Our preference for detail? It’s by design

The case for basing buildings on biometrics

A developer caused a minor uproar late last month when he criticized the Boston Seaport’s “uninspiring architecture.” Of course, it’s common for ordinary citizens across the country to air complaints about plain, boxy towers—for example, Curbed readers rated their choices for the ugliest buildings in San Francisco and New York. But in the February incident, an audience of architects found it jarring to hear an industry insider speak ill of their work.

Yet nobody seemed to notice back in November when architect Ann Sussman made even stronger comments about the corridors of glass boxes built lately in the Seaport, which is sometimes called the Innovation District. People just don’t like sheer walls, Sussman said in a talk at last fall’s ABX conference. “That’s one reason why the Innovation District fails. Too many blank facades.” The district’s streetscape even poses a “health issue,” she said. “Our cortisol level goes up” in such bland environments.

Maybe builders and designers should start paying attention to this argument. Sussman wasn’t merely expressing an opinion. A growing body of research suggests that humans are hard-wired to prefer lush details over clean lines, thanks to millennia of evolution in the wild. And Sussman says there’s nothing architects can do about that preference, except design to it.

Mind over matter

When she lived in Paris for a time, amidst the Mansard roofs and street-level cafés, Sussman noticed that her fellow visiting Americans walked everywhere. Back in the States, the same people would rather drive everywhere. She began to wonder: Why is that, really?

Sussmann sought real data on why people seem to prefer some kinds of buildings over others. Last year, relying on biometric-measuring software, Sussmann and co-researcher Justin Hollander analyzed eye movements and unconscious response to a variety of images. Their findings were eye-opening.

In one test, two sets of volunteers were shown two different photos of the Stapleton Library in Staten Island, New York—one with the windows Photoshopped out, and one unretouched. See the images side by side below. The dots indicate what parts of the building one subject looked at in each. (The human eye can make four to five rapid movements between fixation points per second.) Notice that the de-windowed walls got hardly a glance.

Stapleton Library

The researchers found the same preference in test after test. Subjects barely registered the blank or sheer walls of a library in Queens and a museum in Brooklyn, focusing instead on billboards, cars, and pedestrians.

This raises two immediate questions: First, how the heck does the eye-tracking software work? And why do people unconsciously avert their gaze from plain facades?

Programs that measure people’s reactions to images have been around for years, Sussman pointed out in her ABX talk and in a later e-mail exchange. At multi-billion-dollar companies, the designers of packaging and automobiles use the insights they gain from biometric testing to determine a look that will have mass appeal.

Fortunately, the cost of such software has come down recently, to the point where curious architects can get in on this research. For her study, Sussman used a program called iMotions to measure eye movement as well as facial recognition—e.g., picking up on our barely perceptible lip and forehead movements that indicate joy, fear, or surprise. (Other features of iMotions include tools to measure heartbeat and electromagnetic activity in the brain.)

As a test subject looks at an image on a computer, an infrared light shines on her eye. A high-resolution camera records the eye’s rapid movements, capturing the flashes of infrared as the light bounces off the eye. If the eye is looking up and to the left, a burst of red will appear on the lower right part of the eye. (At least, that’s the broad-strokes explanation.) That data is linked to the photo being shown, and the software spits out a graphic representation. For example, the below video shows the gaze path of one subject viewing an image of the Villa Rotunda in Italy.

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A home, for the homeless, for the holidays

With the approach of festivities, and a chill in the air outdoors, our thoughts at this time of year often turn to the less fortunate. Many of us open our checkbook or volunteer at a soup kitchen—fine ways to do a good turn. In Los Angeles, a group of budding builders have hit upon another way to help one down-and-out segment in particular: the homeless. This fall, some architectural students rolled up their sleeves to design and build creative temporary shelters on a limited budget, using pallets, plywood panels, truck camper shells, and other found materials. And that was just the start.

“Architecture isn’t just for those who can afford it,” one of the students told the USC News. “It can be something that creates social good and changes the way people live their lives.”

Moreover, their experience proved that innovation doesn’t always mean leveraging the latest technology. Sometimes it means relying on human ingenuity and making the most of what you’ve got.

Growing crisis, unique solutions

An estimated 47,000 people are now homeless in Los Angeles County. Shelters are full, with waiting lists up to two years long.

