IGS Magazine’s Lewis Wilson conducts a candid interview with Christopher Johnson AIA LEED AP & Vice President Building Envelope Entuitive
IGS: As lead at the New York Office of Entuitive, you are embedded into, arguably, one of the most competitive “architecture markets” in the world. How do you separate yourself from the crowd and stand out in the megapolitan that is the “Big Apple”?
CJ: What’s interesting is that the New York market is competitive on so many levels…it’s very large with lots of players, it’s an old market with many long-established relationships and institutions, and it’s an always evolving market, being on the forefront of changes coming from all directions: international relations and global finance, economics, technology, big-city politics, etc. We focus less on explicitly trying to differentiate ourselves and more on identifying what building owners and architects are going to need when it comes to creating the best performing, best looking, and most cost-effective building envelopes. This requires staying on the leading edge of performance analysis (energy, structural, carbon, etc), design optimization, and having one’s finger on the pulse of materials and systems innovations.
IGS: One wears a monocle and turtleneck, the other a hardhat and steel-toe boots. While admittedly simplistic, these descriptions illustrate the heart of the chasm between two professions that collaborate to build today’s evermore iconic skylines. As a professional who has blurred the lines between being an architect and an engineer, what are the idiosyncrasies of these two occupations that have contributed to this disparity and how do we bridge the gap?
CJ: I think that as the processes of building design and construction continue to get more specialized, the chasm between the two is naturally starting to close, or at least narrow. More architects are seeing the design value in approaching things from an engineering perspective and they are equipped with more digital tools now to facilitate that. On the other side, I get the sense that engineers of all types (structural, material, mechanical, etc) are increasingly appreciating that the best projects result from a shared design goal with the architect, and that it’s no longer enough “just to make the numbers work.” Entuitive’s design staff is comprised of engineers, architects, programmers, material scientists, builders, and more…and lots of folks have switched between some of those disciplines over their careers. We see this as both emblematic of and a necessity to the building design industry moving forward. In fact, we prefer not to refer to ourselves as an engineering company, but rather more broadly as an “engineering performance” company.
IGS: In April 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio famously called for a ban on glass skyscrapers as part of the Green New Deal. Could you weigh in on his comments and give our readers your thoughts on this controversial declaration?
CJ: I haven’t heard that speech in its entirety, but my best sense (or at least hope) is that this statement was either taken out of context or was just a poor choice of words to express a larger point. For one thing, just because what you see on the outside is glass, doesn’t mean it’s all glass on the inside; in fact, it almost never means this and for several reasons. In any case, glass skyscrapers with yesterday’s technology and performance choices certainly have no place in our future cities…but glass in and of itself is not a bad material, nor is it solely responsible for poorly performing buildings. It’s like the old saying goes: “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Well, indeed the weather will keep getting worse, and so we must make the best choices in the “clothing” of our buildings. This means using materials intelligently based on science and analysis and is exactly why Entuitive recently formed our Advanced Performance Analysis Group. Overall though, my personal feeling is that we should certainly legislate the level of performance of our buildings, but not the specific design solutions to get there.
IGS: Keeping on the track of sustainability in architecture and in the face of global warming and environmental degradation, what role do architects and engineers play in contributing to a sustainable future for generations to come?
CJ: As a company, Entuitive has a broad commitment towards sustainability. We have both internal and external goals toward minimizing our impact on carbon emissions and resource consumption. Relative to the greater built environment, architects and engineers have more power than they think in this regard, and whether they realize it or not, we represent the guiding expertise to do what is necessary. While “the Owner” may make the final decisions and writes the check so to speak, the design team should have the know-how and foresight to create and argue for a sustainable built environment. Who else will do it?
IGS: To quote yourself, “Building performance extends far beyond simple efficiency; it has to answer all the right questions, from the visual and spatial details down to the material science.” In your learned opinion, do you see any new materials that are set to disrupt the industry and challenge the status quo of building materiality?
CJ: At the moment there are fewer new individual materials that will be disruptive, but certainly there are many new innovative systems and applications that are gaining traction in the industry. Some of these are still hindered by politics (i.e. lobbying), or by the fact that energy is still so cheap in many places, but I do see innovation in a few areas: increasing use of vacuum insulated glass and cladding panels, dynamic glazing systems, and the expanded use of engineered wood in building envelopes. There are also some potentially disruptive technologies and business models related to building envelopes, for example, the 100% recyclable IGU or glazing “leasing” concepts where your windows are simply leased and then upgraded like one might do with solar panels.
