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Billie Faircloth on Architecture as Multidisciplinary Research Project

GRAY is a proud sponsor of the Portland Lecture Series, a quarterly series arranged by Portland Design Events, held at Ziba Auditorium. Reposted with permission from GRAY contributing writer Brian Libby. Read on his blog, Portland Architecture



Although Billie Faircloth admitted she had not spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before last Thursday’s lecture in Portland, the architect, who directs research at Philadelphia firm Kieran Timberlake, already seemed to have a strong sense of place.


​”I know the Pacific Northwest for its moss and its ferns and its trees and its shores,” she said, in an interview prior to the talk, part of a quarterly series from Portland Design Events. “When I’ve come, I’ve always taken a day to find a hike, find a traverse. We did a family vacation at Olympic National Park a few summers ago, and I remember how the temperate rainforest was not so temperate the day we went. It was so sunny and it was so hot! Obviously now we’re dealing with climate change. I was describing to the kids that this really was a rainforest. And tomorrow I want to do a nice traverse of Portland. I try to do long walks in every city I visit.”


Faircloth also knows the region because of Kieran Timberlake’s upcoming residence hall project in Seattle for the University of Washington. “Even in that project, one of our earliest bits of research was to understand the microclimates on the site. We did an entire study of Pacific Northwest mosses and lichens and how they interacted with buildings,” she explains. “We wanted to understand how they grow and how they interact with wood details. We also distributed sensors across our site to try and understand the difference between the temperature at the airport versus at the site. We had a deep appreciation for the interaction between building and environment, or building and weather. It was about that day-in, day-out cycle of sun, wind, precipitation: all of that. So I have a limited experience, but I try to find a trail to hike. I’ve also tried to measure bits of it.”If Faircloth sounds as much like an academic researcher, that’s no accident. She joined this acclaimed Philadelphia firm (receiving a lot of notoriety these days for the new U.S. embassy in London) ten years ago after spending many years as a University of Texas assistant professor, where she led research studios exploring applications for conventional and emerging material technologies as well as seminars on emerging construction and fabrication technologies. Research is what she was hired to do at Kieran Timberlake, as part of a firm-wide effort to transform the practice into one that’s more interdisciplinary and research-based.


With her blend of academic and architecture-firm experience as well as her busy travel schedule—Faircloth lectures Harvard Graduate School of Design (in addition to her hometown Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania), and is a Visiting Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts—I asked her whether she sees more commonalities among cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Copenhagen, Austin, Seattle and Portland or differences. “Both,” she says. “Mostly I find myself studying the interaction between people, surfaces, edges, spaces, and weather. I don’t have any grand statements about the difference between Portland and Copenhagen. They have different histories, different traditions. I also like to try and understand how these cities have been shaped by how people have chosen to govern themselves.”


Faircloth’s lectures, as well as her continuing academic role and her job as research director at Kieran Timberlake, all involve synthesizing the contributions of team members from a variety of disciplines. “We can include people trained in materials engineering, chemical physics, environmental management: a whole range of different backgrounds,” she said in that evening’s lecture. Given that there remains an unsettling gender imbalance in the architecture profession, but also given that we’re living in the #metoo age, I asked if she sees parallels between efforts to broaden the diversity of expertise at her firm and efforts across the profession to broaden the diversity of gender and culture.


“There’s a whole different range of different types of diversity,” Faircloth said. “The short answer is yes, I’ve thought about it. It’s not just diversity of disciplines but diversity of backgrounds, types of knowledge. I grew up in a family where the knowledge that you had with your hands was more important than the knowledge you could get from a book. My dad was a contractor. There’s a whole different range of ways we think about certain kinds of knowledge or thinking being better than others. At Kieran Timberlake we are on this constant journey to empower people and leverage their curiosity, to leverage their imagination. That doesn’t happen when we try to prescribe one way or thinking or making. It’s something that I’ve learned and I’m beginning to learn.”


