A New Library Typology

Greenpoint Library & Environmental Education Center


The design process for the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Center showcases the holistic research and design that is central to our firm. It also provided the opportunity for us to integrate unique design, programming, and fabrication methods that emphasize the library’s dual role as both a full-service branch library and a community hub for environmental awareness, activism, and education.

Visitors of the three-story, 15,000 square foot building can enjoy reading, research, classroom, and community spaces that are supported by three separate, planted, exterior areas. These green spaces serve as outdoor classrooms and reading spaces for multi- generational users. Through its water management, building materials, and landscape design, the building is a demonstration project for innovative approaches to sustainable design and a learning tool for the community. Below, we highlight the process that led us there.

Greenpoint Brownfield History

Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, located at the northwestern tip of Brooklyn, has historically been the site of intense industrial activity for over 140 years, starting with the creation of whale oil refineries in 1834. The neighborhood—a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial zones—is bound by the Newtown Creek to the north and east, Williamsburg to the south, and the East River to the west. By 1900, gasoline and fuel refinery and storage was the main industry in the Greenpoint neighborhood, especially along the Newtown Creek. Refinery operations continued until 1968, and oil storage operations still exist in the neighborhood today.

In 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard identified oil spilling into Newtown Creek. Further investigation revealed that a 52 acre area along the creek was contaminated with a combination of various oil products, totaling at least 17 million gallons. Most of this oil sat above the water table, impacting the soils and groundwater of both a local and regional aquifer. In 2010, the federal government designated Newtown Creek a Superfund site, which empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to force parties responsible for pollution to clean up contaminated sites.

Many of the “Potentially Responsible” parties have engaged in environmental remediation efforts since the discovery of the oil spill, including the pumping out of petroleum products sitting above the water table. When one of those parties, ExxonMobil, reached a settlement with the State of New York over the spill, the NYS Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Environmental Conservation used the settlement money to create the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF). The goal of the GCEF is to fund projects focused on improving the environmental conditions of buildings, infrastructure, and public space in Greenpoint. These include environmental stewardship and education programs, the creation of green public spaces, and waterfront restoration projects.

Brooklyn Union Gas Company plant on Newtown Creek (Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Pulaski Bridge, connecting Long Island City, Queens, to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, c. 1954 (Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)
Greenpoint’s Carnegie Library, built in 1906 and demolished in the early 1970s (Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Greenpoint Branch Library built in 1974 (Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History). It was open from 1973 to 2017.

The current location of the EEC was home to one of the first Carnegie libraries, built in 1906. That building was demolished and replaced by a “Lindsay Box” library in 1973. The nickname referred to the low-slung, inexpensive, modular library buildings built by the administration of mayor John Lindsay.

In 2014, the GCEF awarded the Brooklyn Public Library more than $5 million to renovate the Greenpoint branch library and turn it into an Environmental Education Center (EEC) that would serve as a hub for community engagement and education focused on the environment. With support from GCEF, BPL, and various other community partners, the EEC was to become a repository for the environmental history and activism in the Greenpoint neighborhood, including its history of environmental contamination and the efforts for remediation.

In 2015, Marble Fairbanks was selected as the project architect. In 2016, due to cost issues and the deteriorated conditions of the existing library, the GCEF and BPL’s Community Advisory Committee determined it was preferable to construct a new building.

In addition to providing funds for the library construction, the GCEF awarded BPL money to create environmental education curriculum, create the Oral History Project, create community photo archives, and hire a part-time Outreach Archivist, among other initiatives.

Site Analysis / Process

Marble Fairbanks studied the library site at various scales: the borough (Brooklyn), the neighborhood (Greenpoint), and the lot itself, at the northeast corner of Norman Avenue and Leonard Street. For the two larger scales, we used GIS to study relationships between the site and the people living there.

In the first pair of maps, we saw that Greenpoint as a whole has a smaller percentage of school age children in comparison to most other neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The second pair of maps indicates that much of northern Greenpoint is not within a half-mile walking distance of a park or green space. It also shows that most of the brownfield cleanup programs in Brooklyn are located in the northern part of the borough, including Greenpoint. The same can be said of environmental restoration programs and resource conservation and recovery programs. When looking at the neighborhood scale, however, most of those program sites are located outside of the half- mile radius from the Greenpoint Library branch. The final pair of maps shows that, while much of Greenpoint is within a FEMA flood zone, the library site is located in one of the neighborhood’s areas least likely to flood. A final map at the neighborhood scale shows the ten city blocks surrounding the library site. Though the site has been home to branch libraries since 1906, it continues to be an ideal location, given its proximity to the G subway line, bus lines, and bicycle infrastructure.

