What Is The Potential Of Operable Architecture?


Think of any piece of technology you own. Consider the capabilities of what it can do for you now in comparison to what it may have done for you 10 years ago. Then consider how your expectation of these technologies has changed in that time. This exact theory relates to the built environment as our expectations of how a building can perform are ever growing. Buildings now do more than ever and as a consumer we expect them to transform to our climates and varying needs just as our technology does.

This is the basis for 'operable architecture' which prior to now has seemed more like science fiction than fact. Yet with a heightened expectation and advancements in both software and building capabilities it more than ever is a prominent part of modern day design. Within Australia, the Sydney based team from TILT are currently pushing this concept in new and exciting directions. And while they operate within the architectural industry, founder Tim Phillips and his team are in fact Industrial Designers.

In the mid '80s architect Tinker Hatfield transitioned from designing architectural spaces for Nike, to designing shoes for them. It was a move that saw him become one of the great modern day Industrial Designers. By applying architectural philosophies and concepts to shoe design, he was able to play a pivotal part in revolutionizing technology in sneakers.

It was this cross pollination of creative disciplines that sparked many of the advancements in the footwear industry which we benefit from today. Thirty years on and the architectural industry is benefiting from the inclusion of Industrial Designers as if it were the Hatfield effect working in reverse order.

Architecture is an industry that like many others is in a crossroads with the rapid technological advancements we continue to see within our era. Every industry has a hand in glove relationship with technology and architects are still trying to figure out how that glove fits best given it has changed so much in the last 20 years.
Operable Architecture has not propelled in the industry with great momentum until now, which Phillips attributes to architects being concerned about liability.

Yet it is TILT's business and operational model which has allowed operable architecture to flourish in Australia. By providing operable architecture as a product and assuming the liability, architects and consumers now have greater confidence.

“People ride in lifts everyday and hang air conditioners off the side of buildings and don’t think twice about it because they know there are systems around to support them,” said Phillips.

“What we’re trying to do is provide that package of comfort to everyone in the food chain – from satisfying the aesthetical needs of the architect and the cost and long term service requirements of the client, through to providing increased functionality in an alfresco dining space for patrons - it's about ensuring everyone is served well.”

While some contractors provide products which are designed and manufactured or supplied and installed, TILT has a much different model.

“The focus of TILT is to provide the architect and a building with a long-term turnkey solution which involves the design, construction, installation and then the maintenance of the unit to ensure everyone's comfortable with the product moving forward.”

The consumer market is now becoming much more diverse and we are seeing operable architecture not only applied in residential projects but in large and complex commercial projects.

A significant example of operable architecture working in a large commercial context is One Central Park in Sydney. Completed under the former banner of Kennovations, the team from TILT utilised heliostat reflector technology and gave it an architectural purpose.


One Central Park. Photography by Alicia Taylor. Architecture by Ateliers Jean Nouvel and PTW architects.

“What we did at One Central Park was undoubtedly the investment in solar technology over the last 15 years merging with the development of heliostat technology,” said Phillips.

“People’s awareness of solar technology and their growing acceptance of it allowed us to pursue the development of architectural heliostats.

“It was groundbreaking and in a sense, a world first, to take an industrial system like a heliostat, which is generally used for concentrating sunlight and super heating a whole range of different things, and applying it into an urban space.

“There were hundreds of companies around the world who were making heliostats, yet nobody was applying it to an urban space - nobody was making people feel comfortable about having this industrial technology in an urban environment…and that’s what we are doing with operable architecture, we are taking big machines and integrating them into buildings,” Phillips said.

While operable architecture has the ability to open architecture up to new technologies and industries, perhaps its greatest asset is around freedom of choice.

"The real value is around versatility of space - for an architect or a client, you're not just confined to a room or space deliver on one concept…it can take on several different forms and delivering on several different requirements.

“For instance we recently delivered a sliding roof for Tequila Mockingbird – a bar in Paddington, Sydney, which has very strict noise regulations based on it being in a residential area.

“They wanted an alfresco dining experience for the bar yet to have the ability to remain open late, so we developed a sliding roof that they can keep open until 10pm and close after that, allowing the bar to gain an extra three hours of trading time, which ultimately provides a greater return of investment for the client," said Phillips.

With a similar focus on flexibility of space, TILT recently delivered a glass sliding façade for a chapel in Bunurong, Melbourne, enabling the BVN designed facility to be enjoyed in all weather conditions.


Bunurong Chapel. Photography by John Gollings, Architecture by BVN.

“The windows of the façade are able to be raised and lowered depending on the weather conditions, allowing open air access as desired and protection from the elements as needed,” Phillips said.

The potential of operable architecture is completely immeasurable, just as the Tinker Hatfield experiment of the mid '80s was. Nobody was able to determine how successful he'd be yet there is a lot of proven success in the worlds of design coming together to better each other. In this instance it just happens to be Industrial Design returning the favour, opening up a new avenue for architects to explore. Our architecture is on the way to performing similarly to the technology at our fingertips and this is merely the beginning.

Written by David Mousa.

Main image Bunurong Chapel. Photography by John Gollings, Architecture by BVN.

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