More air, more architecture

Findeisen wants a good atmosphere, after all the company sets great store by minimizing emissions. Indeed, its low-emission needle felt has won the “Blue Angel” seal of good eco-quality. So the title of the event, namely “Inside the Air”, comes as no surprise – it was hosted by Findeisen together with electric-carmaker Tesla, and Wulff, a specialist for installation materials. The trio invited architects and designers to the Hamburg Tesla showroom to hear the lecture by Sheila Kennedy. Which was a logical move, as the architect and all three of the host companies are dedicated to eco-friendly objectives.

The choice of Kennedy as speaker could not have been better: The American architect founded the interdisciplinary architectural company “KVA – Matx”, which is dedicated not only to designing and realizing architecture, but also undertakes intensive research on new materials. Moreover, Sheila Kennedy teaches “Practice of Architecture” at MIT in Boston and Fast Company magazine nominated her “one of the most innovative minds in design”, saying she is an “empathetic and authentic thinker who concerns herself with new ways of thought, working, leadership and innovation.” With projects such as the carbon-neutral “Soft House” in Hamburg, KVA Matx has also taken the limelight in Europe. The residential building, made of solid wood and consisting of four three-storey dwellings, each with its own garden, stands out for its dynamic textile facade, that uses sunlight flexibly and intelligently. Adeline Seidel spoke to Sheila Kennedy about her customized, sustainable architecture concepts and her research.

The architect Sheila Kennedy founded the architectural firm "KVA - mATX" and teaches "Practice of Architecture" at the MIT in Boston. Her lecture in the Hamburg was hosted by Findeisen together with electric-carmaker Tesla, and Wulff, a specialist for installation materials. The trio invited architects and designers to the Hamburg Tesla showroom. Photo © Sandra Jacques

Adeline Seidel: Your architecture projects tend to stand out for the fact that you do not rely on off-the-shelf technological solutions to develop energy-efficient buildings, but repeatedly try to go in new directions. In this context what was your most unusual project to date, and why?

Sheila Kennedy: With the recent international climate change meetings, it seems clear that “off- the-shelf” solutions are not the best way to respond. If they were, we would not have the significant problem that exists today: to develop clean energy technologies and, at the same time, create demand for a compelling sustainable urban lifestyle. The one is an issue of technology; the other requires a shift in culture. So, no, I don’t think our KVA Matx projects are unusual because they invent new ways to think about architecture and the natural environment. Architecture has always been a tool with which to explore new ideas and influence contemporary culture.

I enjoy those of our projects that are so surprising because they actually make perfect sense! The NYC Public Ferry Terminal reveals how the tidal flows of the East River estuary can be seen in lighting that’s integrated in the architecture - the first public, ambient environmental sensing device. People never even realized before that the river was moving, or that this was important for the quality of water in Manhattan. Using cardboard and bio-based materials to make ‘pop-up” solar streetlights, as we are doing in India with SELCO and the Lemulson Foundation….why not have a disposable infrastructure if it costs almost nothing to make? People can set it up where needed then take it home with them…Phillips and BP Solar are interested in this concept. Using folded reflective foil to make light guides that bring sunlight deep into buildings as we did for 3M… I have always wanted to use the idea in the design of a production hall or factory.

You have designed buildings in Europe and in the United States. How do the approaches to architecture differ when it comes to developing sustainable buildings? And how do the buildings then visibly reflect this later?

Sheila Kennedy: When I work in Europe it’s very interesting to see how much the environment, and the preservation of cities is a shared matter of concern across the EU. In the US we always read news that presents the EU ‘crisis’, which is all about difference and disagreement; yet the desire to pass something of value on to the next generation, to preserve and improve cities’ public spaces, and the respect for nature—these are commonly held values that I have encountered. Europe has embraced the idea that we must build for the long term. I think this value set makes more innovation possible and can produce a higher quality work of architecture.