Population of school age residents in Greenpoint and Brooklyn

This project provides an opportunity to evaluate how the new library can provide valuable resources to school-aged residents in the area. While the majority of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) branches are located in areas with a high population of school-aged residents, this project site is situated in an area with relatively fewer residents of school age. Nevertheless, there are still five schools located within a walkable area of the library.

Remediation programs in Greenpoint & Brooklyn: Risk & Environmental Resilience for the Greenpoint Library

Remediation programs are important for addressing environmental concerns in urban areas, and Northern Brooklyn has a high concentration of such programs. However, few of these programs are located within the half-mile walkable areas of Brooklyn Public Library branches. Moreover, many of the remediation programs in Greenpoint are in or near the half-mile walkable area around the library. By leveraging the resources of the library and the surrounding community, residents can become better informed and equipped to take action on environmental issues in their neighborhood.

Flood risk and evacuation zones in Greenpoint & Brooklyn: Risk & Environmental Resilience for the Greenpoint Library

With the East River to the West, and Newton Creek to the North, Greenpoint has a high risk of flooding, making it an important area to consider when it comes to creating plans that can help mitigate the impact of such disasters. One significant consideration of this project is the library’s location, which sits on a high point and is less likely to be evacuated. This makes it a potentially essential location for any resilience planning efforts in the area.

Site Context

Following a comprehensive site analysis of the original Lindsay Box library, we were pleased to find that the library is located in an area that is easily accessible by all members of the community. It is conveniently situated less than a block away from a local public school, making it an easy walk for students of all ages. The library’s prime location is further enhanced by the presence of a nearby bike lane and a Citibike station, making it easy for cyclists to reach the library. In addition, the Nassau Avenue subway entrance is just one short block away, providing convenient access to the G Train for those using public transportation. For bus commuters, the library is well-served by two stops on both the B43 and B62 lines, ensuring that visitors can easily reach the library from all parts of the city.

Solar Study

At the scale of the lot, a combination of sun path diagrams and solar studies using a digital 3D model allowed us to determine how much of the site sits in the shadow of surrounding buildings. Given the lot’s location at the northeast corner of a neighborhood where the tallest surrounding buildings are four stories, a building on the site receives plentiful sunlight on its southeast and southwest facades. During the winter mornings and afternoons, however, neighboring buildings cast shadows onto the site, given the lower angle of the sun’s altitude during that time of the year.

Site Shadow Study

Zoning Envelope

We used axonometric views to better understand the constraints created by NYC zoning at the lot scale. Given its as-of-right Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 2.0, a new building on the lot could be up to 23,750 gross square feet (GSF), allowing BPL to easily accommodate a 15,000 square foot (SF) library that would double the size of the previous library on the site. In addition to height and setback requirements, the lot was constrained by a maximum coverage of 80%, as illustrated by the grid plan thumbnails. The following axonometric views show different build out scenarios, including the maximum build out and the build out of the requested program size. Other iterations show how the lot coverage changes as outdoor terraces and interior double height spaces are added or removed.

Site Massing Development

Site massing development was an iterative process that balanced zoning constraints, environmental conditions (shade, sun), programmatic requirements and the desire to have exterior, public spaces at the ground floor. We tested countless options using both digital and physical massing models. We then refined four of the preferred models into schematic design options that were developed through feedback from the client. These options also showed schematic floor plans and material palettes. Ultimately, the Rotate scheme—which allows for public space and seating along its southeastern facade—most closely resembles the massing of the new, completed project.

Environmental Education

Upon receiving the project grant for the Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center (GEEC), Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) created a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) that included local residents, neighborhood organizers, environmental groups, and elected officials. Together they shaped project goals for the library’s mission and programming.

They decided that the building and its landscape were to provide hands-on learning experiences that would expose visitors to environmentally conscious, sustainable building practices, while also providing opportunities for learning about the neighborhood’s past and present environment.

The completed library is a LEED Gold building that showcases innovative approaches to sustainable design through its daylighting, use of green spaces, energy-efficient HVAC system and fixtures, photovoltaic panels, and material use. In collaboration with New York City-based landscape architecture firm SCAPE, Marble Fairbanks designed a streetscape and rooftops that physically engage visitors with local ecologies, geologic history, and water management.

Marble Fairbanks included interpretive signage throughout the building to highlight the library’s environmentally sustainable design practices. These brief descriptions explain how and why certain design elements are beneficial to the environmental conditions of the library’s users (such as a displacement air system that conditions efficiently while removing contaminants), as well as to the well-being of the greater neighborhood and region (such as a bioswale that mitigates flooding of the city’s sewer system).

