new materials and products when they bump up against the limits of existing off-the-shelf options. NADAAA tests and builds at their in-house fabrication lab. “This is where we make and research pieces for which there is no precedence, or that are speculative. Sometimes we hand the making of it off to the building industry, and other times we deliver it ourselves,” Tehrani says.
KieranTimberlake, which has been a major player in redefining the way off-site buildings are fabricated and delivered through projects like their 2007 Loblolly House, now writes the construction relationship into some contracts. “We’re no longer held at arm’s length from the process of building,” Kieran says. “We have common contracts with owners to build together and with incentives to earn more money depending on how well we work as a team. We are regularly drawn into contracts that allow us to affiliate with subcontractors, manufacturers of building products, and project development. That’s a huge expansion.”
Investing a measure of fiscal risk into a project is another way of regaining ground. SHoP Architects has famously championed the architect-as-developer model, trading simple fees for equity in some projects and challenging the notion of the architect as a hired draftsman. Investing in real estate will mean different things for different scales of practice, of course, but the notion that a firm can negotiate an equity claim in a project rather than merely a fee-based role means the architect is again part of the larger team.
Who says the relationship with a building, or a client, ends once occupants move in? Post-occupancy is becoming about more than mere data-gathering or change orders; it’s now about fostering an ongoing relationship through new services. “Some of our contracts ask the client to provide us with data on the energy use of the building so that we can first go back and improve our design process and get a feedback loop, but also so that we can be involved as that building moves forward, even into the far future for things like restoration and renovation,” Forest says.
KieranTimberlake wanted to better understand the interior climate of its buildings, but found existing monitors incapable of fine calculations. So the firm designed hypersensitive sensors capable of providing microclimatic data. “Most weather data, for instance, is regional. Climatic data in buildings is very ‘regional.’ We didn’t find it to be sufficient to inform our work,” Kieran says.
They put off-the-shelf thermocouple sensors and pendant sensors in the 2008 Cellophane House installation for the Museum of Modern Art’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling exhibit. The practice of monitoring informed the development of their own sensors, which are being beta-tested by a number of firms this fall before being offered for sale in 2016. “Things that started with our projects have now become products,” Kieran says.
And this is perhaps the most compelling area of expansion for architects: invention. When an architect bumps up against the limits of existing products or services, some are designing a solution themselves. And, increasingly, they are bringing those products and services to market. The Copenhagen- and New York–based architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) now has a division called BIG Ideas, where researchers develop everything from original building materials to smart locks for houses.
Technology and software platforms that harness data are another growth area. KT Innovations developed Tally, a plug-in for Autodesk and Revit that allows designers to assess the environmental impact of building materials early in the design process.
AS+GG has also pioneered a prototype platform that plugs building data into a parametric model, which clients can lease for the life of the building. “This model can transfer to the client for facilities management,” Forest says.
Now imagine that technology applied to a master plan. “We’re proposing for a Chinese client a master plan that’s based on a parametric model that is flexible,” Forest says. “When we finish our task, we give a model, and then we give them a platform capable adapting if something changes.” In other words, the architects are selling not just a master plan but a lease on a program that can evolve as the place evolves and offer clients modifications. “With this platform, the client could in five years import the new reality—flooding, for instance—and the platform gives them a scenario of how to do planning,” says Forest. “It’s a dashboard for a city. You can see the present status, propose changes, and it will tell you what the outcomes are.”
Inventions such as these open new and appealing business possibilities for firms: Moving away from a strictly fee-for-service model and gaining a measure of passive income. As a whole, those expanding the life cycle of architecture are exploring every aspect of the profession for possibility, while expanding into new realms.
After spending more than a year connecting with new entrepreneurial practices, Rossant sees commonalities among the firms. “Edge practitioners have a different brain structure, one in which all aspects of human endeavor are seen as design problems. They practice without ego and across disciplines,” he says. “It’s happening in these crazy firms started by Millennials, which have no respect for the boundaries of traditional practice. It’s happening with renewed collaborations, often with disciplines that we haven’t tapped before, like cultural anthropologists, social scientist, material scientists. It’s such a cool time right now. Finally, many of us are taking risks again.”