Sheila Kennedy, founding principal of KVA
Lee Powers Sheila Kennedy, founding principal of KVA

The Soft House, a conceptual design developed by the Boston architecture firm Kennedy & Violich Architecture and its materials research division KVA MATx, features an energy-harvesting roof with a flexible form that responds to sun angles. Translucent movable curtains distribute light and low-voltage energy, and fold up into a soft luminous chandelier—one of the project’s many innovations in bendable photovoltaic technology. With its renewable electrical power and flexible, photovoltaic nanotechnology materials, Soft House “could become a platform for an entirely different form of living,” predicts Sheila Kennedy (left), founding principal of KVA, who partners with Juan Frano Violich.

Since it was created in 2000, a decade after KVA was established, KVA MATx has been committed to pursuing this kind of applied research, whether projects arise from in-house ideas or from design commissions. Projects can also originate when a manufacturer “calls us and says there is a technology or a material that is having a crisis or that is outdated or too conventional,” Kennedy says. This has yielded an impressive range of work for companies including Herman Miller, Philips, and North Face, for which KVA MATx devised high-performance sportswear designs that enable athletes to control their clothes’ heating and cooling. Working for 3M, it produced a sunlight-delivery prototype that captures sunlight and distributes daylighting deep within a building interior.

Most KVA MATx projects revolve around ideas about materiality “and the emerging nexus of materials and energy and information,” Kennedy says. Many lead to significant advances in technology and materials. For example, parametric design software developed for Soft House allows a homeowner to customize the cladding form and solar orientation and customize the energy density of the house’s textile components according to local needs and regulations. Another project, the 34th Street Ferry Terminal in New York, now under construction, has an “intelligent infrastructure” with an interactive LED lighting system built into large oculi in the roof canopy, and integrated radiant heating in the passenger waiting area that is protected from wind and rain by retractable weather screens. KVA MATx developed the concept as well as all the lighting systems and architectural details.

Research is fully integrated into the firm’s design process and workplace, with all 16 staff participating. “We debated whether to have a separate company but always came back to a symbiotic relationship in which everyone is involved, one way or the other,” Kennedy says. The firm’s office, in the former Blue Bird bottling plant, features a design studio as well as a digital-fabrication workshop with a lightweight industrial robot and digital prototyping equipment, as well as saws and other tools. This approach, Kennedy believes, allows architects to be intimately involved in technology innovation while providing their knowledge of building construction and design.

Unlike collaborative arrangements with universities or other institutions, Kennedy argues that the interdisciplinary KVA MATx model is an ideal way to concentrate expertise, provide continuity on projects, and to move quickly to find solutions. “We are our own self-standing organization,” she says. “This is not an academic endeavor, or a student endeavor,” she adds. “This is our research center. We follow a trajectory of thought that is of interest to us. It gives us great independence.”