Interpretative Signage Topics:

Glacial Outcroppings


Solar Windows

Displacement Air

Wood Feature Walls

Reading Garden


Pollinator Garden

Hand Pump

Solar Panels

GFRC Panels

Facade Fabrication

The exterior wood and concrete wall panels were developed and fabricated in collaboration with Evan Eisman Company, a design, fabrication, and finishing studio based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, located just ten minutes from the library site.

Working iteratively with their shop, we developed a sand-blasted technique for finishing the cedar panels, removing a small amount of the soft wood in the grain pattern, accentuating the natural pattern on the façade. We then utilized those sand-blasted panels to cast the glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) panels that are located on the lower level of the building. Eisman and MFA worked together to determine the ideal amount of sandblasting required, in order to allow the wood to later become formwork for the fabrication of the GFRC panels used at the lower level facade.

Facade Fabrication Process

Layout of Sandblasted Wood Panels for the Library Facade

Environmental Activism

At the library’s inception, the community decided that—in addition to being a full-service library—the new center would be a hub for neighborhood residents of all ages to learn about the environment and sustainable practices through hands-on activities, speaker events, and guided research. The community also chose to make the new library a repository for primary source documents relating to Greenpoint’s history of environmental pollution and contamination. This has been made possible through BPL and the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund’s (GCEF) creation of the Greenpoint Environmental History Project. The documents, photos, and recordings that form the repository at the library can also be accessed online through the BPL Digital Collection.

To lead community activism and outreach, BPL hired Acacia Thompson as the Environmental Justice Coordinator. She leads environmental education at the library and focuses on issues of environmental equity and access for the Greenpoint Community. She also leads the Greenpoint Environmental History Project, a role critical to the mission of documenting and preserving the environmental history of Greenpoint.

Acacia and the BPL team have created programming that leverage the building’s amenities and spaces: craft and science projects in the labs, stargazing from the roof, lessons in food-growing in the exterior planters, and yoga in the Demonstration Garden.

Cover of report by the Hunter College Community Environmental Health Center titled Hazardous Neighbors? Living next door to industry in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, 1989 (Greenpoint Environmental History Project, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)
PS 31 Greenpoint Eco-Schools student project (Greenpoint Environmental History Project, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

A Community for Hands-On Learning

Interactive VR

Click and drag to view the library

Information desk and stair

Children’s Area

View from stair landing

View of Eco Lounge

Patterns and Performance

Toni Stabile Student Center


This project, a new Student Center for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, transforms both formal and informal work, meeting, and social spaces of the school. The student center becomes a nexus for the flow of the academic life of the building through the renovation of a large multilevel interior and slipping a new addition onto the campus that links the journalism school to the broader campus community. Digital design and production technologies facilitate an investigation of the performance of the primary materials. Four separate episodes within the architecture of the project engage in the technical (quantitative) while also critically engaging in the cultural or phenomenal (qualitative) implications of digital design and production. The four zones of architectural research involve highly engineered surfaces, each of which is generated through digital processes to address a particular technical or programmatic requirement, while also designed to produce specifically architectural or experiential effects. These surfaces thus satisfy a double definition of the word performance: by performing on two levels, the technical/quantitative and the phenomenal/qualitative, the project offers a new model for implementing digitally-driven design.

A team of specialists was put together to contribute to the development of the specific performance criteria and digital modeling for each surface of this project. The approach was to expand our network of allied consultants to ensure that the technical performance is optimized while managing the flow of information and communication to guarantee that the qualitative implications of the design remain linked to the overall goals of the project. Digital modeling is utilized to engineer performance but also to test and innovate architectural effects. Working closely with fabricators, each surface system was put through rigorous prototyping. While technical performance can be numerically driven and calculated, the cultural and qualitative effects of each surface were tested at full scale to achieve the desired resolution and legibility. The techniques of the assembly for each patterned surface were finalized in the prototyping phase, with information and coordination of the assembly logics embedded in the final digital files.

Introduction Project
View from Campus


Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

The project consists of two phases: (1) a 9,000 s.f. complete renovation of two floors of an existing McKim, Mead & White building on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, and (2) a 1000 s.f. glass addition. The renovation provides a new student “social hub”, flanked by the Journalism Library, faculty offices, classrooms, and a student newsroom. The new addition is located in a previously unused exterior plaza, sandwiched in between the Journalism building and an adjacent dormitory, and will provide a new student lounge and cafe space open to the University community.

The first phase was completed in December 2007, and the second phase is currently under construction with completion scheduled for August 2008.

