Pointelist homepage
KieranTimberlake Pointelist homepage

This piece is part of a series of articles that examines the progress made by past winners of ARCHITECT’s annual R+D Awards. The 2016 winners will be announced in July. Learn more about KieranTimberlake’s Pointelist network at the AIA National Convention when ARCHITECT senior editor Wanda Lau interviews James Timberlake, FAIA, on May 20 at the ARCHITECT Live booth 1038 on the expo floor.

It’s hard to escape the Internet of Things (IoT). With sensors embedded in everything from the light fixtures above our heads to the fashion accessories we wear, the amount of data one can gather on the world in which we live is astounding. As trained observers of human interactions with the natural and built environments, architects stand to benefit from the information gathered by IoT—if they can access the technology.

Leading the way is KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia-based firm that won two ARCHITECT R+D Awards in 2013 for seemingly disparate projects: the development of its self-made, state-of-the-art wireless sensor network, and for the intensive fieldwork behind its post-occupancy green roof vegetative study. Both initiatives sought to “generate highly granular data” and “allow architects to access the means by which we can characterize phenomenon in order to move design forward,” says KieranTimberlake partner Billie Faircloth, AIA.

Prototyping the boards behind Pointelist
KieranTimberlake Prototyping the boards behind Pointelist

As high-performance design enters the consciousness of more firms, KieranTimberlake wanted to know whether the typical measures deployed—such as highly insulated wall systems and radiant flooring—actually worked. It began researching the problem more than a decade ago when sensors, cloud computing, and BIM software were in their infancy. By 2013, as the technologies advanced, the firm had developed an easy-to-install, plug-and-play network of thermal and moisture sensors that they could embed in or affix to building components to gather information such as the temperature and relative-humidity differential of exterior walls.

The firm has deployed the wireless sensor network between 15 and 20 times so far, Faircloth estimates. One of its largest installations to date is its own office, a two-story former bottling house in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia where about 300 sensors measure temperature and relative humidity throughout the building. The firm has also installed about 150 sensors at Tulane University’s Richardson Memorial Hall to monitor building conditions in New Orleans’ muggy climate, and it held workshops with students worldwide to gauge novel uses for the technology, such as measuring the volume of liquid inside a container.

Thanks to the rapid pace of innovation in digital technology and computing, KieranTimberlake is no longer limited to off-the-shelf sensors and printed circuit boards. “The manufacturing paradigm for boards changed about a year-and-a-half ago,” Faircloth says. “We could find a service that could manufacture the boards in low volumes.” As the hardware matured, the firm also refined the computing interface from which users can access and analyze the data collected.

Pointelist components
KieranTimberlake Pointelist components

All of these advancements have led to the firm’s end goal: commercializing the network. The firm recently announced it has rebranded the wireless sensor network as Pointelist and that it is offering 25 kits to anyone, in any discipline, to test drive free of charge. “We know there’s a community of measurers out there,” Faircloth says. Each kit contains a central processing node, temperature- and relative-humidity sensors, and cables. “We want to see how others want to use this tool,” she adds. The only catch: Users have to share the data they collect.

KieranTimberlake tried to use Pointelist in a novel manner with its vegetative roof study, for which it won its second R+D Award in 2013. The firm visited several projects with green roofs they had designed to survey their post-occupancy changes and measure soil-moisture levels and thermal conditions. However, they found that they needed to develop the system further to ensure data reliability.

The investigation into applying sensor technology in ecological studies was itself interesting, says KieranTimberlake associate and researcher Stephanie Carlisle: “What we were interested in was [building] performance.” The realization that observations from an ecology survey could inform how a green roof affects and is affected by its host building was “a big turning point for that study,” she says. “Biodiversity is an important proxy of ecosystem services and benefits, and of growth and robustness.” Could it also relate to a building’s thermal and stormwater management systems?

Survey of the green roof at the Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery, designed by Kieran Timberlake
KieranTimberlake Survey of the green roof at the Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery, designed by Kieran Timberlake
Yale University Sculpture Building and School of Art Gallery, 2011
KieranTimberlake Yale University Sculpture Building and School of Art Gallery, 2011

These are all avenues that KieranTimberlake is continuing to investigate. In the meantime, the team has published the report “Green Roofs Over Time: A Spatially Explicit Method for Studying Green Roof Vegetative Dynamics and Performance” (August 2014, Cities and The Environment), describing their preliminary findings that green-roof biodiversity increases over time. Carlisle will also be presenting the study this October at the American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting.

Moreover, Faircloth says, KieranTimberlake’s methodologies developed through the vegetative roof study and its abilities enabled by Pointelist have allowed the firm to look at the environment more broadly. It now has the “confidence to broaden the way we want to interact with urban sites and our tool set,” she says. For example, it is experimenting with incorporating sensor technology as part of its renovation of Love Park, in Center City, Philadelphia, to measure when and how people use the park, such as where they choose to sit and where they take pictures. Using sensor technology to help survey a site could be invaluable to designers who, Faircloth adds, frequently spend many hours “attempting to know what a place and space is.”