The "Soft House" by KVA - Matx architects was built as part of the IBA Hamburg. The solid wood construction with the dynamic textile facade uses sunlight in a flexible and intelligent way. Each of the four family-friendly, three-storey residential units has its own garden. Photo © Michael Moser

Do sustainable buildings concepts require more or essentially less technology?

Sheila Kennedy: This is a great question, because of course it depends on how you define “technology”. If we think about technology as “equipment”, “machines” and “engineering” then, yes, a lot of architecture has been over-“technologized”. In the US, this has occurred because in the last decade “sustainability” has been mainly defined in terms of operational efficiencies—how much money or energy the owner could save when using the building. This kind of argument tends to produce “metrics” rather than change a culture of consumption. So the stress has been on the “technology” of sustainable buildings.

Sustainability is more about a way of life; it only takes imagination and the will to question an old habit and try something new. In our work at KVA Matx we have tried to reframe the relationship of architecture, urban nature and technology, especially clean energy technology. This year I think we’ll see a trend that merges technology with culture in surprising ways. To solve problems we may not need new technology, we may simply need to remember older things that weren’t called “technology”, such as materials and systems and ways of doing things that make sense for today. Riding a bike, enjoying fresh food in the city, and the Maker movement are examples of this. In our “Soft House” project in Hamburg we were asked to create a new model for a zero carbon urban lifestyle. The “Soft House” demonstrates how domestic infrastructure can become ‘soft’, creating the opportunity for live/work flexibility, using stacked carbon-neutral solid wood planks manufactured by a local building company, and harvesting clean energy with climate-responsive textiles which create the public identity of the architecture. By mixing and reframing traditionally ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ materials and the integration of architecture, textiles and clean energy infrastructure the “Soft House” transforms the German passive house typology and offers a more flexible living experience. The new direction here is a remix of old and new, of high and low tech that emphasizes the importance of history and memory in creating contemporary spaces and experiences with which people can identify.

You have your own in-house research arm, “MATx”. How do the insights and results from the research projects find their way into the architecture projects? Could you give examples?

Sheila Kennedy: Matx is closely related to KVA; each informs the other. With Matx projects, we are free to home in on the design of a building component, a piece of furniture, or a new product concept or application for a material. There’s a long tradition of architects who have designed curtains, furniture and lighting. We use this kind of design explore and create a constellation of zero-carbon lifestyle objects. This feeds our imagination on how to innovate and program architectural space in our buildings. The Give Back Curtain, the Zip Room, the Wall Headquarters in Boston for a German company! and the “Soft House” are examples of a single strand of research that moves back and forth between Matx and KVA. The “Here There” tension strap exhibition, the Meister US Headquarters (another German company) and the zero-carbon Meister Furniture line are another strand. There are many.

What aspects do you feel fail to get mentioned in the current debate on sustainable architecture?

Sheila Kennedy: As mentioned, I think the debate in architecture on “clean energy” has largely been understood in terms of operational inputs, of trying to reduce costs in the finished building. This is fine, but when we look at the energy that goes into making the building and the “clean energy” technology itself, materials, manufacturing, global transportation, and construction we see that this embodied energy is highly significant. The next generation of project delivery in architecture will be influenced by embodied energy, local material sourcing, and DIY manufacturing. This is the next step and we are already seeing it happen.

The Soft House design expands the traditional roles of the household curtain — to shade, insulate and provide privacy— creating a new multi-tasking soft infrastructure. Curtains can be moved into instant ‘rooms’ that concentrate zones of heating or cooling from the radiant floor. Smart curtain tracks mounted and LEDs integrated in the movable curtains create an special environment. Photo © Michael Moser
The south side of the "Soft Houses" has a textile membrane façade equipped with photovoltaic cells. The solar sails are flexible and turn automatically to the sunlight. Simultaneously, the facade elements shade in the summer and in the winter minimize the energy losses. Photo © Michael Moser
After the lecture, the three companies invited guests from architecture and design to wine, food and of course for a test drive in a Tesla. Photo © Sandra Jacques