November 19 2020
Maximizing Building Adaptation Strategies with Computational Design
Using Computational Design and Modular Construction to Create Value and Meet Future Housing Needs
When Sheida Shahi completed her master’s degree in architecture, she thought she was done school and ready to start her career. But interviewing at various architectural firms made her realize otherwise.
“I couldn’t stop talking about my thesis,” she says. “It was on the revitalization of balconies and I realized just how passionate I am about giving buildings a new lease on life in an energy efficient way.”
After working for two and a half years, Sheida knew she wanted to continue her research on energy efficiency, blending architecture, computational design, and civil engineering. She saw a huge need for adapting Ontario’s aging infrastructure to become more energy efficient and suitable for future demands.
“When we’re talking about the revitalization of existing buildings, I immediately saw that computational design could help us create the best end product for both tenants and building owners,” says Sheida.
Through the University of Waterloo, Sheida became involved with MITACS, the national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for over two decades. By connecting industry to academia, MITACS provides funding for both applied and industrial research across disciplines. The program also requires the private sector partner to match the funding.
Entuitive has funded research through MITACS before, and funding Sheida’s PhD thesis was a no-brainer, says Ian Trudeau, Associate.
“Sheida checked all the boxes for the research we want to fund,” says Ian. “Sustainability, modular design, restoration, affordable housing, and computational design. In the interest of building better cities, our industry needs the walls between these services broken down, and work like this will help us find real solutions.”
The Research Question – How to Rapidly Adapt Our Aging Infrastructure?
Sheida’s PhD research, part of which resulted in a paper titled Energy Performance and LCA-driven Computational Design Methodology for Integrating Modular Construction in Adaptation of Concrete Residential Towers in Cold Climates, asked how computational design tools and methods could be used to adapt existing building stock with modular construction. Essentially, the goal was to understand how to improve buildings so that they are more energy efficient and more affordable in the long term.
“Our infrastructure across Ontario is aging and we’re also seeing an increase in demand for affordable housing,” says Sheida. “By adapting the buildings we already have, we can increase their lifespan, make them more efficient, and make them more affordable for both tenants and developers.”
According to Sheida’s research, Ontario has a stock of over 3,000 residential towers that need to be adapted to future occupancy and energy demands by 2030. Built between 1950 and 1990, these buildings accommodate more than 65% of middle- and low-income communities as the main source of affordable housing in Ontario. Unfortunately, they were built with low energy standards and have reached the end of their useful life, requiring adaptation at different scales.
The challenge is in adapting and re-using buildings in a manner that creates a truly circular built environment. One barrier, Sheida realized, is that building adaptation projects can be painfully slow and can often produce a significant amount of construction waste. She saw an opportunity for the first part of these projects, the feasibility study, to become much more efficient.
“The feasibility study analyzes multiple building adaptation strategies from financial, environmental, and occupant comfort perspectives,” Sheida writes in her thesis. “A typical feasibility process can take months, is expensive, and will result in suitable design options at best.”
To keep up with our aging infrastructure and demand, these feasibility studies, the first step in any adaptation project, must be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible while producing the best adaptation strategies possible, Sheida argues. This way, building owners can make informed decisions quickly.
Enter computational design.
The Solution – Optimized Feasibility Studies
Computational design is the application of computational strategies to the realm of architecture and structural engineering. Put simply, it’s the use of various software tools to help design the most optimal structures.
For example, users can input design parameters into an algorithm and run the program to find the optimal structural design based on those parameters. Rules, such as that the floor slab must have specific column spacing, can be input as well. Then, the program quickly runs through thousands of options in search of the best structural solution, all while maintaining the necessary inputs/rules. This would be impossibly time-consuming to perform by hand, and so provides engineers with creative options they might not have been able to consider otherwise.
This type of design agility is exactly what Sheida argues is needed to adapt Ontario’s aging housing stock. Her research project culminated in the development of a tool to perform these studies quickly.
Graphic illustration of the current feasibility study process vs. the optimal process.
“Rather than a two- to six-month process,” she says, “we can produce feasibility studies in as little as two weeks with our custom software tools. That means building owners and developers can get started on their adaptations and renovations faster with better upgrades that meet current tenant demands and standards, which ultimately means a successful building in the long-term.”
The algorithms and software developed by Sheida and Patryk Wozniczka of Entuitive rapidly provides the most optimal building adaptations using modular construction, allowing building owners to see their best options and pick the one that most closely aligns to their needs.
“I’m so proud of our results,,” says Sheida. “The Entuitive team have been invaluable in helping me with this research. I also need to give special thanks to Patryk Wozniczka, whose contribution to this project cannot be overstated.”
The Case for Modular Construction
By bringing computational design and modular construction together, buildings can be adapted in creative, cost-effective ways.
“A large percentage of buildings fail in the areas of financial and social sustainability because you have to relocate tenants when you’re doing exterior work,” says Sheida. “Modular construction helps with that because it allows tenants to stay in their homes while the renovation and adaptation work is happening.”
By manufacturing components of a structure offsite in a controlled factory, modular construction can significantly decrease construction time, use materials more efficiently with less waste, increase worker safety, and produce high-quality products consistently.
Sheida’s research, and the development of a custom computational design tool to provide early design-stage feasibility studies, has proven that the combination of computational design and modular construction can rapidly improve the energy efficiency of aging residences as well as adapt them for different residential needs, such as turning a bachelor unit into a one-bedroom.
Modular extensions to an existing residential building. With computational design tools we can visualize various adaptation and extension strategies.
“We have to think about future demands on our building stock,” says Sheida. “For example, addressing the diversity of unit types really helps with social sustainability and avoiding gentrification. Many towers have been built to accommodate single bedroom units with not a lot of family space. By adding modular components to such units, we can increase the livable space and the return on the investment for the building.”
How Entuitive Is Prepared for Adaptation Work
Entuitive has found a great partner in Sheida and her research. The firm has already been providing modular design consulting, building performance analysis, and restoration consulting in tandem with computational design development. The adaptive re-use of buildings will be key to meeting energy efficiency targets and legislation that are already being implemented in cities worldwide. The Ken Soble tower is a great example of how Entuitive is working to retrofit existing buildings to meet rigorous energy efficiency requirements.
“Our goal is to combine all these services in a holistic way,” says Ian. “Sheida’s research proves that by embracing new methods of engineering and developing new tools, we can create a great built environment that works for everyone.”
Sheida’s research also shows that computational design tools can be used beyond residential towers.
“We can use the same methodologies Sheida is proposing to adapt parking structures or office buildings,” says Ian, “or any other structure that no longer serves its original purpose. We can adapt and reuse that building rather than tearing it down and building anew.”
Ultimately by thinking holistically, taking the idea of a circular economy and applying it to the built environment, we can extract more value out of our existing buildings. This helps everyone. It creates a more comfortable, livable space for tenants, and allows owners to maximize the long-term value of their assets.
Sheida’s next steps involve improving the algorithm developed during her research project and continuing to develop efficient workflows so that building adaptation work happens at the pace it needs to.
“If we make the framework and tools available, then more buildings will be adapted and re-used,” says Sheida. “It’s a matter of making it easier for everyone involved to also adapt to these new methods of working.”