Although his title is traditional, Spencer Lapp, senior partner of COOKFOX, has another role that is not found in most companies: he is the resident beekeeper of COOKFOX. Lapp’s enthusiasm for the tiny insects that feed our ecosystem corresponds to an interest in designs that are in harmony with nature. This interest arose from a recent collaboration between COOKFOX, Buro Happold and Boston Valley terracotta manufacturer Terra Cotta, which explored how architects can design facades as ecosystems.
At the Boston Valley Terracotta Architectural Ceramics Assembly Workshop (ACAW), an annual research event where design teams experiment with the factory’s signature material, Lapp teamed up with Andre Parnther, partner at Buro Happold, to design a terracotta facade that provides space for bees, birds and plants. The prototype designed by Lapp and Parnther considers the exterior of the building as a dynamic place-even in densely populated urban environments-rather than an assembly of dead materials that forms a barrier against the elements.
The two companies have already worked with terra-cotta in New York, with COOKFOX’s City Point in downtown Brooklyn, as well as Buro Happold’s work at the supertall at SHoP 111 West 57th Street and the Fitzroy in Chelsea. Parnther said Buro Happold’s work at 111 West 57th Street was important in understanding wind loads, with reinforced crowns ensuring that a very small degree of lag would occur in conservative safety estimates. The companies also worked together at 512 West 22nd Street, installing a terracotta rain screen panel on a building adjacent to the High Line.
Thanks to work on process and pattern studies, Lapp and Parnther have developed a modular system of sliding nacelles. Parnther noted that shapes resembling coral reefs and rocks had become popular in biophilic design, and for this project they wanted something sculptural that could still accommodate birds, bees and plants. They had to find a way to attach a wildlife vessel to a screen wall, and wanted to keep the system modular for adaptability, so they had to work on refining the nacelle design.
For the birds, drainage and air circulation through the low-fire ceramic nacelle were important, with ventilation holes on the sides in addition to the front opening with a width of one and sixty-nine centimeters. The design took into account the lifestyles of the mountain claw bird, the great crested flycatcher, the bushy tit, the Tree swallow and the Titmouse, with aspirations for adapted design in other ecosystems.
For the bees, the pods were full of reeds, leaving room for different types of bees to nest-so important because bees continue to lose their habitat in many parts of the country. Eight-, six- and four-millimeter-wide holes in the reeds have been considered suitable for many species of bees, all of which are non-stinging and ideal for pollination. The total width of the openings of the low-fire ceramic pod extends for three centimeters and each has a completely closed back (unlike the ventilation holes of bird pods).
Plant pods have a different design. Crucially, they had to be glazed given the amount of water they had to hold. The team designed a soil irrigation system with a reservoir running from the lower chamber to an upper chamber filled with plants and soil. An overflow level for water in the lower chamber has been fixed through openings in the terracotta and, in combination with the wick for watering, completes a complete self-regulation system. The design was also passive because the larger terracotta exterior was designed to divert water from other parts of the wall to the plant pod tanks.
All three types of pods were bolted to the module, with voids left between the pods, creating a more open design rather than a module that would appear as a more solid piece of terracotta. A wide range of palettes was considered for the exterior glazing, with a study of gloss, blue and white as the final choice. Subtle differences have appeared in glazing studies not only because of the color, but also because of the way the glazing has fused and depending on the temperature at which it has been fired. The designers also experimented with a series of ridges on the terracotta to create changing patterns and angles under the sunlight, as well as depth on the outside, to bring the material to life. (According to Parnther, “the glaze was quite lively.”)
When it came time for a model, the team attached 24 modules with four plant basins, four bird basins and three bee basins to a steel frame. A facade application was designed with a fastener connecting the blade plates and the panel units, the blade plate being integrated into a curtain wall system. A structural analysis was carried out to examine the horizontal forces that the terracotta could withstand in order to ensure that it would not break during installation.
Lapp said he hoped an economical way of large-scale production could be explored further for similar terracotta applications. Although the design should be specific to different ecosystems, the set of parts would offer some flexibility. Modularity has been considered both on a human scale and on the scale of a building, where Parnther described the pods appearing as an “eye pattern.”
The process of making the mock-ups raised design questions for Lapp and Parnther and resulted in some design changes, such as the addition of a shim at the front of the cantilevered parts. They also realized that extra space was needed to manually screw the pods in, and when the prototype was moved to rotate, slight shifts in the terracotta created a bit of unevenness in the distance. While this may not have left a final product blank, it also reflects the craftsmanship used to build the mock-up-a reminder that just as bees and trees adapt to change, design is a perpetual evolution.