Patterns & Performance

Four surfaces are used to test different strategies of double performance-driven design. These surfaces consist of the ceilings and walls in two of the project’s primary spaces: the interior “Social Hub,” essentially a study area and meeting space for students and faculty; and the new cafe addition, which is a more public venue for the School and the University. The strategies adopted for designing and engineering each surface arise directly from technical and programmatic demands for each space.

Surface 1: Acoustic Performance

Performance Criteria: Eliminating acoustic reverb and echo in a multi-function space. 

The ceiling of the Social Hub, comprised of perforated 16-gauge steel panels backed with acoustic insulation, is designed to provide an acoustically absorptive ceiling for a room that accommodates a wide range of uses (study area, meeting room, lecture hall, event space). The geometry of the ceiling wraps tightly to existing building structure to increase ceiling height where possible. The logic of the perforation pattern was developed through a two-phase process: first, an acoustic model of the space was developed to drive the density of perforations, and a second subsequent scripting process integrated geometry, lighting, and sprinkler layout into the pattern generation.

Pattern Generation: Acoustic Modeling

An acoustic model of the space was developed to establish the performance criteria for the ceiling’s perforation pattern. Several scenarios were generated within the software to identify the zones of the ceiling that, through increased acoustic transparency, would reduce and eliminate reverb and echo effects in the space. These points then became “zones of intensity” or “attractors” for the pattern generation script—areas where the perforations would become larger and provide more acoustic absorption.

The pattern script was developed to generate a series of unique iterations, each of which relied on the attractor points and thus satisfied the acoustic performance criteria for the space. The iterations were evaluated both for the density of perforations (which translates directly to fabrication time and cost) as well as overall qualitative effect.

Material: 16 gauge perforated steel (powder-coated)

Acoustic Modeling: Initial Burst
Acoustic Modeling: Resultant Sound Distribution
Zones of Intensity: Attractors where dense perforations
Perforation Pattern Iterations

Pattern Generation: Scripting

The second phase of designing the perforation pattern involved calibrating the scripting process to respond to the preexisting conditions in the ceiling, as well as various forms of infrastructure that would be integrated into the ceiling. Rules were developed to establish “buffer zones” adjacent to light fixtures, sprinkler heads, edges of panels, and the break/bend lines of the panels. Through a digital scripting process, the pattern generated from the acoustic analysis was modified accordingly to accommodate these rules.


(1) All holes on 1 1/2” grid.

(2) All holes can infinitely vary from I’ diameter circles to 5/8” long ovals.

(3) No holes within 1” of panel joint lines.

(4) Any hole within 6” of panel joint lines must be less than 1/2” in diameter.

(5) No holes within 1/2” of light/sprinkler cutouts.

(6) Any hole within 6” of light/sprinkler cutouts must be less than 1/2” in diameter.

(7) No holes within 1” of bend lines.

Fabrication & Assembly

The digital modeling of the ceiling and the perforation pattern enabled an easy translation directly to the fabrication and assembly process. The shop drawing phase was eliminated; digital files for each ceiling panel were taken directly from the model and used by the fabricator for both laser-cutting and bending the panels.

The ceiling panels are fastened to a grid of steel tubes with holes pre-cut to match precisely with corresponding holes in the panels. The entire system is hung from a standard ceiling suspension system.

Digital Model: Ceiling from Below

Digital Model: View of Ceiling Panels

Surface 2: Cultural Performance

Material: 13 ga. perforated steel (powder-coated)

Performance Criteria: Projecting an image that provides multiple readings at different scales and proximities.

The west wall of the social hub was designated by the client to be a primary design feature for the new student space. Extending from the social hub down through a new opening in the floor slab, the wall connects the upper space with the new student newsroom below. The specific performance criteria for the wall were developed through research into how pixelation and resolution could be utilized to provide variable effects and perceptions from different locations in the room. Generating the pattern thus became a question of balancing digital tools of image conversion with full-scale tests of the resultant qualitative effects.

Original Image
Wall Detail
Pixelated into Perforations

Diagram of Projected Elevation as Interior Wall Surface

Pattern Generation: Rules

The pixelation scripting process uses an alphabet of six discrete “characters,” each corresponding to a specific range of tonal values within the black-to-white spectrum. Through a simple algorithm, the script converts the image into a perforation pattern by replacing the raster information with characters according to tonal value. The characters consist of a gradient from zero (“O”) to one (“1″) — literally, the most basic forms o

Pixel Alphabet
Assembly Detail

Surface 3:

Environmental Performance

Material: 16 ga. perforated, corrugated steel (powder-coated)

Performance Criteria: Optimization of sun shading, with the benchmark of eliminating 80% of solar head gain in the building.

