Claire Maxfield
Atelier Ten Claire Maxfield

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, London-based engineering firm Atelier Ten recently published Invisible Architecture (Laurence King Publishing, 2015), a 230-page book about its research in sustainable design. The monograph explores the firm's advances in green engineering across a range of building types—including laboratories, art museums, aquariums, pavilions, and schools—as well as its research, such as a study on how the thermodynamics of termite mounds can inform design. 

Alexander Cortez

ARCHITECT spoke with Claire Maxfield, director of the firm's San Francisco office, about her work and the firm's evolving approach to environmental design.

ARCHITECT: Before working at Atelier Ten, an engineering firm, you were an architect. How has the relationship between architects and engineers changed over time?
Maxfield: When I first started at Atelier Ten​ in 2004, architects and engineers still didn't quite talk to each other. The architects designed the way they wanted to design and then they handed it over to the engineer and said, ‘Make it work, please.’ The engineer said, ‘OK​, I'll do whatever I have to do to make this work even if it's not really energy efficient.’ Over time, each field has gotten more conversant in the other field, so that the architects now understand more of what's driving the engineering and the energy efficiency, particularly of the mechanical systems. Engineers are more sensitive to the architectural process.

The chapter on cultural projects features the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, a project Maxfield is working on in Miami.
Alexander Cortez The chapter on cultural projects features the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, a project Maxfield is working on in Miami.

What does the phrase “invisible architecture”—the title of the monograph—mean to you and how does that reflect the firm's design approach?

There are two reasons that we call it “invisible architecture.” The first is that we deal with forces that are usually invisible or that people want to make invisible, like air, energy, water flows, and humidity. People don't often have a very intuitive response to them and don’t understand how they work because those elements are invisible. The other reason is because we think our work is really at its most successful when it's invisible, in that it's completely seamless with the design intent of the project.

The chapter on laboratories features this diagram illustrating how the envelope, layout, HVAC, and water systems work together in the Bioengineering and Sciences Building at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Alexander Cortez The chapter on laboratories features this diagram illustrating how the envelope, layout, HVAC, and water systems work together in the Bioengineering and Sciences Building at the University of Texas at Dallas.

You helped write the book's chapter on laboratories. Tell me about your work designing labs and research facilities.

It’s funny that I ended up writing that chapter. Back in the day, I was a little less interested in labs because they tend to be less high-design and they seemed like a restricted building type. I’ve since come to see the error in that old attitude. Labs have a huge environmental impact so in designing an efficient one, you have the ability to save an entire building's worth of energy rather than just trimming around the edges and saving a bit here and there.

How has the firm's approach to designing laboratories evolved over the course of your career?
In lab design, it's all about air flow. You’re trying to keep people safe and provide enough [fresh] air so that no matter what happens in the lab, they [can] breathe and nobody is going to be made ill by chemical spills. There are a lot of ways that you can do that with the physics of how air moves, how much air is needed, and what dilutes a spill. The more we've worked on labs, the more we've been able to get back to those types of fundamentals. We've gotten more technical in understanding the mechanical and chemical systems. That’s similar to lots of other building types in that the more we work on them, the more we end up challenging fundamental assumptions about what it takes to make a good museum or a good office space.

Atelier Ten uses data visualization techniques to analyze design.
Alexander Cortez Atelier Ten uses data visualization techniques to analyze design.

The book’s chapter on benchmarking discusses the various green-building certifications that Atelier Ten projects have achieved. How does the firm decide what certification to pursue for a particular project?

First and foremost, geography guides the default certification. In some parts of the world LEED is really prevalent. In the U.K., BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology) is the leading standard. Then we figure out if there's another system that isn't the default that lines up with the philosophy of the project better. For every project, we ask, "What are the true goals and levels of performance we want to hit and how does that align with the benchmarking system?" We prefer not to be in a role where we're just checking the boxes and saying "Let's do whatever measures we have to do to meet LEED."

Do clients often come in with a specific certification in mind, or just particular goals?
It’s probably 50-50. When we first started doing this, nobody came in with any goals. It was all new, so people might say they wanted to be green, but they didn't know what that meant. Now clients say they want LEED certification or they want to be sustainable, and we help them articulate what that means to them. We have found that people who don't know which certification to pursue usually have strong opinions about what matters to them within the realm of sustainability; they just haven't been asked to articulate it, so they use "green" as a stand-in for caring about energy use or occupant health.  It's usually a pretty quick process to arrive at a definition of sustainability for each project that reflects what the clients want. Other projects come in with specific goals, which is fantastic.

California recently enacted a benchmarking program for commercial and large residential buildings. How are these types of programs in California and elsewhere​ driving the green-building movement?
Those particular benchmarking programs make building owners disclose publicly how much energy their structures use. The important push behind the transparency is to think about real world energy. The first goal is to make sure that the building owners actually know their energy use. You can't fix what you can't measure. There's also the educational component of understanding how much energy buildings should use and how they compare. The laws focus building owners on real world energy use, not just designed energy use. It matters how our buildings perform after they're occupied. The industry is grappling with that because it comes down to equipment loads, how people use computers, and things that were traditionally not part of our job. It forces us to be more like sociologists and not just designers.

Does your firm work with clients to conduct post-occupancy evaluations?
We do and we're trying to do more of them. Post-occupancy evaluations weren’t common until recently. LEED had an option for measurement and verification, but a lot of folks didn't take them up on it. It has been incredibly valuable to get feedback on how these buildings are performing so we can get an individual building back on track and take the lessons learned to further our design assumptions about future buildings. Sometimes you find construction errors, but a lot of times you find that owners didn't understand how to operate the building they were given. We see what's gotten off track and why and how we can re-calibrate the project to where it should be. You can re-educate the owners on how the system was designed and how it was supposed to work.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.