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Working it out in collaborations with designers and fabricators

Features | July 1, 2012 | By:

Collaboration can be a happy experience, if you know how to do it.

Everyone has aspirations going into a project: the client has intentions, the architect has goals to meet, the budget has limits, the physical conditions of the building and location have demands. Everyone and everything has an impact on the design of a fabric structure, and sometimes these different forces are in conflict with each other.

As a specialist in this role, you are obligated to explain how to improve a fabric shape and the structural concept. For example, sometimes the architect will want to create something visually light and ephemeral yet strong and static [in the engineering sense] and they may think their concept is an optimal form when it isn’t. This is where the dialogue starts: the moment between the initial design concept and the development phases. I like to use a design tool I call “draw-speak”—having pencils out, a sketch pad at the ready—when we begin a dialogue with the design team of a project.

We try to understand the key components (lighting, program requirements, permanent or temporary, retractability, and so forth) and then through this “draw-speak” process we can bring these disparate elements together to what the design should be.

The most important part of collaboration is between ourselves as consultant and the architect during the schematic design level (SD) or before the design development level (DD) where we can help make the project flow smoothly. We’ve done so many projects this way over the years that we know the pitfalls, going down this path or that particular avenue, so as to minimize problems in the end. It’s most important in these early phases not to get locked into a certain structural concept or material choice that may, in later design phases, change and therefore add costs and complications.

We ask ourselves the question: What are the most important ideas [that the architect wants] to get across? Is it shade, retractable roof, enclosure, iconic form? Using the “draw-speak” method, the project can be very collaborative. It helps get people excited about their projects and it can be a lot of fun for everyone involved. This way, in the end the architects and designers involved can take ownership and know they have an efficient solution.

If we only focus on the engineering portion of the project—where we come in the later phases of a project—it tends to be more confrontational. It may mean we are sizing elements that may not have been optimized in the earlier stages so that friction can occur between the architect’s desire and structural reality. With the collaborative process as described above, by the time we all get to the preliminary engineering phase, the team is excited about the design and as the project develops the collaborative process becomes part of the package.

The second area of fertile collaboration exists when the project has gone out to bid and a contractor is chosen. We recommend that the specialty contractor (specialists in fabric structures) meets with the design team as soon as possible after award of bid so he or she can contribute to the dialogue and offer collaborative input on final material and detail choices that are made together. This meeting is done using another “draw-speak” process, but this time around is honed to the nitty-gritty details.

These methods can shift the design process, allow collaboration to flourish, diffuse any adversarial roles and make the project a lot of fun, which is really why we do it in the first place.

For a case study of the collaborative process involved with the FTL-designed United Nations temporary entry porte cochere, read “United Nations interim porte cochere.“

Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, LEED AP, is senior principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York, N.Y.

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