The ceiling for the new cafe addition, hung below a glass roof, is designed and engineered in conjunction with the low-E insulated glass to reduce the heat loads and allow for a more efficient conditioning system. Two strategies of patterning are used to develop the most efficient means of solar shading for the space: corrugation and perforation. Through a rigorous modeling and scripting process, the corrugation and perforation patterns were developed in tandem to optimize solar shading and reduction of solar heat gain inside the new building, while also achieving a more qualitative effect, evocative of a tree canopy.

Diagram of Projected Elevation as Interior Wall Surface
Concept: Corrugated Panels as Canopy

Pattern Generation: Corrugation Logic

A number of solar analyses were run on different days of the year to determine the environmental parameters of the site. The peak load—the point at which the direct solar radiation absorbed by the roof is the greatest—was identified through digital modeling, and this load became the benchmark by which the solar shading system was designed.

The sun angle information was in turn fed into an algorithm that generated the bend profiles of the ceiling panels. The basic principles of the script involved using the corrugations to block sunlight, while letting indirect light bounce and filter down to the space below. The script also adjusted the corrugations to provide space for lighting and sprinkler heads that are located above the ceiling panels.

Solar Heat Gain Analysis of Building & Site
Longitudinal Section through cafe addition showing corrugation profile of ceiling

Pattern Generation: Perforation Logic & Cultural Overlay

Once the corrugation pattern was determined, the resultant geometry was fed back into the energy analysis software. Each segment of the panel (each face of the corrugated surface) was then assigned a maximum allowable percentage of perforation that would satisfy the 80% solar heat reduction requirement. The quantitative rules for the perforation pattern determined only the percent open, however, and not the actual pattern that drives how the holes are distributed to meet that benchmark percentage. The pattern itself was derived from an image of the sky (as if one was looking straight up from the cafe through the roof) and included an overlaid image of a satellite. The size and geometry of the perforations were determined by balancing the need for a resolution that would allow the image to be legible with the cost of laser cutting the holes in the panels.

Surface 4: Dynamic Performance

Material: Steel frame; double laminated, insulated, heat-strengthened glass; stainless steel screw jack; computerized mechanism with safety devices

Performance Criteria: New facade on the University’s campus needs to maximize transparency, minimize structure, offer complete openness to the exterior in favorable weather, and satisfy all safety requirements.

The east facade of the new cafe addition, facing the University’s campus, was challenged with a set of performance criteria that was less quantifiable than with the other three surfaces in the project. In order to minimize impact on the McKim, Mead & White campus, the University asked that the design maximize its transparency and minimize its structure. An additional parameter of the design was programmatic: to allow the facade to literally open to the exterior in favorable weather, to extend the inside space of the cafe outside to the plaza.

The final design is comprised of three glass panels: two fixed transom pieces, and a lower glass wall (19′-0″W x 8′-6″H) that is motorized and rises up behind the transom, like a giant double-hung window. The main challenges to designing an operable glass wall involved the maximum possible sizes of procurable glass, the weight of the glass, the time needed to open the wall, and the safety precautions needed for lifting a 5-ton wall into the air. The resulting design produces its own kind of performance: the facade becomes an event in and of itself.

Testing Operation of Wall, Argentina; Detail of Screw Jack; Detail of Safety Sensor

Beacon for Queens Community

Glen Oaks Branch Library

Context: the City

The Queens Library serves over 2.2 million people from 63 branch library locations plus 6 Adult Learning Centers.  It has one of the highest circulations of any library in the world.  It is first in circulation in New York State since 1985 and has maintained the highest circulation of any city library since 1987.  Glen Oaks Branch Library serves one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Queens with a population of just under 20,000 from over 50 countries speaking at least 30 different languages.

Queens Borough Site Map
Site Plan
Cellar, Adult Reading Room
Ground Floor Plan
Movement / Program Diagram

Landscape: Above

The landscape strategy takes into account the ground surface’s dual role as an outdoor public space and as the roof of the cellar below. Above, the landscape transforms the site constraint that allows for only a thin crust of soil into an opportunity to explore relationships between artifice and nature. Rather than propose large bulky planters that would block visual access into the library, the landscape architects propose a contiguous thin soil matrix under a field of bluestone. Rhus glabra, or Sumac, is planted bare-root in this contiguous but thin soil matrix. Sumac roots tend to be shallow and wide-spreading and therefore is highly suitable for this condition. Bluestone planks of varying widths create an urban surface in keeping with the library’s residential context and larger public space role and are ‘removed’ to plant Sumac and low perennials. Benches are introduced in keeping with the grain of the bluestone pattern, which splays at the building entry. The library landscape is porous visually, blending inside and outside, while providing quiet seating areas for rest and reading.

