Design Manifestos: Michael Kilkelly of Space Command

Michael Kilkelly of Space Command (Photograph courtesy of Space Command)

Michael Kilkelly has been serving commercial, residential and cultural clients since 1995. His vast range of experience fuels his ability to solve problems and create beauty through design. As an associate at renowned architect Frank Gehry’s design firm in LA, Michael worked on the New York by Gehry residential tower in New York City; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum in the United Arab Emirates; and the Joyce Theater in New York City. His new venture, Space Command, brings together the best of both worlds: beautiful architecture, strategic sustainability, and the classic charm this region offers. He is a graduate of Norwich University, has a Master of Science in Architecture Studies from MIT and is a registered architect. Michael also writes about technology and architectural practice at Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Michael’s philosophy and unique approach to design.

On becoming an architect
It all started when I was a pretty young. I remember being interested in design and the act of designing. I have vivid memories of sitting down and drawing plans for crazy stuff, like an underground fort or an airplane that used fans for engines. I didn’t have a sound understanding of aerodynamics, but I just went ahead and drew how I thought something like that would go together.

We spent our summers on a lake up in New Hampshire and I remember thinking “I’ve got to design a submarine!”, It was the 1970s so naturally, it was solar powered, which doesn’t make any sense for a submarine. Around seventh or eighth grade, I became aware of architects and architecture in general. I spent a lot of time at the library so I must have found a book on the subject. I wrote a report for a science fair, which I still have. It was about buildings and it had a hand-drawn picture on the cover of these workers building a house. The report was hand written and hand-illustrated. It’s really funny to look at now.

When I got into high school I started taking drafting classes, but I still didn’t really understand what the profession was about. It wasn’t until I went to architecture school that my eyes really opened up to the possibilities. I was naïve going in but I had a sense that architecture school would really hone my imagination, creativity and problem solving skills.

Neck Art, Boston MA, with Shauna Giles-Smith and France Cormier (image credit — Michael Kilkelly)

On discovering his voice as a designer
I discovered my voice as a designer as I developed my design methodology in school. I was in my second year of the B.Arch program at Norwich University. The studio project was your typical cottage design exercise. I was working with a physical model and just started playing with the design. I was using the model as a design tool. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking at the time but I started playing with cardboard and paper; just wrapping it around and manipulating it. I use the word play because that’s what it was — it was experimenting. It was free-form. I didn’t necessarily know where it was going but I ended up producing something that was interesting for me, which came out this very physical process of making the model itself. I found that’s been pretty consistent throughout my career, which is kind of funny for someone who is very much immersed in the digital world. When I was in graduate school at MIT, I became interested in Frank Gehry’s work. What attracted me was their heavy use of physical models in the design phase coupled with their intensive digital process. For me, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on there. A few years later, I ended up working at Gehry Partners. I was an associate in the firm as spent close to seven years there. It was a great fit for me.

On starting Space Command
I started my firm, Space Command, three years ago. It was something I’d always been interested in doing. I see a lot of parallels between design and entrepreneurship in the sense that you may not necessarily know what you’re going to end up with, but it’s a process of creating and trying to figure out what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. In 2012, I was living in LA and working at Gehry’s office. I’m originally from the Boston area, as is my wife Andrea. We’d been in LA for seven years and we wanted to move back to the East Coast. At this point, we had two small boys and we wanted to be closer to our family. My wife got a job offer in Connecticut and we thought this is a great opportunity to move back and for me to finally go out on my own. The timing worked out perfect and it’s been a really rewarding, if challenging process. I have a great relationship with Gehry’s office, so I still do a lot of work with them. I go out to LA once a month and either do project work or help them with particular digital issues. I also have a website called ArchSmarter, where I write about design, technology, and productivity. I just developed my first online course through ArchSmarter and have some other initiatives planned. I’m also growing my architectural practice, mostly with smaller, residential projects.

On his design process
It’s a collaborative process, working with clients. I don’t necessarily come in with preconceived notions and I don’t have a signature style. At Gehry’s office, there was a well-defined design process. I’m finding that’s a lot harder to do when you’re starting out. I like working with clients directly so I’m not necessarily going to put a design agenda on them. I see design as an act of creative problem solving, where you’re trying to understand the fundamental issues first then work out a solution from there. Ideally it ends up being something that’s well-built and beautiful, but it has to come from solving the underlying problems first.

On current projects
A lot of my interest in technology is in finding methods to use it proactively and leverage its power to provide better design. I use “design” fairly liberally. To me, it’s not just about buildings.

