How Architects KieranTimberlake Turned Their Office Into an “Incubator”

The Philadelphia-based architects have turned their own office into a laboratory to test strategies like natural ventilation and to develop technologies for sensor-driven products.

James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran stand in the second-floor studio space of their 63,000-square-foot office.

Photography by Christopher Leaman

It’s a late November day in Philadelphia, with temperatures in the high 40s, and I’m sitting with architects Stephen Kieran and Billie Faircloth at a conference table in KieranTimberlake’s soaring new offices in a former bottling plant. Faircloth wears a black trench coat pulled tight, her collar raised like a funnel to the edge of her short red bob. She’s freezing. Kieran wears a lightweight pullover. He’s comfortable. I have on a loosely crocheted wool sweater. I’m a bit warm, but that’s probably because I just biked over to see them.

It seems appropriate to start with the temperature and our various states of personal comfort, because the architects at KieranTimberlake are obsessed with the weather and the way it affects our design choices. On the roof of their building, a Weather Underground–registered weather station keeps a running tab on external conditions, while, on the floors below, some 400 sensors embedded amid the rows of desks collect data on the office micro-climates. The details are routed to Faircloth’s research group, which churns out charts, graphs, and other visualizations. Every Friday, the firm sends e-mail blasts to its 100 employees, advising them on clothing options for the next week. As summer set in last year, the staff was polled three times a day: Are you comfortable? Where are you seated? What are you wearing?

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When people start complaining about being too warm, Faircloth says, they are instructed to deploy “adaptive systems,” her phrase for personal desk fans. But localized breezes weren’t quite enough on June 8, when the office temperature hit a record 87 degrees. To mollify employees, the firm’s founding partners, Kieran and James Timberlake, ordered a round of Rita’s Water Ice for the house. Kieran believes the frozen dessert, a local favorite made from fruit and crushed ice, “actually changed perceptions” about the heat. The results of that little experiment were duly incorporated into the daily data haul.

Climate issues have always been a priority in KieranTimberlake’s practice, but now it’s personal. When the firm moved its office to the old bottling facility last year, it chose to forgo air-conditioning—standard equipment in a city notorious for its muggy summers—opting instead for exhaust fans, operable windows, and passive cooling technology. The decision was intended as a demonstration of the firm’s environmental bona fides, but that wasn’t the only motivation. KieranTimberlake, which was the AIA’s firm of the year in 2008, envisions its new offices as a living research lab that will yield advances in sustainable design, which the architects can pass on to their clients. “If you can’t experiment on yourself,” Kieran argues, “you shouldn’t be experimenting on anyone else. You don’t have the right.”

The second-floor desking space has 38-foot ceilings and two rows of windows that flood the area with natural light. The employees also have desk lamps, so the overhead lights are rarely on.

Every project the firm is now designing—from a massive American embassy in London to a prefabricated housing development in India to weather-tracking software—is informed in some way by its new home. A low-slung affair designed in 1948 by Richard Carl Koelle for Henry F. Ortlieb’s Brewing Co., the 63,000-square-foot plant stretches across a half block in the rapidly gentrifying Northern Liberties neighborhood, a place once thick with breweries and factories. The building is three times as big as the firm’s old place and substantially roomier than the typical architects’ studio. The luxury of space has finally given Kieran and Timberlake a chance to acquire all the maker toys they’ve wanted—and to test-drive their often radical ideas about sustainability through hands-on research.

At the heart of the operation is a ground-floor workshop, inserted into the loading dock where Ortlieb’s drivers used to fill their trucks with bottles of lager. KieranTimberlake removed the masonry walls to make room for welding, cutting glass, pouring concrete, and, of course, a 3D printer. The machines, and the people using them, are easily visible to passersby through the large glass swinging doors. Inside, clear plastic walls scavenged from the firm’s 2008 Cellophane House separate the heavy equipment from the electronics studio, where software developers assemble and test the circuit boards that go into the weather sensors. The palm-size devices measure temperature and humidity, Timberlake explains, “information that helps us understand the thermal performance of buildings.” The firm also sees those weather sensors as a potential profit center; it’s begun to market the software to architects and developers.

The most exciting part, he says, is that the new machinery makes it possible for the firm to produce full-size prototypes of architectural elements while projects are still in design—a committee from Brown University was just in town to examine two different facades for the school’s new engineering building, for example. Typically, Timberlake explains, such large mock-ups aren’t available until the project is in the field—and then it’s too late to make substantial changes. “We believe in failing early and failing fast,” he says. The phrase has become an office motto.

“Our bodies get checkups. So should our buildings.”

While engineers, developers, and sculptors tinker in the workshop, the more conventional business of architecture takes place in what used to be the second-floor bottling room, a vast space still lined with its original, pilsner-colored brick tiles. Those tiles are a reminder that this is a building that has always functioned without mechanical cooling: Because washing beer bottles was hot work that produced tremendous amounts of condensation, the walls were tiled for easy cleaning. The building lends itself to sustainable management in other ways. Two rows of ribbon windows and a roof monitor run the length of the second floor. The ceilings reach 38 feet, and there is so much natural light that the firm rarely turns on the overhead lights during the day. Desk lamps are enough.

