BEAST (part 1)

At its heart, this blog and all of its authors have been concerned with one central theme: disruptive innovation. As can be expected in this age of exponential growth in technology, this includes a fair amount of space-age type materials. But not exclusively. Nay, in fact, this blog has revealed a surprising amount of disruption using age-old wares. Perhaps the earthy familiarity of historic materials is just what we find comfortable as mid-westerners, but every week a number of authors offer up posts that shed new light on familiar media. In a quaint way, I find this type of innovation more promising than the lab-developed super-materials. This type of innovation seems to place value on resourcefulness, which I feel is a truer gauge of sustainability than any other meter.

This week I’d like to share a project that offers us one such example of resourcefulness, bringing new life to a material that is often taken for granted. At the same time, I’d like to point out where the same project falls incredibly short of its full potential. The dichotomy of this project brings the future of sustainability into full contrast, and reveals the best and worst qualities of contemporary architecture. In part one of this week’s post we’ll explore the origins of the project, and where they immediately went wrong. In part two, we’ll review their comeback to (partial) redemption.

Without further adieu:

Vakko by Rex part 1: The most heavy-handed use of steel ever witnessed by man.

The project begins in 2007 when Rex architecture is approached by the fashion business Vakko to construct their new headquarters using an existing concrete frame as a starting point. A severely compressed timeline, a need for a significant amount of additional square footage, and the structural constraints of a seismically prone region put Rex in quite a spot.

The solution involved two primary responses: adapt the existing concrete core, and infill the central courtyard with an independent steel structure. The adaptation of the concrete core can be visualized in the above diagram, demonstrating in plan how the U-shaped frame was modified to enclose the end and create a donut-like form that had almost-square proportions. This decision allowed the project to progress at a greatly accelerated rate, while making efficient use of existing structure. An all-around win.

Unfortunately, the abbreviated timeline didn’t allow for thorough planning of the interior structure before ordering the necessary steel. In order to meet the deadline, Rex opted to order steel that would allow them to construct a set of box-like forms that could be assembled in infinite variation, allowing them to determine the ultimate orientation well after the steel order was made. Through the lens of sustainability, the result was disastrous.

In the above image, you can clearly see the existing concrete structure in grayscale, with the chaotic steel infill highlighted in orange. The final orientation of the steel frames highlights the pathetic steel/sqft ratio this plan provides. The cockeyed arrangement eliminates the traditional structural redundancy of shared floor/ceiling adjacencies, and requires significant diagonal bracing that would never be necessary if the frames were simply allowed to sit on a level plane. To top it off, the out-of-level surfaces required many of the volumes to have secondary structures constructed within the primary ones. The resulting mess is not an easy sight for the faint of heart; If you consider yourself something of a tree-hugger, you may want to look away now.

I’m sorry for the gratuitous imagery, but it was necessary. You needed to witness the gory details to fully appreciate the horror.

Not being a structural engineer myself, it’s difficult for me to say exactly how much steel could have been eliminated implementing a more traditional structure, but it should be clear to anyone with sight that efficiency and sustainability were not considerations when this atrocity was committed.

Ultimately, the decision to fabricate multiple steel frames with independent structural integrity allowed Rex to meet the clients’ needs. In fact, you could say the decision was innovative in that it allowed a construction schedule that would otherwise be considered implausible for a structure of this scale. However the innovation seems to be expanding possibilities in a direction that is damaging to the environment, and possibly even the field of architecture.

While most of the posts on this blog display materials and applications that offer hope and inspiration, this application is being offered as a solution that should be avoided at all costs. It should stand as a warning to others who are tempted to solve for constraints by throwing material at a problem. The result is inelegant, and harmful.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the completion of this project, and how another constraint of reuse led to an innovative solution that is beautiful, elegant, effective, and represents the kind of design that could shape the future.

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