Then there was the lecture itself, which offered expanded thinking not only on Faircloth’s approach with her team but on Kieran Timberlake’s resulting built portfolio. It’s worth noting briefly, however, that as part of this lecture series’ format, the evening began with a brief presentation from a local up-and-coming architect Allison Bryan, founder and creator of Open Studio Collective. It was a good match because Open Studio exemplifies what may be a new era of multidisciplinary firms that offer architecture and more.


“We’re trained in architecture, interior design and graphic design,” Bryan explained. “We are anti-disciplinary. Clients have a hard time understanding. ‘Are you multidisciplinary?’ ‘No, we’re anti-disciplinary.’ Our objective is to generate relationships personally and spatially. I wanted to be open to every medium, every design partner. Relationships are everything. I’m a freak about it. We have to treat each other well and our clients well or we’re not going to do good work. The plumber, the general contractor, you name it: there has to be a good relationship or the work is going to suffer. We strip things down to the most simple idea and go from there.” Open Studio Collective’s recent projects include the Knot Springs spa in the Yard building, which has proven enormously popular even as the larger building has proven controversial, and for which the firm performed not only architecture and interiors but all the graphic design. Open Studio Collective also recently worked with Nike on its Tokyo headquarters, featuring a wall of drawers made to resemble a stack of classic orange Nike shoeboxes.


Faircloth began her talk by describing a mantra that finds itself into all of Kieran Timberlake’s projects. “I get into this cycle as a designer: making, measuring, adjusting, making, measuring, adjusting,” she said. “It becomes a little obsessive. You have a question you want to ask, and you believe the design process is part of answering that question.” She cited a recent project working with students at Georgia Tech to look at how different architectural and material choices affect thermal comfort. “It’s part of a much larger question,” she explained. “How do we design when we have real time data?”


“I think there’s a larger question in our profession,” Faircloth went on. “What is our agency? Materials and techniques are what architecture is traditionally about. But there is a myriad of variables: a series of inter-dependencies. There are some things we never want to touch and others we want to know more about. But our power could actually be the ability to inscribe a boundary around what we decide to include or exclude. What are we including when we go to design a thing? What are we excluding? And are there other ways of thinking? Are there other types of knowledge we could get that if we developed other ways of working? Our vision to this practice is a design philosophy.”


Faircloth traced Kieran Timberlake’s evolution to its publication of the 2003 book Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies are Poised to Transform Building Construction. “They [founders Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake] decided to reorganize the firm to take up new agency around research, or what I call searching and searching again, as the core of the practice,” she explained. “Since then, there’s been evolution after evolution at the firm.”


But it was in about 2013 that Kieran Timberlake really started to bring on experts in other disciplines to complement their staff of architects and interior designers. “We wanted to formalize that sense of inquiry into a trans-disciplinary research group. We can include people trained in materials engineering, chemical physics, environmental management: a whole range of different backgrounds,” Faircloth explained. “With our diversity of disciplines comes a range of different methods, which can allow people to look at projects in different ways. We’ve decided that the question mark is an essential part of our infrastructure. That allows us to use multiple methods. We’ve matured ways of sensor deployment to measure a range of things. We can collect field conditions, interpret and analyze it. We also create tools we feel are necessary in our field. And we engage in a variety of prototyping. That can be very powerful in design. You have multiple disciplines around you whose ways of describing things are different. Mine are different as an architect than an environmental ecologist. But when they go together, it’s amazing.” Faircloth cited an example of how their research evolves, and how it may be only tangentially tied to a project. A few years ago one of the firm’s principals, Stephanie Carlisle—whose expertise lies jointly in architecture and environmental science— decided to visit a past project’s green roof to study how it was performing. As the Green Roof Vegetation Study ultimately showed, “It didn’t look at all like it was planted. Birds happened, wind happened. All of these things happened,” Faircloth explained. “The experiment really convinced us that working across disciplines was so incredibly powerful. As architects we said, ‘It’s green infill that provides extra insulation.’ Stephanie said, ‘No, it’s a rich ecological layer that changes over time. What if we considered this a compositional experiment over time?’ There’s a roof plan that meets the code requirements for drainage. But when we looked at the vegetative cover and the biodiversity: all those were formed by the slope of the roof, the water and the moisture regimes on the roof, in addition to access to the sun. We decided to go back and survey all of our past green roofs. We began to realize designing a green roof we didn’t understand the true nature of the problem. It’s not just engineered layers with fill on top. The origin and range of design inputs just suddenly expand. When you dive into the data, you can ask a whole range of questions.” The effort won KT a 2013 R+D Award from Architect Magazine.