In a sense, Kieran and Timberlake have taken the theories of mass customization that they first articulated in their influential 2003 manifesto Refabricating Architecture (McGraw-Hill) and applied them to office life. In most modern workplaces, the entire space is heated, cooled, and lit to a uniform standard. Not only is that a huge waste of energy, but it also virtually guarantees that a sizable percentage of people will be dissatisfied. “The modern office is the least comfortable place we inhabit,” Kieran says. “Who do you optimize the temperature for?” KieranTimberlake prefers to provide employees with the ability to customize their personal spaces to their own comfort levels. That might mean hauling out floor fans, opening windows, and, yes, ordering water ice, but Kieran says the approach has cut energy consumption to half of what a building this size would use.

Kieran and Timberlake admit they were humbled after that 87-degree June day. The event prompted the firm to review its dehumidifier data. It turned out the system was malfunctioning and had to be reconfigured. The firm also became more strategic about using the heat exhausters. Now it makes sure to flush the hot air from the building every evening, so that it cools down overnight. But the partners remain convinced that employees need to adapt themselves to the building as much as the building needs to adapt to its users. That means starting the workday early in the summer to take advantage of the morning coolness.

A weather station located on the roof provides some of the data essential to keeping the fully naturally ventilated building comfortable for the architects. A heat-exhauster flushes hot air from the building every evening.

Faircloth, who oversees the research team, says the office surveys show that 80 percent of the staff is content when the main studio is 84 degrees. The approval rating rises to 90 percent when the temperature falls to 80 degrees, a level that the firm was able to maintain once it adjusted the dehumidifiers. While that’s a higher number than you find in a conventional office building, Faircloth is convinced that “our bodies can adapt a lot more than we think they can.” She also cites research showing that office workers are more productive when rooms are temperate rather than overcooled. Ironically, the temperature will rarely be right for her. “I’m always going to be cold,” she says, blaming her fair skin and red hair. She takes “personal responsibility” by wearing extra layers.

Since moving into the new building, Kieran and Timberlake have finally been able to pursue more of the ideas from Refabricating Architecture: mass customization, off-site fabrication, prototyping, and natural thermal comfort. Their first full building experiments began in 2006 with the much-acclaimed Loblolly House, a luxury prefab, and extended to the circuitry-studded, PET-walled Cellophane House, which was the star of the 2008 Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling show at New York’s MoMA. But, as with other architects seduced over the last century by the possibilities of prefab construction, making prefabrication profitable has proved elusive. Convinced that it still offers the best hope for building fast and sustainably, the firm recently teamed up with three groups in India—Projectwell, Sam Circle Venture, and the Bakeri Group—to develop a template for low-cost, low-impact housing to address the country’s middle- and low-income housing shortage. So far, they’ve developed a kit of lightweight concrete wall panels that are solid, perforated, and sun-shaded. Inspired by vernacular Indian housing designs, the pieces can be assembled in a variety of ways to produce a single-family home or a multistory apartment building in weeks.

Normally you wouldn’t think of concrete as a sustainable material, because its production is notoriously polluting. But in designing the project, KieranTimberlake’s architects felt they needed to balance sustainability, marketability, and true life-cycle costs. Like many architects, they’ve also begun to reject the LEED-style checklist approach to sustainability in favor of a more nuanced tally of the life-cycle costs of construction. So, despite its bad reputation, concrete gets points for being solid and long-lasting, qualities that appeal to Indian home buyers. Using the machines in its new workshop, KieranTimberlake has been cooking up a new concrete recipe with more aggregates and fibers—and a lower carbon footprint. As a result of these efforts to quantify sustainability in a more meaningful way, the firm has developed a software program called Tally to factor dozens of variables in the construction process, including those related to energy use, environmental degradation, and carbon emissions.

What the partners at KieranTimberlake really dream about is a day when architects don’t just research the sustainability of a building before construction but continue to follow its performance through its life, assessing its functioning as conditions change. “A doctor doesn’t just operate on a patient and say, ‘Good luck,’” Kieran explains. “Our bodies get checkups. So should our buildings.” That’s a hard case to make to most clients. So, until the architects can find people to hire them for the long haul, the old bottling plant will have to serve as their test patient.

The firm’s offices adapted an old Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Company’s bottling-house facility, built in 1948. The architects even retained the structure’s historic sign.

The ground floor of the office is a prototyping area, partitioned by clear panels salvaged from KieranTimberlake’s 2008 Cellophane House installation—a fitting choice that reminds the inhabitants of the firm’s history of experimentation.

The tiled flooring of the desking space above is actually raised on small stilts, leaving room for air vents, sensors, and wiring. The floor vents—visible here around a mobile table wheeled in for a quick meeting—are vital to the building’s functioning, since they allow the occupants of each desk to customize their airflow.

The prototyping area set into the former loading dock of the building is where the firm tinkers with materials (below) as well as electronics.

Currently, KieranTimberlake is experimenting with prefabricated concrete panels for the Ideal Choice Homes project in India (below).

See the rest of this year’s Game Changers here.

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