Ceilingscape: Below

As the lower level constitutes over 50% of the building program including the main adult reading room, creating a well-lit space below grade is of primary concern.  A double-height space acts as a large skylight and connects the ground floor to the lower level.  In addition, three strip skylights in the plaza bring light down to define more specific reading areas within the adult room.  The ceiling of the adult reading room under the outdoor plaza is contoured to form varying heights above the finish floor, providing more intimate reading areas within the relatively open plan. The profile of the contoured ceiling is read at the double-height space, visually making the connection between the plaza surface and the ceiling surface and accentuating the artificiality of the ground.

Surface: Bluestone Planks (Regional Material)
Street Tree: Honey Locust (native)
Understory Shrub at Setback: Smooth Sumac
Interior Elevation: Cellar West, rotated skylight (plan and axons)

Cellar Level
Second Floor
Longitudinal Section
Transverse Section

Elevations: North and West

The pattern on the graphic film interlayer on the lower level north and west elevation allow the building to be “read” at multiple scales: as an abstract pattern from the distance of the neighborhood that becomes, as the viewer moves into closer proximity, information about the multitude of languages spoken in Glen Oaks, represented through a pattern of book ends of varying colors. The pattern doubles as a screen to filter western sun, reducing heat loads in the summer months.

Graphic Wall

West Elevation

Elevation: North

The north elevation functions as a picture-window view into and out of the second floor children’s area, while also satisfying the Library’s desire to provide a civic identity to the community.  The word “search” is projected by the sunlight through letters in the film in the parapet onto the glass curtain wall, varying in scale and legibility as a result of the time of day, degree of sunlight, and season.

Detail Section: Roof Assembly and Search Projection
SEARCH Projection During Summer
SEARCH Projection During Winter

Research into New Logics of Design and Assembly



Commissioned as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling exhibition, Flatform is a panel system of flat stock stainless steel components that are cut, scored, and folded to form details of assembly without external fasteners. Facing panels are joined through tabs that either interlock between the two panels or extend through the face of the opposite panel. The surface geometry of each panel is parametrically linked to the characteristics of the tabs and is limited by the ability of the material to bend. The composition and number of tabs can vary to address specific performance requirements.

In contrast to the modern logic of managed assembly, in which details developed by combining standard pre-manufactured parts disconnected from the design process, Flatform has a logic of designed assembly. Flatform emphasizes the design and fabrication of performance—specific parts that structure the logic of the whole, linking concept, design, fabrication, and assembly.

The practice of architecture has always been in the paradoxical position of being invested in the production of real concrete matter, yet always working with tools of abstract representation (drawings, models, computer simulations). Techniques of dimensional or geometric representation, formerly part of an abstract process of drawing, have evolved into an integrated system of design information embedded in production and assembly processes. CNC (computer numerically controlled) systems put the process of design closer to the production of buildings, as design and production merge into a common language of digital information.

Surface Pattern: Surface = Structure

The exact dimensions and profiles for each tab set are determined from the distance and angle between the two facing flat panels.  Once this relationship is determined, the connection centroid is the reference point in space from which the geometry for each tab is mathematically generated.  The array and density for the tab sets make up the overall pattern and degree of openness of the assembly.

Tab Set Logic

The overall geometry and appearance of Flatform is generated from the topology of the tab set.  Each tab set is made up of a major and minor tab, one on each of the facing flat panels, in a precise relationship to each other, that bend and structurally lock together.

Open Variable

The variable width of the tab openings, parametrically linked to the overall geometry of the wall itself, allows the wall system to accommodate a wide range of transparency and opacity.

Depth Variable

The global geometry of the facing panels is the primary design variable that controls the pattern of tab sets.  As the panels move further apart, the tab sets reduce in number, grow in length and produce a more open affect.  As they move closer together, the opposite occurs.


The prefabricated components are delivered to the installation site as flat panels, reducing transport costs and increasing the ease of handling on the site.

1. Bend lock tabs and major tabs

2. Hang panel

Paper Studies


Material Effects

The inside surface of the facing panels on one side is powder-coated, and the surface quality of the polished stainless steel is utilized to create reflected color on the inside of the assembly.  The color also accentuates the three dimensional quality of the tab sets.

Surface Pattern: Tab Rotation

Architectural details are largely a product of the relationship of design to industry.  If the modernist detail was based on negotiating tolerances (differences) between pre-manufactured, standardized building components through separate systems of fastening, today we are shifting to methods of production that are based on the management and organization of information, where details, tolerances, and assembly logics are numerically controlled and fully integrated during design.  In this context, CNC (computer numerically controlled) systems bring the process of design closer to the production of buildings, merging them through a common language of digital information.