The crisis motivated a new collaboration between the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Madworkshop, an architectural education nonprofit. The result is USC’s Homeless Studio, a hands-on course that wrapped up its inaugural semester last week. In it, eleven fourth-year students didn’t just meet with homeless residents, activists, architects and city officials to gain perspective on the complex problem; they also drew up plans, scavenged for scrap wood, swung hammers, and produced their own real-world shelters.

“This is not a typical course,” said Sofia Borges, the USC professor and acting Madworkshop director who co-taught Homeless Studio with fellow faculty member R. Scott Mitchell. “Normally, architecture students don’t build anything, let alone something for a marginalized population.”

The course featured three distinct phases. In the first, the students had two weeks to design and fabricate five mobile and expandable sleeping quarters, with a total budget of $500. The structures aimed to fulfill basic needs: security, privacy, shelter from the elements, and portability.

For example, students built one shelter by modifying a shopping cart: A wooden platform stashed in the bottom can fold out to create a space to sleep on; poles fold out of the main basket and lock in place to create a frame over which a tarp can be draped. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

Another shelter is a lightweight box towed by bike. The students welded a steel frame on top of a wooden platform, covered it with fiberglass coating, and rigged the lid with expandable trusses to make a roof. They attached casters on the bottom, so the unit rolls. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

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MIT celebrates 100 years of innovation in Cambridge

Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology celebrated the 100th anniversary of its move from the original MIT campus in Copley Square in Boston across the Charles River to Cambridge. The elaborate day-long ceremony was complete with fireworks, music, artistic performances, mobile art sculptures, robots and a quirky procession (over land and water) that pitted 30 teams against each other to see who could come up with the best parade contraption based on creativity, speed and MIT spirit.

But the eccentric party was about paying tribute to MIT’s spirit of innovation and invention as much as it was about recognizing its campus move across the Charles River back in 1916. But most importantly, the celebration was also an opportunity for school officials, alumni, students, inventors and citizens of the surrounding communities to recognize the incredible impact this prestigious institution has had on the region. And the world.

To acknowledge this historic milestone for MIT, in this post we celebrate one of the most groundbreaking inventions in construction, which was first conceived and tested on MIT’s Cambridge campus — reinforced concrete.

A stronger idea

Arguably, MIT’s most enduring construction invention was its development of reinforced concrete, which is concrete embedded with wire mesh andiStock_000017471545_Medium
steel bars to dramatically increase its strength. In fact, reinforced concrete was first tested and implemented on the MIT Cambridge campus during the construction of some of its earliest buildings, which means the campus itself was an active and operational incubator for ingenuity and ideation.

Before MIT inventors conceived this brilliant idea, buildings relied on masonry-bearing arches with steel infill that couldn’t hold much weight, relegating buildings to only five stories in height.

“Reinforced concrete changed all that,” said Gary Tondorf-Dick, program manager for Facilities’ Campus Planning, Engineering and Construction Group. “MIT architects and engineers were basically leading the design of this new type of concrete. It was perfected in the implementation of these buildings. It evolved in the 1920s and 1930s and was architecturally reinforced in the 1950s and 1960s. It was all designed here.”

This one invention helped open the door to the high rises and skyscrapers we see in cities throughout the world today. And the reality is that reinforced concrete hasn’t evolved or been improved much since the original concept was unveiled, which is yet another tribute to the thoughtful and innovative solutions that have been shared by the MIT community.

“MIT is about innovation and it’s a campus built for innovations,” said Tondorf-Dick. “There’s a whole series of MIT innovations that involve construction and the evolution, design and engineering of future construction materials that will change the industry.”

Look for more construction innovations coming out of MIT, including green incandescent light bulbs that conserve energy through “light recycling” and vacuum insulated glass that provides the thermal performance of modern double-glazed windows with the same thickness as a single pane of traditional glass. Stay tuned, and congratulations MIT!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.

Upbrella turns conventional construction on its head

Ever since you started building, you’ve erected buildings from the ground up. Whether it was your first set of Legos or your first high-rise tower, you basically started at the bottom and worked towards the top. It’s hard to imagine that bedrock of conventional construction being turned on its head. It’s hard to imagine reversing that order by installing the roof first, and then erecting the rest of the structure later. It seems crazy. Well, it’s not.

Montreal-based Upbrella Construction is taking exactly that top down approach to building. And their patented system doesn’t just represent a new way of thinking, it’s also safer and more efficient than traditional construction.

Under my Upbrella

Growing up in Montreal, Upbrella Construction founder Joey Larouche was one of those kids building Legos from the ground up. But after working as a mechanical engineer that developed lifts for heavy machinery on automobile assembly lines, he realized those principles could be applied to construction.

