Instagram Takeover 2021 – Neil McAllister
The baton passes from surveyor to architect once again as Neil McAllister, Award-winning Architect, champion of design & Associate Director at GLM steps in for week 5 of the Instagram Takeover. Neil has been part of team GLM since 2008 and combines a deep knowledge, love, and understanding of old buildings with a flair for creative new architecture.
I watched closely all week after Neil’s brief description before he began – “we can expect virtual reality, 3d printing, natural materials, “artisanal buildings” and beauty for the poor!” Certainly sounded inspiring and thought provoking just from his description – and it delivered! Have a read below and to continue the conversation with Neil why not connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Instagram!
- DESIGN FREEDOM (Image: Above, Centre)
Currently the design process is fragmented between tools and constrained by what each tool allows.
Sketches are made on the back of an envelope, concept models are built – real or virtual, this then is rebuilt again in CAD or BIM software. Drawings are produced, and drawings are sketched over, and models are updated. While it is possible to start the process in the final tool, there is a reason why our tutors emphasised the importance of sketching – it is liberating, it allows a much more direct connection from the imagination to the page.
In my ideal setup of the future, work will flow seamlessly to and fro between the sketch and the construction drawings. The workstation will have a large (at least A1 please!) graphics tablet combined with a 3d display – glasses free as no one wants to wear a VR headset all day. As adjustments are made to the drawings the render updates live. If you tweak the size of a window, you will see immediate feedback on how that affects the lighting of the room and the play of shadows across the wall.
- CONSTANT SIMULATION (Image: Above, Right)
There are many technologies around to simulate and analyse – cost, structures, energy usage, airflow, regulatory compliance. But most of these are discrete tools, the domain of specialists and only really viable to use on large scale commercial developments. The BIM era is beginning to connect things together but there is a long way to go.
The ideal design tool of the future will integrate all of these and harness increased computing power to perform the simulations in the background in realtime.
As soon as you put the first marks on the (virtual) page, why should you not already have your first cost estimate? As soon as you orientate a block on site in your conceptual massing diagram, you could have an indication of energy performance. With every step of refining the design the output of these simulations would become more and more accurate. There would still be the need for the specialists – the engineers, the cost consultants – but they would be included in the design team for their expertise and advice rather than to do menial number crunching.
This live feedback would allow the architect freedom to experiment and be far more creative as they could immediately see the impact of each move and building regulations compliance would be certified at the click of a button.
- LOOSING THE SHACKLES OF MASS PRODUCTION (Image: Below, Left)
Before the industrial revolution everything was hand crafted and unique. Of course there were standard designs, but if you wanted something slightly different there was no problem.
Mass production made manufacturing fast and cheap – but it took away choice. Henry Ford is famous for saying (possibly apocryphally) that you could have his car in any colour you wanted as long as it was black.
In modern factories this is slowly beginning to change – in this car factory (Lotus I believe) you can see different colours of cars coming along the same production line. This and many other options can be selected by the buyer and the car will roll out the factory exactly as you specified.
Modern computer controlled manufacturing technologies – CNC milling, 3d printing, water jet cutting etc. promise the freedom to make any shape you want at the touch of a button. While this allows for truly bespoke design, it also could allow for parametric customisation. When buying a basin, for example, it comes in a set of standard sizes – but what if you want something in between? Currently your only option is for a bespoke item at a very bespoke price. In the future will a custom size just have a slightly longer lead time?
The possibilities are endless – how will we harness them?
- THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS (Image: Above, Centre)
I have been following the development of the Marble Machine X by @wintergatan2000 for the last few years. It is a crazy project to build a machine, a bit like a music box or a player-piano which plays music by dropping perfectly timed marbles to bounce off drums, a vibraphone and a bass guitar.
What relevance does this have to architecture? This project is illustrative of a new generation of makers that combines the best of CNC milling and 3d printing with the best of hand crafting. Parts have been made by collaborators all over the world and there have even been live streamed CAD modelling sessions.
Buildings of the future should harness the strengths of both modern manufacturing technologies and skilled artisans. When the machines take away the drudge work then the craftsmen can be liberated to do their best work.
- LESS IS MORE (Image: Above, Right)
There are always at least two ways to solve a problem – the brute force method and the optimised solution.
