Thursday 18 July 2013

Innovation in Architecture

Innovation is the application of ideas and fresh solutions to meet new requirements or the changing needs of established industries and markets.  In this post I'd like to describe how innovation can be applied to architecture.

Six Ps of innovation in architecture

Innovation can be broken down in to six areas beginning with P (which makes them easy to remember).  Innovation is rarely isolated to one of these areas and often impacts on several, with both positive and negative effect.  Because of this, innovation needs to be managed and maintained to ensure that when put in to action, innovative proposals are successful.

Procedural Innovation
This mainly relates to business structures and can be innovations in:

  • How a business operates internally,
  • How teams are set up to operate within a business, or
  • How teams operate and coordinate between businesses.

Inspiring studio spaces can add creativity to the work place.  BIM promises to revolutionise working methods both within architectural practices and between design disciplines.

BIM's working practices change some of the ways in which design teams operate,
and promises to better inform the fabrication, logistics, assembly and maintenance of projects

Often breakthroughs occur in building innovation when very close and adventurous relationships are formed between architect and structural or services engineers.

Process Innovation
This is how a product is made and relates to areas of innovation such as:

  • Prefabrication and the extent of off-site manufacturing
  • How items which arrive on site are assembled, to minimise the number of site operations, requirements for cutting, wet trades and site waste etc.
  • Logistical issues.  Most projects either have a 'bottle-neck' restricting the size and weight of items delivered to site, or restrictions to items handled on site.  
How we creatively handle pre-fabrication and site assembly issues and tackle logistical restrictions in transporting items to site, is often a key part consideration for many projects today.

TailorCrete uses robotics to fabricate specialist concrete constructions.
 The process aims to eliminate formwork requirements and
produce components with greater accuracy. 

People Innovation
This can refer to a number if areas including:

  • Methods of handling design teams to draw the creative best out of everyone, 
  • Ensuring the practice runs efficiently and profitably, can repay staff with financial incentives and career opportunities.  This helps to ensure they continue to give their best and the practice has the pick of the brightest new recruits.
  • By contrast, it also relates to ways in which team members can be reduced, and savings made, without compromise to the product.
Google's offices, designed to promote playful thought and creativity,
and draw the best people to the company.  

Programme Innovation
This very simply relates to the time it takes to design, produce, construct and complete a building project.   Typically, innovation is applied to shorten programme times, but this often comes with a cost premium, especially if new fabrication and construction principles are adopted.  This form of innovation might focus on one area or procedure in the programme sequence or the whole programme.

Besides looking stunning, Zaha Hadid's Chanel Pavilion is designed to be transported around the world.  The sections of the pavilion were designed and made to fit in to ISO containers for transportation by sea.  To reduce disassembly and assembly times, the FRP cladding junctions were designed release and engage very quickly.  A prime cost in manufacturing FRP panels is that of making the moulds.  This can prove expensive for a single building.  Here, the moulds were cut by CNC machine from blocks, starting with the narrowest geometry and working out to the widest, so that one block could be used to produce many panels of different geometries.  This greatly reduced the cost of producing this one-off building without compromising the geometric design.  Lots of great innovations! 

Price Innovation
Of all the areas of innovation, this can be the hardest to move in the right direction (i.e. reducing costs).  It can be one of the main barriers to innovation generally in the building industry since innovative measures used elsewhere usually have an uplift in price.  Often the new comes with a price premium until it becomes the industry standard, and then the cost savings begin to be realised (and it is no longer considered an innovation).  Unfortunately architectural design largely consists of bespoke one-off projects which does not work to the economies of scale usually required to make innovation affordable.  To achieve this, mass production of standard components is key.  Some building sectors such as housing do have this potential and projects like Roger's Oxley Woods project shows promise.

Oxley Woods housing Milton Keynes, demonstrates programme and price innovation

Product Innovation
This is about an end product or the final built project.  It is often the area people think of most when referring to innovation.  In the building industry this can be:

  • A new building type
  • A new component or building part
  • A new building system, or method of assembly, or
  • A new building material
The built environment is visually full of materials which have had a long standing relationship with us.  In fact most materials around us have been in use from before Roman times.  Innovations have improved them, making them easier to produce (industrialisation) rather than replacing them.  By contrast, the ways in which we put buildings together has changed radically over the years and continues to do so.  Buildings might be designed to look old or 'timeless' or 'in keeping' but beneath the surfaces, they are definitely statements of their time.   This, I believe, is because of two main reasons:

  • Collectively, we have very conservative views towards the built environment, resulting in a resistance to change.  The familiar materials we see around us have, over time, acquired a set of cultural values and a position within the hierarchy of the built environment.  New materials and visibly building systems (which are expressed and visible) are often a challenge to our preconceptions and cultural values.  They can therefore meet with resistance.
  • The structure of the building industry is well established and set, with each group of people working to their own patterns.  Design consultants and builders rarely coordinate beyond normal practices to be innovative.  Mostly the requirement to do so is not these because the Client does not want undue exposure to risk or expense.  
Because of this, where product innovation does occur in the building industry, it is, more often than not, hidden or made to look recessive or invisible.  Here there are lots of examples to choose from.

An obvious innovation is brick slips on a prefabricates panel to look like a true brick wall.  

Small innovations are important.  Concealed clips hold down timber decking.
No visible fixings - again innovation made invisible

Some more forward thinking innovations in materials, components and products are developing in Europe, and can start to challenge our preconceptions about the built environment, often with enhanced operational performance, and playful use of light or texture:

3Form Chroma coloured translucent blocks

Translucent polycarbonate panels which offer good thermal resistance, from Lumira Aerogel 

Aluminium foam from Alusion

To challenge the collective preconceptions of the public, and push towards more expressive innovation in the built environment, here's a note of inspiration:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  
To change something, build a new model 
that makes the existing model obsolete
R. Buckminster Fuller

Innovation either reinforces the current working practices or models by which we live, or it challenges them.
In it's politest form it works invisibly to reinforce what we already do and how we already live.
In it's most radical form it changes our cultural patterns for living or working,
and by doing so can change the way we think.

Innovation management
Be careful what you wish for.  As well as enthusing about the positives of innovation, the side affects need to be considered also.  Innovation needs to be carefully managed.  At one level, innovation might be something small and unassuming.  On the other hand, it might be a paradigm shift which radically affects the way we live or work.  The larger the positives associated with an innovation, the larger the potential hidden negatives.  In managing innovation it is important work out what these might me and do our best to mitigate them.

Asbestos roof: We are still cleaning up the health hazards
made from the introduction of this material

Ronan Point, Newham, London, partial collapse after a gas explosion in 1968.
Large concrete prefabricated panels blew out around the explosion
leaving the floors directly above unsupported.  Contemporary design analysis
should cover issues like this but back then, these innovative building systems
were not fully understood

What of CAD and BIM?  As this sketch illustrates,
isn't there a risk that design becomes a less hands-on,
less tactile, less of a 'making' process?

Related posts
Innovation Experience:  In the following post I describe some of my experiences working with innovative architectural projects.

Innovation begins with people: How innovative can the building industry be?

Some favourite books on innovation
Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Peter Drucker 1985)
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (Peter Drucker 1973)
The Economics of Industrial Innovation (Chris Freeman and Luc Soete 1997)
Managing Innovation (Jane Henry and David Walker ed. 1991)
Making Innovation Happen (Michael Morgan 2000)
Innovation in Architecture (Brookes and Poole 2003)

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