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If you read design blogs and magazines, the world of contemporary buildings looks deeply sophisticated. High-end architecture incorporates clever engineering, computer-controlled manufacturing, and the weaving together of many materials into complex, considered shapes.

But so does a $16,000 compact car. And guess which one is more likely to leak water on your head? The one that is built outdoors with saws and welding torches.

Making buildings as intelligently as we make cars – that is the challenge American architectural firm KieranTimberlake has taken on, and it is dragging the construction industry into the 21st century. Partner Stephen Kieran expects the change will be slow. Until it isn't.

"Henry Ford transformed the economics of a whole industry," notes Kieran, who will be speaking at two design events in Toronto next week. "With a $400 car, you were into a whole new model to change the world. But it took him a lot of prototypes. The Model T is called that because it's the 19th letter in the alphabet, and he had 18 failures."

Like Ford, Kieran and his Philadelphia-based firm are working to transform architecture, going far beyond its traditional concerns – structure, space, materials, utility – into the domains of software developers and industrial engineers. Kieran and partner James Timberlake once argued that an architect should become "an amalgam of material scientist, product engineer, process engineer, user and client" – and that is their goal.

Employing researchers as part of their business, they have made prototypes of a variety of products, including a wall system called Smartwrap that integrates lighting, climate-control devices and solar panels, and a system for modular homes that could transform housing for India's middle class.

The two architects, in business together for nearly 30 years, currently design beautiful and sustainable buildings using conventional means, and they are working on the new U.S. Embassy in London. "We try to make our buildings perform, in environmental terms and in aesthetic terms, at a higher level," Kieran says.

They believe "off-site fabrication," better known as prefab, offers rich potential to reach their goals. But their intent isn't to make an entire house in a factory. Rather, it is to build complex pieces (wall panels, structural frames, sections such as an entire bathroom), customize them to order, and then ship them to the building site to be assembled, as car manufacturers do.

KieranTimberlake has built two successful prototypes: a waterfront home in Maryland in 2006; and Cellophane House, a five-storey building that went up on a lot next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in only 16 days, in 2008.

The two partners employ new tools known as building information management (BIM): digital design and production, using software that can track the exact dimensions and physical properties of each component. A decade ago, they studied how the automotive, aerospace and shipbuilding industries made things, and found this technology a revelation. Boeing Co. was using it to allow collaboration between different areas of operations, sharing data about the size and performance of individual parts, for example. Car manufacturers now do the same.

The challenge is to tap into this digital technology for buildings. The software is available, and most North American architecture firms now use it. But the construction and real estate sectors still demand two-dimensional paper drawings. A sophisticated design model, which accounts for performance and precise dimensions, has to be translated into ink on paper and, from there, into reality. "We can work in three dimensions, we can design with foresight and vision, but the construction industry and owners require us to provide a flat world," Kieran says ruefully.

When KieranTimberlake runs the entire process, the results are beautiful. Cellophane House was meant to be a showpiece, harkening back to the futurism of the 1970s and eighties, with sleekly designed aluminum-and-steel frame, translucent plastic walls, and minimal interior finishes. It was the architectural version of a concept car. Its sister project, a waterfront home called Loblolly House, combined similar systems with a comfortable, wood-lined interior.

This is because they understand that, if you want to rewrite the rules of building, aesthetics are beside the point. "We're as interested in developing the components of the house as in the house itself," Kieran says. For Cellophane House, all the materials were lightweight, quick to assemble and could potentially be arranged in different configurations. The building's skin was made of Smartwrap, a thin system of plastic membranes that combines weatherproofing, photovoltaic cells and a light-blocking film, with an air barrier in between.

The problem with new materials and new ways of building things is that they're expensive. That is one reason prefab or modular housing has never been able to deliver high-quality buildings at a competitive price. KieranTimberlake's Indian project might change that. Still being developed in partnership with Indian investors, it would be a kit of house parts – factory-made out of aluminum and lightweight precast concrete, easy to move and quick to put together in a few standard plans that suit India's climate.

"It's still early, and we're going at it like a car, almost – we bear down through the prototyping process, getting a product to do different things," Kieran explains. "That's a lesson we learned from the automotive industry." For example, they have conceived concrete panels that bear thousands of tiny rounded indentations, which cast tiny shadows that keep the surface cool.

And given a potential demand for hundreds of millions of homes in India, this may be the chance to work out the kinks and build, finally, architecture's Model T.

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