There are two projects I’m working on that are very different but I’m approaching from similar viewpoints. I have a client who is a large grocery wholesaler. They’re interested in better understanding how their warehouses work. This is not a traditional architecture problem at all but there’s a lot of problem-solving that’s involved. I worked with them to develop a 3D model of one of their warehouses and then we filled the model with a lot of the data they were collecting. They had previously been looking at page after page of spreadsheets. As you can imagine, it was increasingly difficult for them to extract any meaningful analysis. There was a lot of data but it wasn’t structured in a way that was useful. I built a fairly simple 3D model. Each product on the shelf was represented by a single box. Using BIM software, we added their product data to each box in the model and then started to visualize and color-code it. We also created heat maps so we could see the flow of goods in and out of the warehouse. The project involved looking at the data, working with it directly to try and shed some light on their business problems, but doing it in a visual way. That’s certainly a skill that architects have and yet, we weren’t building or designing anything in a traditional sense.

Another project, which is very different, is a residential renovation for a couple in Connecticut. It’s a craftsman home and we’re looking at the detailing to bring out the craftsman characteristics that haven’t aged well. Like the previous project I mentioned, I’m using technology pretty heavily. In this context, I’m developing a detailed 3-D BIM model and using it for communication, so that I can work with them to identify the areas that they want to focus on; but we’re also extracting cost data and getting into sustainability issues, energy modeling. The budget it less than $100,000, but using by using BIM, we’re able to get a lot further and make the project a lot better because we have access to all that data.

Warehouse heat map (image credit — Michael Kilkelly)

On his design toolkit
Even though I do have a strong focus and background in technology, I still like to work manually. I build a lot of physical models. I sketch a lot. It’s about thinking with my hands. That said, there’s always a point when you have to take those physical artifacts into the digital world. A lot of times I’ll use Revit or Rhino for 3-D modeling, and then I do a lot of my own custom coding and scripting. I’ll build tools as I need them. I’m looking at various building performance simulation tools like Safara and Vabi. I also use Photoshop and AutoCAD as needed.

On starting ArchSmarter
I started ArchSmarter a little over a year ago. When I was at Gehry’s office, I did a lot of software training in the office. I also developed a lot of automation and looked at productivity and workflow issues. I have a strong interest in these areas and I was looking for an outlet to have a conversation about how architects are using technology. What was surprising is that I learned many people know how to use their tools in a very specific way, but don’t necessarily know how to go deeper or how to broaden their approach. Take Excel, which architects use all the time. I was using it every day, but I only knew how to do certain things. But the program can do much, much more. That was one of the first things that I started writing about on ArchSmarter. I did a whole series about Excel for architects. I wrote about some of the more powerful features in Excel and how it could be used within an architectural context. I’ve also written about how architects should learn to program. I just realeased a course on how to program and automate Revit. It’s been really interesting talking with other architect about how we can use technology to work smarter, not harder. That’s been the primarly focus for the site.

Barn renovation, Middletown CT (image credit — Michael Kilkelly)

On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
One area that I’m interested in and see a lot potential for architects, is data and data visualization. If you think about it, we’re working with BIM software, we’re creating 3D models — there’s a lot of data that we’re creating. Owners and clients are generating their own data. Consildating these data sets seems to be the next logical step. We’re not dealing with only the physical and material properties of the building, we’re also dealing with the data aspects. Consider building sensors and the Internet of Things — all of that data is going to need to go somewhere. There’s a lot that we as architects can do to help owners manage their data, visualize it, and make better decisions based on that data. If you think about digital design, the future is going to be about utilizing data, understanding data, and harvesting it. One other area that’s interesting is that programming tools are becoming a lot more accessible. Take visual scripting tools like Grasshopper and Dynamo. They’re making it a lot easier for architects to work directly with code, which is exciting.

On the future of his firm in the next 5–10 years
I work largely by myself. I like working solo, but it certainly limits the size of projects I can take on. I’ve been split so far between doing consulting work, particularly for Gehry’s office, trying to grow the audience for ArchSmarter, and also building my own practice. It’s been a bit fragmented as far as where my energy has gone. That said, I like working this way so I see each of those areas growing over the next 5–10 year. For me, it becomes a matter of managing my own time and energy. I’d like to certainly get more architectural work and build up my body of work through Space Command. At the same time, I want to see ArchSmarter grow. I just launched my first online course. I really enjoyed the process of developing the course and I can foresee offering additional training in the future. Those two area — I’m not sure if they’ll ever merge — but writing about technology and workflow and process and then putting that into process through my own firm has been a great feedback loop. I can test things out in my firm, write about them through ArchSmarter, and then help other architects to work smarter as well.

New Media School, Halifax Nova Scotia, with Jessica Voigt (image credit — Michael Kilkelly)

On advice he would give his younger self
here’s certain things I’d tell my younger self. I definitely wish that I had started writing sooner. Likewise, I wish I had started ArchSmarter and building an audience sooner, simply because you build up a critical mass over time. As far as my design process goes, it’s always been fairly intuitive. Likewise, I don’t necessarily have an overarching vision of where my career is going to go. It’s more of an intuitive, in the moment thing. I always try to follow my interests. The various places I’ve worked, the various things that I’ve done, have always been about pursuing specific interests. I would encourage my younger self to stick with that philosophy. It’s easy to question yourself. I would tell my younger self to stick with it, it’s going to be okay.

This post was previously published on on 10/21/15.

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