Friday, 28 February 2014

Metaphysics of materials

The metaphysics of materials
Can our attachments to (and dislike of) materials in the built environment be measured by their positions along the scales of these eight values?
Developed from Adrian Forty's Concrete and Culture

We attach values to everything we engage with around us.  This includes materials in the built environment.  For some reason, perhaps because the built environment is associated with a sense of permanence or because of function, people's collective values associated with materials on buildings are different from those of materials on other objects such as cars or appliances etc.

Also there is a sense of place or belonging which has evolved with building materials because of the long association of these materials in the building industry.  Glass, brick, stone, timber, render etc  are common place and have developed a recognisable presence in the building industry over a very long period.  This is backed by the economics which underlie their place in the building industry:  To establish their presence has been a long and expensive process and to alter this might prove equally expensive.

This might be one reason why we do not see much carbon fibre or GRP in the built environment, or where GRP is used, the material innovation is often hidden to look like stone for example, so not to provoke questions of it's acceptance as a new material in the built environment.  As noted in the pervious post, and in relation to Adrian's earlier book Objects of Desire, changes in the use of materials in the built environment might result from pressures in the building industry (including economic, technical, production, material resources, logistical etc.) as well as aesthetic / intellectual developments from designers.  Changes (usually) have to be understood and accepted by the public.

Adrian Forty's latest book Concrete and Culture looks at the metaphysics of concrete as a building material and ways in which it has been able to reinvent itself as a desirable material in different ways.  These transformations have allowed it to shake off associations of concrete being a 'disliked' building material.  At a UCL lecture to support this work, Adrian sets out eight sets of values to describe how materials in the built environment can be reinvented to gain acceptance with the public.  An adaptation of this is shown in the diagram above.

Adrian's work is a historical account of concrete structures in existence, but could this set of values be used as a design tool by architects to help inform how we handle all materials and choices made in projects currently in design?

The choice of materials and their place in building design does not need to be a completely subjective process.  Concrete and Culture helps to unravel the black art behind the metaphysics of materials and offers strategies for working with this subject in a more objective way, in design practice.

Taking this a step further, could it be used to help establish values for new materials to ease their path to acceptance in the built environment?  Could values be attributed to new materials which are recognisable to the public, reinforce an identity and help to overcome any resistance to change which they might otherwise encounter.

This subject highlights the issue that materials in the built environment need PR management, and it is the correct and conscious handling of this which makes any material which sets out to challenge the established rules, a success or failure.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Objects of desire

Managing risks and opportunities in product innovation

Professor Adrian Forty's book Objects of Desire examines the relationship between design and society.  It was written in 1986 before several major shifts in the mechanics of society, including personal computers, the internet, smart phones, social media and even blogging.  Despite this I believe the arguments it puts forward to account for the introduction, acceptance and evolution of products in society has much relevance today and can be used as a model to help understand how contemporary design (including our current design projects) can fit in to the surrounding world.

The radio changed the world but its introduction to society did not come with automatic acceptance.  Adrian describes (in chapter 1) how the product was styled with 'design imagery' to overcome any perceived resistance to change:
  • First the radio was made to look like a piece of antique furniture, to hide the innovation, and make it blend in to the home.
  • As the product became more commonplace, it had to refresh to sustain sales.  Ways of making the furniture housing more functional or smaller were examined.
  • Then the styling became more contemporary and futuristic, aiming to establish a stylistic identity of its own, now that the product and innovation had become accepted.   

This was all before transistors allowed radio to become small and portable and it seems the evolution of the radio was played out a second time with the introduction of its digital counterpart.

Two  requirements which seem constant are that:
  • Successful products need to refresh to sustain sales.  This is enabled with design imagery, especially where the underlying innovative technologies mature and offer less to the market.  This happens until it is replaced by the next product innovation.
  • The consumer requires variety of choice. Choosing the one you like gives personal attachment to the product.  Choosing the best of a bunch to keep up with the Jones's is still a sale.

The need to refresh a successful product is very clearly demonstrated with the iphone.

The iphone 5C was introduced to maintain consumer interest where maturing technologies are offering less novelty, and give more choice for the same product.

By contrast, did the lack of stylistic design given to the video player contribute to its swift succession by DVD?  The DVD was superior because of its quality and mobility, especially teamed with a small LCD screen, but it left a gap in the market for recording our favourite TV shows.

There was not much in the way of stylist evolution with the VHS machine.  The technology matured rapidly without further development.  There might be hundreds of tapes in our attics but we seem to have parted with the machinery to play them on.

This balance between innovation vs resistance to change often means the new is hidden or suppressed, within a stylistic envelope, used to carry its public acceptability.  This perceived resistance to chance (combined with the professional structure of the building industry) are often noted as the main barriers to introducing new materials in to architectural design.