“I like to come up with ideas that are simple, can be used very widely in the world and are extremely different from what was being done before,” Larouche told us. “That’s the way I do business.”

So how does Upbrella actually work?

Here’s the high-level explanation: The foundation and first floor of the building are built conventionally. Then the roof is temporarily perched on the columns of that first floor, so it can be raised by a special lifting system as additional floors are constructed. The synchronized lifting system — which features customized hydraulic cylinders similar to elevators — is also used to hoist the individual floors into place

Before a new floor is lifted, its steel structural beams and decking are assembled on top of the previously poured concrete floor. The new floor is then hoisted to its final height so columns can be installed underneath it. Once the floor is raised and resting on its permanent columns, the concrete is poured and cured. It takes less than an hour to lift the floor and roof so that the crew can continue working. The process is repeated until the building’s desired number of floors are completed.

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Watch: High-tech timber erected at UMass

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High-tech wood panels known as cross-laminated timber (CLT) are replacing concrete slabs on the UMass Design Building. Featuring three to nine layers of lumber glued together, CLTs are like plywood on steroids. (Courtesy ReTHINKWood)

In October we wrote about a revolutionary project using “mass timber” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now that it is actually being erected, the Suffolk Construction team managing the project invited us to the job site to interview the folks responsible for this first-of-its-kind structure.

Arriving on a perfectly sunny day, it was hard to miss the building rising from the campus. Massive large timber columns, beams and panels form a structural frame that is strikingly solid and beautiful. The “high-tech wood” is light, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. It’s not your typical composite material. You can actually see the grains in the columns that will ultimately be left exposed inside the 86,000-square-foot UMass Design Building.

Don’t forget to reread our original post to learn more about this innovative building and the wood construction movement …

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Super Bowl shuffle: Stadiums of the future will feature interactive and civic spaces

Now that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have won Super Bowl 50 in Levi’s Stadium, we wanted to take a moment to consider what the stadium that hosts Super Bowl 100 might look like.  

To say that the differences between Sunday’s Super Bowl and the first Super Bowl played 49 years ago were dramatic is clearly understated.

The 200-foot-by-48-foot 13HD LED video board high above the action was a stark contrast to Super Bowl I’s electronic scoreboard at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The halftime show featuring Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars obviously had a ridiculously higher production value than trumpeter Al Hirt performing with marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling College. And Sunday’s four-hour game was so much longer than the first Super Bowl thanks to countless commercial breaks and instant replays. 

Otherwise, most fans at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. essentially observed the “Big Game” the same way their parents and grandparents might have in 1967: from a static seat.

But that paradigm between a seated spectator and the playing field is shifting. And that shift will only become more dramatic during the course of the next 50 Super Bowls as new innovations begin to challenge the way we spectate sports. So in the afterglow of historic Super Bowl 50, we are exploring what the “fan experience” might look like in the stadiums of the future. Continue Reading ›

World Building of the Year integrates urban and natural environments

Seamlessly integrating urbanity with natural vegetation, the freshly anointed World Building of the Year 2015 could forever change the way we design and build buildings. The Interlace (pictured above), just beat 338 other entries to take top prize at the annual World Architecture Festival in Singapore.

Check out our WAF picks from when the finalists were first announced. 

Designed by German architecture firms OMA and Buro Ole Scheeren to fly in the face of vertical apartment tower construction, The Interlace features 31 apartment blocks stacked across one another at various angles to form a massive hexagonal-shaped complex in the southern part of Singapore. The mega-complex’s innovative design maximizes light and air flow to each of the 1,040 units. Featuring eight distinct courtyards as well as roof gardens, the building’s open layout increases social interaction among tenants.

“It gives you a horizontal city with the interleaving of space and vegetation,” Professor Sir Peter Cook, who was among the competition judges told CNN“It’s a game-changer…something you’ll remember and go, that was when somebody first did that thing, of these blocks in the sky, with gardens on them.”

 

The property’s website notes that the building’s design also incorporates sustainable features, “through careful environmental analysis of sun, wind and micro-climate conditions on site and the integration of low-impact passive energy strategies. Water bodies have been strategically placed within wind corridors as a means of allowing evaporative cooling to happen along the wind paths, reducing local air temperatures and improving thermal comfort in outdoor recreation space.”

Click here to see the overall winners from the three-day festival and compare them to our picks. Let us know your favorites in the comments section below. 

This post was written by Justin Rice. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.