Another project that Faircloth cited was the Jefferson University Hospital, for which Kieran Timberlake was asked to conduct a spatial survey that would help the client better understand the occupant/patient experience. “This is an urban medical center. It spans an entire city block. It’s a pretty deep floor plate,” she explained. “We spent two summers asking questions about what’s happening. The interest was to provide better care and a better work environment. One question we asked recently had to do with a myth of a difference between the A-side and the B-side of the floor. One was distributed from the center out. On the B-side, all the nurse stations were next to patient rooms. Was there more nurse doctor interaction on the A-side than the B? We were able to unpack some of that. Ultimately we were able to pull out these different paths and trajectories to understand whether that was true. It’s really about describing the nature of the thing. That’s our agency. You can describe anything. But once you describe it you have to take action.”


Kieran Timberlake also made its own offices—located inside an old bottling plant—into an experiment. Could they survive a hot, humid East Coast summer without air conditioning? “Our office was built in 1948: an industrial shed with an amazing center skylight. They didn’t have air conditioning, right? We thought maybe we can eliminate it too. But it meant experiments. It meant being very clear about what was happening on the interior of the building. Just taking a temperature measurement, one measurement, wasn’t enough. We needed sensors throughout the space, and to figure out whether there were microclimates within the office itself, to understand how to operate the building. We began to learn a lot about the building. But we also learned a lot about ourselves, and the differences we all have. We developed a survey tool to collect information on how people felt. We could then map it to the space. That’s how we began to understand the relationship between perceived thermal comfort and the data of the building. We realized we had a pretty high threshold for temperature. We found where the cooler places and the warmer places were.” This year the office is going back to using a cooling system, but one much smaller than they had before. It turned out that with the right amount of air movement employees could tolerate temperatures approaching the mid 80s, so maintaining an internal temperature of, say, 70 degrees no longer seemed necessary.


Faircloth concluded with a discussion of the firm’s signature project, the new U.S. Embassy in London, and its dual outer envelope of glass and ETFE plastic. “The glass itself, we had a whole series of conversations about how it’s perceived,” she explained. “We did tests with glass, putting in different samples. The ETFE tension membrane also went through a series of tests: how to make it a PV-ready membrane, how to find the right geometry in order to reduce the amount of tension in that layer. It went through a whole series of refinements in the cable systems and rail systems. What’s amazing about this envelope is it goes back to a whole range of experiments and a body of knowledge we built over time. But at the end of the day it also surprises us: in how it relates to the sun and reflects life.


So while Faircloth may not have spent much time here in Portland or the broader Pacific Northwest, she’s the kind of architect whose natural curiosity and desire to learn means neither she nor her firm is in the dark for long. For much of the time I’ve been writing about architecture, the profession has continued to engage in hand-wringing about the architect’s evolving role. There has always been concern that delivery methods such as design-build are taking too much power away from designers, or concern that many of the responsibilities traditionally falling to architecture firms are now going to firms with sub-specialties, fractioning architects into many different types of practitioners and thus less of a unified voice. What Faircloth is proposing and Kieran Timberlake is carrying out isn’t radically different from what architects have always done: take on a client, learn everything possible about what they do and need as well as the site and climatic conditions, and produce a design. But what they’re doing is a deeper dive enabled by real-time measuring and data collecting never available to previous generations and a slight but essential re-calibration of how the profession welcomes and collaborates with other experts. I like that it simultaneously seems to give architects more power, via the acquisition of more information, but it also is an act of humility: knowing that the myth of the know-it-all firm leader in the black cape with every answer already in hand is just that. Instead, as projects like the U.S. Embassy indicate, a landmark is really a collection of small discoveries by an army of experts.


For more on Portland architecture, check out Brian Libby’s award-winning blog.

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