Inviting Consultants to the Design Table

The Museum of Modern Art and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for MoMA’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream—which opens in February—to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from Zak Kostura, a member of Visible Weather’s team.

Sketch of some structural considerations. Drawing courtesy of Zak Kostura

When it comes to the delivery of a truly integrated, modern building design, timing is crucial. Often, experts knowledgeable in fields such as sustainability, environmental comfort, structure, and infrastructure are brought into a design team only after a client and an architect have grown enamored with a visionary concept that may not, in fact, intrinsically embody the characteristics necessary for optimal performance in these areas. Yet bringing on consultants too early threatens to create a cacophony of specialized interests and stifle any chance for an elegant base design. It is a rare instance when those whose modus operandi is the optimization of a specific building performance characteristic can be brought together to address a particular problem under leadership that can find harmony amongst those characteristics and develop from them a holistic solution.

A study of the de-evolution of structural stiffness. Drawing courtesy of Zak Kostura. (Click to view full size)

Although I was fortunate to have an opportunity to interact with all of the teams who participated in the Foreclosed exhibition, virtually all of my experience is pulled from the Visible Weather team, with whom I worked exclusively. Yet of all the elements of the design process that could be controlled, timing certainly was not one of them. For starters, the teams had a scant four months to reimagine the prototypical dwellings of American suburbia and create a world-class exhibition for the public. Moreover, weekly deadlines and interim exhibitions imposed by the curatorial leadership kept the teams’ minds trained on deliverables (and reinforced the old adage that one should never reveal unfinished work). All of this notwithstanding, the architects needed to remain flexible to the submission schedules of invited experts. (When consultants work for free, their deadlines are often written in pencil.)

Study of comfort layers. Drawing courtesy of Zak Kostura

Yet despite the impracticality of setting a rigorous design schedule, the timing worked out extremely well. The kick-off event, which brought the teams together for an insightful panel session, motivated everyone on the team to begin contributing immediately. On the Visible Weather team, discussion quickly turned to an examination of the role of structure and environment within the suburban home. A language comprised almost exclusively of hand-drawn sketches resulted. At first, these sketches conveyed only general physical principles and technical strategies, such as the de-evolution of structural stiffness or the compartmentalization of a domicile into “comfort zones.” They were received by the core team, led by Michael Bell and Eunjeong Seong, who chose to grow enamored with the performative characteristics laid out by those sketches. Through myriad study models, the Visible Weather team experimented with their implementation at a time when they were not limited by preexisting base schemes. Rather, they were nurtured alongside considerations of form, landscape, and aesthetics.


Illustration of energy savings potential. Image courtesy of Zak Kostura. (Click to view full size)

What resulted was a housing concept that embodies innovative perspectives on structure, comfort, environment, and materiality, and conveys the value of embracing a design process that fosters the integration of these crucial characteristics to truly enhance its architecture.

The impressive, if unsurprising, variety in the work produced by the five design teams (who worked independently and, in some cases, thousands of miles apart) is probably indicative to some extent of differences in the way in which disciplines such as structure and building environment were represented. What struck me during the workshop phase of Foreclosed is the extent to which this exhibition explores the process of designing homes, in contrast to the designs themselves. I am hopeful that the work done by these five teams will demonstrate the true value of introducing and seriously considering the needs of intrinsic building characteristics such as structure, infrastructure, and the mechanics of an optimized internal environment.