In the early to mid 20th century, engineers such as Felix Candela and Pier Luigi Nervi explored the possibilities of thin shell structures where the strength came not from the thickness of the structure but from its form. This made for very efficient use of materials. Unfortunately, in western Europe, materials weren’t the primary cost – labour was and constructing these was labour intensive. It was much cheaper to just use an oversized beam or slab.
Now that the true cost of materials are beginning to be recognised, will this balance shift the other way again? Not that necessarily the same geometries will be used – there are some problems for anything other than stand alone pavilions – but will it again be worthwhile putting effort into the design and construction of optimised structures.
(note that the building shown above, L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia, was only completed in 2002 to designs by Candela – a rare example outside Mexico)
- SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL (Image:Below, Left)
You don’t have to go as extreme as Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, but “compact”, “cosy” and “efficient” should all be words that are seen as positive descriptions.
The energy calculations in the building regulations use the unit of kgCO₂e/m² – kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square metre of floor area. All the effort is put into bringing this figure down, when there is a much simpler way to bring the energy use down – decrease the size of the building. The average household in Scotland is 2.15 people but the majority of new houses on the market are 4 bedroom houses – many of which end up with multiple empty guest rooms that are used a couple of nights of the year.
There are some technical solutions that can save energy but ultimately it is lifestyles that need to change. Excess needs to become gauche. Windows without curtains (or shutters) should be shunned in the interior design journals, and jumpers need to be fashionable – not just for Christmas.
- AUTHENTICITY OR COMPROMISE? (Image: Above, Centre)
How will the volume housebuilders provide for the sourdough and smashed avocado generation?
Will a generation that craves authenticity be content with cookie-cutter estates of generic houses with plastic windows and fake stone?
Will the developers change or will the people compromise on their principles?
Will the generation that have brought sustainability to the forefront of public conversation want to bring up their children in car-centric developments on the edge of town?
- NATURAL MATERIALS (Image: Above, Right)
Shingles, cob, straw, locally sourced stone, among others – have been widely used in one-off experimental houses.
Will the move to measuring embodied carbon help push these materials into the mainstream?
Will the anti-plastic revolution force developers to reject the use of PIR and other such petrochemical based foam insulations?
Will the requirements for larger and larger cavities to hold enough insulation be the death knell of conventional cavity wall construction?
Will panelised systems, such as @modcell_straw_technology, allow for major housebuilders to take on such materials?
Will homogenous wall constructions, such as in the Cork House by @bio_matt, end the trajectory to more and more complex details where each new part is added to meet the failing of the others.
- THE MEASURE OF CIVILISATION (Image: Below, Left)
A key measure of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest members.
How do we house the homeless? Where do the poorest members of society live? Where do the elderly and disabled live? Are they relegated to the edges of our cities in housing that no one would choose to live and where we can forget about them or are they integrated into the heart of our cities, bringing life and vitality to the community.
It is suggested that one of the causes of the Scottish Enlightenment was the conditions within Edinburgh where the rich and the poor lived literally on top of each other and interacted on a daily basis.
If we treat the weakest the way we would like to be treated; if we house them in housing we would want to live in; if we create real places of variety and inspiration; could we see another great enlightenment in Scotland?
- BEAUTY FOR ALL (Image: Below, Centre)
As an architect, I like to talk about beauty. But too often beauty is thought of being something that is an optional extra for those who are fortunate enough to afford it. Instead, careful design and deliberate investment can create great places for all to live.
There is a new wave of social housing being built that tries to do just that. This has been recognised by the establishment in 2019 of the Neave Brown Award for Housing by the RIBA.
A few examples to illustrate what can be done when there is the will include Hannibal Road Gardens and North Street in London by @peterbarber12, Burnside in Plockton by @ruraldesignarchitects and Goldsmith Street in Norwich by @mikhailriches.
As well as winning the Neave Brown award, Goldsmith Street is also #passivhaus – which shows that a triple bottom line is possible.
None of these developments are dramatic; none of them are ostentatious. They all just show that they care – whether it is the detail of the timber cladding or the extra row of bricks in the window arch.
None of this housing says “that’ll do” – it strives to do much more than be merely adequate.
If we don’t care, the future will be a dystopian nightmare. If we care, if we aspire for utopia, then even when we miss the world will be a better place because we tried. As I have said on many occasions, if your goals are achievable then you are not aiming high enough!
Head over to our Instagram – @weareglm – and follow along as Antonio Cabello (Image : Above, Right) takes over Week 6!