Expanded Alliances: Industry and Beyond

Slide Library


This project combined research into three areas of interest:

1) new computerized fabrication techniques,

2) building information modeling (BIM) and construction

3) innovative approaches to creating the organization of an architectural design project.

The larger ambition of these three research topics is to reposition architects in a more strategic place to actually participate in the design of the conditions under which they operate, to which we refer as Expanded Alliances. This specific submission is for a new slide library for the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.  It was completed both as a prototype to test the premise of the research and to fulfill the immediate program needs of the client as the first phase of a longer-term master plan.

The Premise of Expanded Alliances

Schools of architecture are a vast resource for innovative ideas about all aspects of architecture ranging from history/theory to technology and design.  They combine the enthusiasm and originality of students with the experience and reputation of faculty, who are typically leaders in their respective areas.

Universities typically have extensive capital building projects managed by a facilities department that hire architects, consultants and contractors on behalf of various schools or departments who act as clients and who generally fund the projects.

The premise of this project was to form alliances between university clients, facilities departments and architecture schools that would achieve significant benefits for each and be a win-win arrangement.  This would become a workable model for universities around the country.

This research and test project set out to develop a sustainable model to use university funded capital projects as a full scale testing laboratory for architecture schools to conduct research into:

1.  applied new material and fabrication techniques

2.  building information modeling and construction

3.  designing the organization of a project

There are currently 1,041 schools of architecture in the United States.  In 2004, $12,186,636,000 was spent on construction by colleges around the country.  If colleges and universities with architecture departments work with this new model of expanded alliances, significant opportunities would exist for innovative design and new forms of collaboration that would benefit all participants.

The Background of Expanded Alliances

Applied New Materials and Full Scale Fabrication Techniques

The abundance of new materials being introduced both within and outside of the building industry has reinvigorated the interests of architects in material technology.  Fabrication and assembly techniques are also becoming a major interest of architects as design and manufacturing merge into the common language of digital information.

Building Information Modeling and Construction

CAD/CAM has initiated an historical transformation of the building industry but is limited to linking design and manufacturing.  Building Information Modeling (BIM) extends this to encompass the organization and management of all attributes of a project.  This process is currently in its infancy and is only feasible on very large projects with fees to support the time necessary to input the vast amount of data associated with a BIM.  This project set out to test alternative versions of BIM applicable to a wider range of projects.

Expanded Alliances

The practice of architecture has always been about managing information.  Architects produce documents that coordinate the efforts of multiple constituents with  the goal of designing buildings.  With the availability of ubiquitous communication technologies, the rapid transformation of the building industry through these technologies and a new entrepreneurial spirit among a younger generation, architects are now in a position to leverage their expertise to actually design the organization of a project – to creatively and strategically assemble new alliances among owners, clients, builders, fabricators, consultants, etc. that lay the groundwork for innovative architecture.

The University has two models of capital project developments – those done with an in-house design team from the Department of Design and Construction within the facilities department and those done with an architect hired by the university.  The test project proposed and implemented a new model for campus projects.  It required communication networks and exchanges that were well beyond those currently used in campus project development.  It utilized both existing resources and expertise as well as new resources and expertise that were currently untapped by facilities.

As a first case study of New Alliances, the test project was created around the following conditions:

1.  The school of architecture developed a fabrication lab (FABCON) to expand the ongoing interest in digital design and production tools & techniques. The lab consisted of a CNC mill and water jet machine backed up by a fully equipped work shop.  The mandate of the lab is research new fabrication and assembly techniques at full scale.

2.  The architects / professors utilized their established relationship with multiple constituencies in the university to gain support for a new organization to the structure of a capital project forming a new type collaboration between the client (the Department of Art History and Archaeology), the Department of Design and Construction within the facilities department, the School of Architecture, and the FABCON lab.

3.  A master plan by the architects / professors for the client was in its early stages of implementation with one project complete and several others planned over the next few years.  The test project became phase one of the master plan.

The Organization of Expanded Alliances

As both faculty members of the university and practicing architects, we set up a collaborative structure between the necessary academic and professional constituents to maximize the net results for all involved. The client department will get a highly unique design at a significant savings; the architecture school is able to give unprecedented opportunities for students to test new fabrication techniques in their fabrication lab (FABCON); the facilities department will be able to promote supporting innovative design projects on campus, and the university at large will benefit from sponsoring quality design through interdepartmental collaborations. In addition to the university affiliates, outside professionals were brought in as needed for their expertise and in some cases to expand the capacity for fabrication.

