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.