• A fast-weather architectural probe constructed by University of Minnesota architecture students Daniel DeVeau, Kelly Greiner, and Kaylyn Kirby.

    Credit: Ryan Welch

    A fast-weather architectural probe constructed by University of Minnesota architecture students Daniel DeVeau, Kelly Greiner, and Kaylyn Kirby.
  • An example experiment that shows KieranTimberlake's real-time climate reporting system. Study courtesy of Tiffany Chen, Yong Kim, and Jennifer McGinnity.

    Credit: KieranTimberlake

    An example experiment that shows KieranTimberlake's real-time climate reporting system. Study courtesy of Tiffany Chen, Yong Kim, and Jennifer McGinnity.

In architectural education and practice, students and architects spend a lot of time developing the physical form of buildings. When it comes to invisible characteristics such as temperature or relative humidity, though, they typically pass the baton to mechanical engineers without considering the deeper formal implications of climate.

In a design workshop held recently at the University of Minnesota, students directly engaged this kind of invisible information as a primary driver for design. For this particular catalyst studio, called "Materials as Probes," I had the pleasure of hosting guest instructors Billie Faircloth and Ryan Welch from KieranTimberlake's research group. The studio description appears here:

Architecture is a "slow" weather probe. Our cognition of the relationship between architecture and environment—or between architecture the dynamic milieu of irradiance, sky cover, temperature, relative humidity, precipitation, wind speed and wind direction—requires a long feedback loop. Knowledge is acquired over time as adjustments are made here and there to actual buildings arrayed in settlement patterns, and to a building’s constituent parts and materials, precisely because time affords the manifestation of invisible phenomena. One can see and comprehend a macroscopic influence of meteorological events and then make adjustments. However, the adjuster is most certainly not the architect. He or she is rarely present to collect this kind of feedback. 

Yet, what if the architect were present to measure the actual rather than simulate the predicted performance of material assemblies? This Architecture as Catalyst workshop will recast whole material assemblies as fast weather probes. In so doing, this five-day exploration with forms and sensors will challenge students to align their materials and construction know-how with real-time studies of the environment. It will provide discourse on the following questions:

  • How is knowledge of the environment acquired?
  • What is the potential relationship between form generation and real-time feedback?
  • How might design practices change when real-time feedback is incorporated into the design process?

Faircloth and Welch brought a collection of proprietary sensor and communications technologies from KieranTimberlake, and they set up a website for students to track real-time climate data related to their work. The students were tasked with crafting a series of enclosed containers based on prescribed construction logics, and they attempted to meet a series of challenging and varied temperature targets in their iterations throughout the course of the studio.

For a highly visual discipline such as architecture, it was enlightening to witness students actively engage thermodynamics as their primary target of concern. KieranTimberlake's advanced sensing capabilities made this experience possible; without such technology, the studio would only have been speculative in nature. Given the emergence of a warmer, and more volatile, global climate, architects will need to take advantage of such technologies in order to design buildings that are better informed about—and responsive to—environmental change.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.