Lee Powers

Visitors entering the lobby of SOM’s 24th-floor office in New York might be surprised to find an eight-foot-high, five-foot-wide object made up of biomorphic forms and punctuated with bushy patches of green. What looks like a green wall or a sculptural installation is actually a prototype of an Active Modular Phytoremediation System, or AMPS, an experimental project aimed at improving indoor air quality. “Everybody used to put a fern in their office,” says Nicholas Holt, who leads SOM’s technical design group. “This is the same idea but amplified 2,000 times.”

AMPs is one of several cutting-edge research projects being carried out by CASE, the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology—a multi-institutional collaborative research effort between SOM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which merges the resources and expertise of a global design firm with an academic institution. Founded five years ago, CASE was born after discussions between SOM and RPI about what they saw as a missed opportunity in the research field, which was largely split between the academic world and the private sector. “When you work in a lab, it is in the abstract, and can be slow. This was a chance to work with actual buildings and projects,” Holt says. “When you apply technology to real-world problems you are suddenly faced with another level of thinking. It brings another level of rigor to the work.”

Each semester, 20 to 35 students and four faculty members from RPI take up residency at CASE’s New York center, adjacent to SOM’s office, where they collaborate with architects and designers on projects. Testing facilities and laboratories that RPI uses in Troy, N.Y., are the site of additional experiments. “Buildings are generating massive amounts of data these days, and how do you wrestle with that and leverage that?” asks Kenneth Lewis, a managing director at SOM and co-director, with Holt, of CASE. “Even with our resources here, a research institution has the super computer and the wind tunnel and all the things we can’t get our hands on.”

The CASE research projects focus on sustainable and high-performance technologies, as well as integrated systems that fundamentally affect health, safety, and welfare issues. AMPS is one project in the test phase that Holt says is buildable and installable today. Another project explores advanced glazing technologies to see if they can be integrated with emerging display technology to improve building performance by filtering daylight. Another project investigates the use of agricultural by-products such as coconut husks as the basis of a local, sustainable building material in tropical climates. All the projects are jointly funded by RPI and SOM, and by grants from institutions such as the AIA, National Science Foundation, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Holt says that CASE fills a critical research gap at a time when performance is driving design and clients and owners are more interested in measuring performance: “CASE is an experiment—a collaborative experiment—which is a next generation way of thinking about how we work and how to advance that work.”