In chapter 2 Adrian describes how this relationship of innovation vs resistance to change was addressed with industrial development at Wedgwood.  For the first time design roles were established as separate from manufacturing in an industrialised process.  Labour was divided into separate and specific tasks.  There was also a significant amount of technology transfer from other industries to make best use of peoples' skills from production line assembly, making best use of materials, to ensuring the base pattern was transferred to each item exactly.  Previous to this, the industry had relied on one artisan producing each item from start to finish.  The result was, in the late eighteenth century, a mass produced dining set dressed with a contemporary but up-market Neo-classical design.

The significance of this in relation to the building industry today is that the innovation was undertaken by a single organisation with a clear direction and clear lines of communication.  The innovation was hidden behind an understandable and engaging contemporary design.  Within the building industry it might be argued that the separation of professional roles has become too fragmented.  We can look to opportunities for technology transfer but this often requires a single organisation to pull everything together to implement innovations.  Architects can do this but don't always have the important economic control.  Some large contractor / consultants are doing just that and can, in time, significantly alter the structure of the building industry.  

Chapter 4 talks about differentiation in design.  Adrian describes consumer choice as being offered from diversity by design.  Demand drives the requirement for choice and stems from the target criteria for innovative developers (in the little diagram above) of:

  • Class
  • Gender
  • Social position (& social aspirations), and
  • Variety
Diversity is restrained by industrial ability.  With evolving technologies at our disposal such as 3D modelling, digital and CNC production and 3D printing, there are some very significant opportunities for the building industry to innovate with diversity and use this as a means of economically creating more choice, and in turn revitalising demand in building.  

Differentiation by design

This is reinforced in chapter 7 which looks at how technology and innovation can be used to support changes in society, and control the demands placed on products, to the benefit of the producers or the industrial sector.  Manipulating changes in societies' needs allows easier access for innovation.  Common trends along these lines tend to involve:
  • Hygiene
  • IT
  • Communication and transport
  • Entertainment, and
  • Working and social advances
There are lots of opportunities to innovate in the building industry.  Adrian Forty's account in Objects of Desire can offer a model with which we can look at how innovation might become more common place in this industrial sector.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Innovation begins with people

Innovation in the Building Industry.  

Innovation begins with people
A previous post looked at innovation in architecture.  The diagram above is a development of this, following discussions with a Client (a large building contractor and design consultancy).  The importance of people to innovation and industrial progress was quickly identified as the most important factor.  Innovation begins with people, their ability to see opportunities for improvement, and their ability to implement them.  This is illustrated when the diagram is unpicked to show how it works in relation to the development of innovation in the building industry.

Innovation development flow with People at the centre

Innovation is also about looking outside the professional structures of the Building Industry.  The recent Future Systems article in Building Design (BD) identified in 1984  that the aircraft industry as being 50 years in advance of the building industry.  To catch up we have to make adjustments to the way in which we work, change our professional structure in some way - make people innovation, not just focus on products.  Instead if working with the standard building design team (architects, structural and service engineers etc.) we need to engage with professionals in these other, apparently more progressive fields:

The usual precedents are to areas of the transport industry:
  • Rail 
  • Automobile
  • Aircraft
  • Yacht and boat building
From experience, economies of scale work often against the Building Industry.  Transport is a mass production industry and buildings are often about low volume production or single items.  Instead of targeting big players in the transport sector (eg Bombardier), look at instead smaller manufacturing companies or smaller suppliers to the big guys (eg Advanced Composite Systems).  These specialist manufacturers also have long established connections to their specialist design consultants.

It is still worth keeping an eye on innovations coming out of organisations such as BAE and Qinetiq.

BAE 3D printing parts for the Tornado jet

Qinetiq's developments in electric ion propulsion saves fuel and resources, manoeuvring objects in orbit 

To work more like these industries we should think more like them too.  Top Gear assesses cars partly on their power to weight ratio.  It's not very often we hear about buildings being designed with an optimised surface area to volume ratio, which is important to minimise heat loss and air leakage.

Some areas to look at for inspiration and innovation for the Building industry include:

3D printing
3D printing will revolutionise the Building Industry.  Where BIM is being dragged in to our industrial sector, 3D printing will hit it like a rocket.  The technology is developing rapidly and with this the bar for entry to this technology is dropping.  3D printers can be purchased from Maplin and ebay for just over £500 with software.  Once where the Building Industry had problems keeping up with the complex geometric design requirements of architects and designers, with 3D printing there will be no limit to the complexity of forms.  There will also be no limit dictated by economies of scale because each component item can be made bespoke.