Test Project


The Department of Art History and Archaeology undertook a space analysis and subsequent master plan to maximize its space utilization relative to current teaching trends.  As part of this master plan, it was determined that the slide library, which has an extensive and notable collection and uses one of the largest rooms in the department, could be relocated.  Although reduced in size to 1000 square feet, its importance within the department was still significant and required a well-designed space – this became the test project.  The new location is on the top floor of a 9 story Beaux-Arts building, a space without windows but with a very large skylight that will act as a lantern on the interior.  It is surrounded by faculty offices and will also function as an informal conference space.  The area where the slide library was located will become a future test project and house a new multi-program “social hub”.

Slide Library

The slide library operates as both a didactic tool, describing the fabrication process through the information inscribed on its surfaces, and as a metaphor for the projector that illuminates the slides.  The east wall is also curved to allow the skylight to directly light the hallway and the front of the slide library.  Glass pieces embedded in the wall further transmit light from the interior of the slide library to its exterior.  The captured light from the skylight is registered on and transmitted through the surfaces of the slide library in patterns that continually shift.

A large existing skylight was uncovered and integrated into the design, bringing light into this otherwise completely interior space that is surrounded by faculty offices.

The east wall is made up of 435 layers of ″ thick ultralight (lightweight MDF) sandwiched together.  Occasional viewing portals are formed by carved layers on opposite sides of the wall with two 1/2″ thick glass panels sandwiched between them.  The drawing shows how the toolpaths that were used to mill the layered (east) wall were laid out and milled into north, south and west walls.


Several full-scale prototypes of the portals were fabricated and assembled. Different milling techniques were tested from straight cuts to curved profiles on each of the 1” layers to study the effects of the light and the experience of viewing through the wall. The geometry of the curves was flipped around the axis of the glass panels to form an overlap that allowed views through the wall.

A continuous curve was selected over stepped options – testing the precision of the mill to generate smooth curves over multiple layers of the 1” ultralite.  This also required some of the layers to be milled on both sides due to the limitations of 3 axis CNC mills to undercut.  Techniques were tested to calibrate the precision of alignments when flipping the panels.  During these tests, it was also determined that the existing floor structure would not support the wall so cavities were milled inside the wall to reduce the overall weight.

Layered Wall Tool Paths

As part of the rigor to digitally draw, fabricate and manage the entire project, every component of the design was milled regardless of its complexity to enable the walls to be assembled like furniture.  A material limitation was imposed to control the variables – mdf was used for all components.  The structural columns on the north, south and west walls were designed as interlocking components with coordinated slots to receive all glass.

A 3-axis mill was used for all components.  Because the project was relatively small and one of the goals of the test was to simulate the complexity of building information management on a larger scale, the intricacies of the walls were exaggerated.  Another goal of the project was to test the agility of digital information to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.  When the milling for the components was calculated for a single machine and found to be longer than the duration of the project, instead of simplifying the design, the network of fabricators was expanded to increase the workflow with little impact on the coordination.

Material management: Related to individual components making up a larger component along with the sequence of assembly was coordinated through a comprehensive labeling index that went from design through final installation.

Assembly: North, South, & West Walls

Many of the typical construction drawings become redundant with a building information management project.  Drawings for this test project existed only for the purposes of describing the sequence of assembly.  Minimal notes and no dimensions were used as emphasis was placed on communication through graphic clarity.

Assembly: East Wall

The assembly of the east wall was kept as simple as possible relying only on a linear numbering sequence for each of the layers and an attachment method of staggered 18” long threaded rods connected with threaded couplings.  The glass was held in place with the compression from the rods and required no adhesives.  A top and bottom track held the wall in place.  Students assembled the east wall in one week.


University projects typically take place over the three months of summer break requiring a well-coordinated and expedient workflow.  Through a close interactive collaboration between architect, fabrication team, project manager, general contractor all entrusted by the client, this test project fulfilled all of its goals of design, prototyping, fabrication and assembly on time and on budget.

The Future

Schools of architecture pioneered the first digital revolution through exhaustive formal experimentation and elaborate visualizations of these new forms.  Many architecture students trained during this time were hired by digital animation, web design, advertising companies because of their unique skills to think, visualize and model complex form.  While this was occurring, the construction industry was focused more on streamlining the manufacturing and building processes through CNC technologies with little or no emphasis on innovation beyond efficiency.  The core goal of Expanded Alliances is to foreground the potential and urgency of a younger generation of architects to begin pioneering the second digital revolution in architecture.  Because this revolves around actual building itself, the only effective way to do this is to build…at full scale.  More importantly is the application of digital technology as a tool of communication to generate the organization of projects, to form networks of collaborators to realize projects and finally to design, manage, fabricate and assemble innovative architecture.