An innovative infrastructure system dares to explore new territories.

»Innovation in architecture and design takes many forms, and at the heart of such exploration is the frequent attempt to envision new possibilities, to dare to ask: what if we could create more efficient, sustainable, and economical systems for materials and processes? One recent example is the creation of a smart infrastructure system and associated family of space-making products for Herman Miller Creative Office, developed by Sheila Kennedy of Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) in Boston, along with Danny Hillis and Bran Ferren of California-based Applied Minds (AM), a research and design consultancy. In early 2002, KVA and AM were given nine months to create a 7,000-square-foot proof-of-concept installation that incorporated architectural elements along with lighting, power, and data components. The concept design team worked closely with Herman Miller Creative Office, Osram Opto Semiconductors, and textile manufacturer Milliken & Company during this initial stage. Owing to the use of a purple marker during early design strategizing, the project was assigned the code name Purple. Today both the project and the Herman Miller company overseeing the next phase of development are referred to as Viaro. 'Herman Miller has a long history of design responsiveness to social change. Viaro extends that into new market environments and into this generation's design challenges,' says Kevin Han, president of Viaro.

Herman Miller had several initiatives that it wanted the team to pursue. First, the infrastructure had to be a sustainable, smart building system. Second, it needed to have 'radical flexibility,' meaning physical flexibility. To encourage this, stagecraft assembly techniques were incorporated into the installation concept in order to minimize the need for materials and tools. And finally, it had to be digitally flexible. To this end, the team designed an open platform that integrated voice and data processing capabilities, along with electrical power, into a system of ceiling-mounted track so that any electrical device, including lighting, could be reconfigured and connected with any sensor or switch. Viaro does not treat lighting as a stand-alone or add-on element, but rather understands it as one component of a larger electrical system.

For Kennedy, Viaro represents a first step toward challenging the conventions of electrical distribution used in architecture for the last 100 years. 'The concept design team wanted to avoid the kind of waste and cost that we felt was embedded in drywall construction,' says Kennedy. 'There are billions of tons of drywall created every year, a third of which is thrown into landfills.' The problem, she continues, 'is why is so much drywall being torn up and discarded? It's because the stud wall system is predicated on the idea that electrical switches and cabling are built inside the wall; we wanted to completely change that.' With Viaro, spaces can be reconfigured without demolition, and essential building services, such as power distribution, reprogrammed easily, translating into significant time and cost savings to both owner and occupant. Equally important, Viaro hints at a new space-making paradigm, challenging traditional construction methods, which rely on specific sequencing of building trades to complete a project. For Kennedy, 'the stud wall system is increasingly less viable given the economic changes that are happening in the way people work, live, and communicate.'

The ultimate beauty of the Viaro infrastructure is that it can move across project type. Over the next year, Herman Miller plans to complete prototypes that can be tested in different application typologies. Several retail installations are underway, and Viaro's affinity for higher-education settings is exhibited in a new-media space/classroom installed at the Harvard University Design School.

Further adding to the infrastructure's inventiveness is its ability to use both solid-state lighting technologies and traditional lamp-based luminaires. Kennedy's research and integration of solid-state lighting in her firm's work is not a flash in the pan; rather, it stems from her ongoing research into how to incorporate efficient and sustainable technologies into architecture. Seeking to accelerate the practical adoption of such technologies, Kennedy is challenging nothing less than traditional electrical and lighting systems, what she refers to as 'bulb culture.' Kennedy explains, 'We just can't assume there will be a lot of energy around. Incorporating solid-state lighting into architecture would be a tremendously effective way to cut energy use, and save millions of dollars per year.'

Innovation is not always achieved by singular pursuits. 'It requires a community of architects, designers, engineers, and manufacturers that all share the same vision,' says Viaro's Han. For its part, Viaro provides a ready-to-go, code-compliant, modular and programmable technology infrastructure system, and creates an intuitive and responsive environment no matter the application. It also offers a glimpse into the future of environment typologies, new construction paradigms, and the transformation of luminaires from object-based to a luminous plane of light. elizabeth donoff

projectViaro (original prototype referred to as the Purple Infrastructure System)
client Herman Miller Creative Office, Zeeland, Michigan
concept design team Kennedy & Violich Architects, Boston; and Applied Minds, Glendale, California
manufacturersHerman Miller, Milliken and Co., Osram Opto Semiconductors