IGS: With 20/20 vision, what trends in building envelope design do you see taking hold in 2020 and into the future?
CJ: Without a doubt, emissions and embodied carbon reduction will (and have actually already started to) become primary design drivers. I also think that in a postpandemic world, building design will evolve to accommodate workplace and lifestyle changes which may affect envelopes in many ways. Finally, my earlier comments on glass notwithstanding, I do think we’ll see a continued steady decline in window-to-wall ratios, that is, fewer fully glazed facades and more opaque wall area on buildings. This will partially be due to higher performance requirements and tighter economic conditions, but there is also a sense that aesthetics are trending away from the era of glazed curtainwalls that we’ve seen over the last 20 years.
IGS: As an authority on structural glass and fabrication and having utilized this material over your 20 years in the industry, which project (that you have worked on) stands out above the rest in terms of its innovative use of glass and why?
CJ: Honestly, for me, each project has something unique that makes it stand out against the others, so I’m not sure I can call out just one…but the amazing thing is that the glass industry is constantly evolving and for every project there is something new made possible by one of the many great fabricators out there. Whether it be a larger autoclave for bigger laminated elements, or a new method to embed fittings, or new tweaks to a structural interlayer…the speed of continuous innovation is incredible.
IGS: Façade planning and design is a complicated process; in an era of digitalization, leveraging technology has allowed us to push beyond previously set boundaries in terms of the complexity of geometric design and optimizing design solutions. What digital technologies have had the most impact on the way we design buildings?
CJ: I would say parametric design processes have had the biggest impact on the design side. These processes range from the mundane (automated mullion sizing) to the outrageous (unthinkable form-finding). I would add, though,
that digital processes on the fabrication side of things have had perhaps an even larger impact on the industry, both in allowing the realization of more complex design work and also in basic construction efficiency and precision.
IGS: AI, robotics, the IoT, and digital transformation are all disruptive technologies. There is a danger that if we all use the same design engines, the same drivers, we will all make the same mistakes and buildings will become same old, same old, thereby stifling the talent of the individual. What are your thoughts on this?
CJ: One might say that this has already happened, but also has happened before, and will happen again. It happened with 3d modelling, it happened with BIM/Revit, it happened with CNC, it happened with 3d printing, and so on. Anytime a new technology becomes widespread enough to be called a trend, there is a period where all the results start to look the same. But then people start to recognize that and begin to find ways to innovate and synthesize. The talent of the individual never leaves, it just needs some time to evolve.
IGS: Can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are currently working on, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2020 and beyond?
CJ: We have a couple of unique residential buildings under construction: 351 Marin in Jersey City and The Wharf in Washington DC. There are also a couple of large, very interesting confidential projects in the New York region that will hopefully be released to the public soon. All of these have some different innovations in either curtainwall or cladding technology. We’re really excited to begin work on a couple of projects that will start to utilize more rigorous and complex analysis which will optimize every aspect of building performance from energy, to embodied carbon, to external reflectivity.
IGS: What affects do you see COVID-19 having on the future of architecture and building design?
CJ: I touched on this a bit before, but I do think we’ll see a shift in the design of workplaces, retail, and multi-family residential. This could mean anything from increased allowances for personal or individual space, touchless entries or interfaces, or more integrated smart building technologies.
IGS: And finally, what are your thoughts about glass as a structural material? Does glass perform enough functions to satisfy your own creative mind? Or is there something you would like glass to do that it currently does not do…to your knowledge?
CJ: I do love glass. It’s such an incredible and fascinating material, down to its imperfect molecular structure. There are times when I wish it performed a bit better both structurally and thermally, but, on the other hand, I’m glad that
there are no perfect materials.…everything has its inherent weaknesses and flaws and I love the challenge that presents. It makes for richer design and more critical designers.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Summer 2020 USA Special Edition: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Christopher is a Vice President at Entuitive with nearly 20 years of industry experience in building envelope consulting, construction administration, project management, and architectural and object design. He has successfully delivered projects in the United States, Middle East, and China. He trained as an architect and is a member of the American Institute of Architects.
Christopher is experienced in all aspects of façade planning and design—from concept through to construction. He is
passionate about leveraging technology to help clients realize projects involving complex geometry and optimizing design solutions.
His extensive knowledge of building envelope materials and methodologies for cladding systems spans masonry, curtain wall, metal cladding, precast concrete, composite paneling, skylight systems and roofing. Christopher has also developed a particular focus on structural glass, cable systems and lightweight structures.