This innovation and the freedom it potentially brings, could mean that we break free from our reliance on right-angles and rectangles, which for the past three millennia have been the basis for setting out buildings, floor plans, walls, fixtures and fittings (tables etc).  Instead the prime design parameters might be limited only to the vertical z axis, gravity and performance loads.  Buildings might look more like aircraft or boats, where design is dictated by performance, or become completely free-form.

Biological systems
Beyond biomimicry and biomutualism, buildings one day might simply be biological, able to generate heat and provide warm air and with minimal heat loss to the outside, purify water and manage light transmission as a controlled living organism.  Imagine one day buildings might be grown rather than built, have a life-cycle, be totally biodegradable or require a building medic.

Integrated components
In the future components might have several integrated roles.  For example FRP carbon components can act as structural members, have aesthetic value as visible items, and operate as fuel cells.  Thinking like this can potentially reduce the amount of material resources used to produce a building, but will require a much tighter integration of roles within the design team, where currently building envelope, structure and services are all produced separately: A people innovation.

The Lola-Drayson electric racing car experiments with cells integrated within the carbon
monocoque structure to power the car's controls

Control systems
Control systems to buildings are becoming more and more sophisticated and our lives becoming ever more reliant on smart phones and tablets.  Not surprisingly there are already apps which can manage a building's control systems from an app.

Beyond the building industry there are many innovations in materials to draw inspiration from.  As well as looking beyond our industrial sector or to nature, this too requires a greater integration between the working methods of design professionals, to combine their efforts on single components.

Plastic compound becomes stronger when stressed

Moving architecture
Where building design is considered more as an assembly of components with greater prefabrication and off-site production, combined with greater precision from CAD software and digitised production, buildings can potentially adopt more moving parts to enable them to move, transform or relocate with autonomy.

The hydraulic systems on a CAT digger.
It is possible to have hydraulic systems in a building, similar to those in an industrial vehicle

Electroactive polymers change shape with electric currents.  Combine this example with Buckminster Fuller's Cloud 9 project and we have cities in the sky!

Reliance on resources
Energy prices are increasing and government incentive is (partly) to economise on fuel use.  Innovative thinking can allow us to greatly reduce our reliance on the utilities with developments such as fuel cells, or free us from them altogether with self-sufficient buildings.

Buildings with feelings
Beyond BIM, buildings might be fitted with sensors to let owners and occupants know when something needs attention.  Sudden motion sensors (SMS) and Microelectromechanical systems (MEM) are the tiny devices found in games consoles (Nintendo Wii and Xbox) and smart phones.  Quantities of these sensors entering our environment is growing rapidly and there are moves to connect as many as possible over the internet, to monitor the status of our wider local, national and global environments.  Structural Health Monitoring (SHM), where many buildings are connected through their sensors, will offer greater accuracy in understanding the earth's seismic patterns and environmental conditions, including wind loads, rainfall and even air quality.  Detailed data will help us make the connections between local and global earth systems to assist our understanding of problems like flood patterns, for example.

MEM technology - microscopic

It's all out there and people make it happen.

How innovative is the Building Industry?
Chapter 11 in the Economics of Industrial Innovation examines the degrees to which businesses and industrial sectors are innovative.  It is very revealing and sets out four camps of business innovation:

Offensive innovators
These are often market leaders with new products and a strong reliance on science and technology.  R&D plays a key role and the organisation seeks new possibilities and opportunities to move in to.  Where a market opportunity is identified, it is actively moved in to.  The best key specialists and individuals are recruited and acquire their knowledge from multiple or diverse sources. Communication is critical across the organisation with clear professional structures and division of labour.  Often bottom-up communication (or reverse engineering) is used.  Often young organisations, but with lots of people innovation!

Defensive innovators
This sometimes applies to once offensive innovators which then rest on their laurels as the business or organisation matures and their target market share is achieved.

Imitative innovators
These follow up on the work of others.  They do not necessarily copy but maintain a market position working with or in support to the first two types of innovators.

Here the organisational structure of the business or industrial sector changes little.  This is partly because of low demand from the market to change the product.  It is essentially led by fashion (aesthetics and style), which it uses as it's greatest strength and selling point.  The organisational structure is fragmented often with poor communication between parties.  It can rely a lot on craft based skills with minimal scientific input.  QA is used to regulate and control, with the greatest influences to innovation and technological shift coming from legislation and government policy.

General levels at which businesses and their industrial sectors innovate

This might read like the life-cycle of industry with younger organisations at the top and the oldest at the bottom, but how many similarities are there between the Building Industry and the traditionalist camp?

Within this camp though, there are innovators working away.  An old(ish) article from BD lists some of the movers and shakers.

This analysis of innovation camps also offers suggestions of how the Building Industry and businesses within it might revitalise and break free of the traditionalist set, to become more vibrant.  It's all possible, it just takes people.