Mechatecture – The art and science of mechanical systems that make a positive impact on the architectural experience of a building.

Here at Vibrantcy we call ourselves “a mechatecture group”.  This simple combination of the words Mechanical + Architecture does not mean that we provide both mechanical and architectural design services, but that we strive to create mechanical solutions that are complimentary and integral to the architectural elements of a building.  We are a group of engineers and energy analysts who bring the same concept of character to building systems, as architects bring to the style and appearance of a building.  People interact with buildings using all five senses, so that the resulting experience is as much affected by temperature as it is by colors and textures.  We want to change the way that people interact with mechanical systems within a building, so that energy efficiency can be achieved while increasing the comfort, habitability, and maintainability of the building as a whole.  We can realize these goals by using the integrated design process, aesthetic design consideration for all typical building systems, and by implementing mechanized building elements.

Part of this concept of mechatecture is an extension of the Integrated Design Process (IDP), which is a holistic approach to high performance building design where collaboration between disciplines begins very early in the design process.  To move beyond typical building systems and successfully implement non-traditional methods of heating and cooling, the entire team needs to be on board while the design is still flexible.  All too often a building is completely designed before handing it over to the engineers to place the equipment and systems wherever they might fit.  The IDP has been adopted by the latest versions of LEED certifications in order to better identify design improvements that can be incorporated without adding significant cost to the project.  It can be thought of as the low-hanging fruit to avoid costly systems that may be needed to work around some building element that can no longer be adjusted late in the design.  A full explanation and commentary on the integrated design process is a good topic for another blog post (maybe even by a guest blog writer, any takers?).

The construction industry dictates that using custom materials will inevitably increase the cost of a project.  The success of most design architects depends on utilizing typical materials in a unique way to produce their desired design effect.  We have a limited number of different Lego building blocks to choose from, with the goal of making the product look like it was not built completely out of Legos.  Lighting fixture designers/suppliers have come a long way in offering unique solutions, but we still see so many of the same fixture type because they are the most affordable and produced in large quantities.  Uniquely successful lighting is often achieved by designing the ceilings or walls around a basic fixture to actually hide the fixture from view and allow the light to shine from an unusual cove or shaped ceiling.  This is adaptation of the building around a system, using conventional materials.  With HVAC systems I see less innovation in using ductwork or diffusers to enhance a design, but with thoughtful consideration we can learn to use the basic building blocks in unique ways and adapt the building around mechanical systems.  Can you spot the HVAC building block in the photo below on the left?


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    Photos By: Colin Evans   Location: Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ

Photos By: Colin Evans   Location: Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ

The third concept behind mechatecture is the realization that not all architectural solutions are static, and that in order for buildings to evolve to the next level of efficiency there will be an increase in building components that are actually mechanized and automated.  Traditionally, there are not many parts of a building that people can see that actually move.  Most examples of this would be considered artistic sculptures, which aren’t necessarily responding to or affecting the environment.  As part of the design process the team might identify a structure or building component that needs to move in order have the desired effect.  The most common example of this would be mechanized solar shading, which lets in sun and light when needed and deflects it another direction when unwanted.  This example is very much an architectural element that has energy efficiency advantages, requires a scientific approach to optimize its movements, and has moving parts to be designed, built, and maintained.  Whose scope does this fall under?  The most likely answer in this case is that the supplier of the product would take most of the responsibility. 

But what if the design team came up with a solution that was less common, or had never been done before?  A solution that utilizes standard materials and simple mechanics to achieve a unique result could easily fall through the cracks without a team willing to take full responsibility for something that is outside of the box.  The simple idea of natural ventilation relies on the coordinated movements of building elements in response to a multitude of sensors inside and outside of the building.  The components and controls are ordinary, but the sequence of operation are unique to the specific micro-climate of the building.

Here at Vibrantcy we are taking on buildings’ greatest challenges with passion.  We can’t expect to remain in the traditional role on a traditional team, and achieve high performance results.  We are educating ourselves about cutting edge techniques in order to share our knowledge with colleagues, clients, and staff about what we have learned about better living in our built environment.  Our buildings can become an extension of our natural environment only when we take the chance to learn from others, instead of depending on our own limited experience and staying within our comfort zone.