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2020 Skyscraper Collaboratory

An interdisciplinary architecture and structural engineering design studio collaboration with industry partners


The 2020 Skyscraper Collaboratory was a partnership between the interdisciplinary design studio at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and design and structural engineering partners from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an internationally acclaimed firm that specializes in skyscrapers. The academic design studio set-up mirrored the advanced collaborative practice model of the partner firm by balancing nine teams with architecture and engineering students and co-taught by an architect and structural engineer. Over a twenty-week period, seven courses were synchronized and coordinated with the partner firm’s lectures, reviews, and workshops developed for the high-rise design studio. Topics such as structural prototyping and optimization, building energy modeling, performative envelopes, housing design and vertical communities, plus urban placemaking were addressed to aide in design development. Then, what started as an in-person collaborative design studio was upended by the pandemic. Workflows changed; hand-crafted physical study models were abandoned, and remote collaboration workflow strategies were implemented based on the expertise of the partner firm. Ultimately, the combination of tech savvy students, flexible instruction, and seasoned practitioners were key factors to a successful studio.

Design studio: The collaboratory

Why the skyscraper

The instructors selected high-rise as a building typology for several prominent reasons: a successful high-rise design proposal would require a balanced collaborative approach which integrated both architectural and structural design would be required. In prior interdisciplinary design studio projects that these instructors taught, the largest building design project was no taller than 6 stories (60–80’ height) and in the 60,000 gross square foot range, with typically a single long-span space. We thought by providing a building in the 60–70 story range at 800’ + height and in the ½ million square foot range, the architecture and structural engineering students would need to work closely together to successfully develop a project design that was larger in scale and complexity than either discipline had worked on previously. Additionally, the co-instructors looked forward to working with the industry partner SOM to provide the additional technical content that students needed for design and looked forward to framing this new technical content in a manner that was challenging at the same time exciting to all the students involved. This large building type required student teams to not only establish a clear story for design conceptualization, but they were also required to follow through with the design development and integration of advanced building systems, i.e., high rise structural systems and programmatic spatial configurations, wall assembly attachments to the structural frame, environmental systems, and environmental controls. This provided an opportunity to expand and delve deeper into the exploration of the tectonic and social implications of this building type. The studio was set up to address head on, “The high-rise type … as a crossroads between the global process of densification shaping contemporary urban development and the protocols and iconographies that define cultural specifics.” Zaera-Polo [1] The introductory lecture for the studio by SOM, “Urgency: Disintegration / Perspective /” [2], framed very well the need for densifying our cities by using the efficiently of the skyscraper to compact spaces vertically to provide more usable open space for dense urban environments. Secondly, tall buildings are not typically covered in the engineering or architecture students’ curriculums. This allowed architectural engineering students to explore structural systems at a grander scale, while learning how basic engineering principles apply to structures large and small, how structure can inform space, and how structural optimization addresses global resource issues. This also provided the opportunity for architecture students to understand the implications of designing at the scale of a skyscraper and the implications for developing the design of systems that would integrate well with the engineering – including buildings core, skin, navigation, and programmed spaces. As a guiding principle of this collaboratory, students were taught that simplicity, structural clarity and sustainability not only define a visual quality for buildings, but also form the guiding principles for tall building design.

The collaboratory philosophy

The goal of the academy is to educate future design professionals, prepare individuals for a changing world, and provoke thoughtful designs which address environmental and performance criteria while exhibiting technical excellence. In order to do this, for such as large scaled project, the authors developed a studio which blurs the line between building structural systems and architecture (and therefore no disciplinary handoffs were allowed during the collaboration) using the philosophies embodied in Ove Arup’s Key Speech (Ove Arup, 1995) in which he describes the melding of disciplines to create a holistic design; and studio-based learning outlined in Donald Schon’s work, Educating the Reflective Practitioner [3] in which he states: “Designing, both in its narrower architectural sense and in the broader sense in which all professional practice is design like, must be learned by doing.”

The high rise collaboratory

The collaboratory components

The authors worked closely with industry partners, Leo Chow, Design Partner and Mark Sarkisian, Structures Partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) to plan the course a year in advance. Collaborating with two very busy partners, integrating a total of seven required classes for 34 students (that were placed on nine teams) across two different disciplines, architecture and structural engineering, was a challenge. But the instructors and SOM partners met weekly a year prior to the project launch to determine relevant course readings (Fig. 7) for high rise design and societal impacts, develop activities with teachable and relatable moments to the project, and schedule twice monthly project reviews.

The seven courses that were knitted together to form a single design studio experience were as follows: Undergraduate and Graduate Building Design Studios (352, 353 & 551), Energy Modeling and Environmental Systems (307) Wall Assembly Systems (342), Building Structural Systems (316), and Structural Engineering Capstone Project Course (415). (Fig. 1) As the course titles suggest, multiple design drivers are discussed in these courses from architectural design to structural design to energy and resources to integration and intersections of allied building professions. The goal was to instill the importance of a balanced architecture and structural engineering design team and to instill a culture that knowledge about a broad set of topics is required create successful designs. Five learning objectives were developed for this 2020 Skyscraper Collaboratory, which synthesized these knitted together courses to reinforce the importance of a balanced and coordinated team:

  1. 1.

    Building Systems Integration principles from the big ideas of the project (the story) and have these elements reflected in the developed building systems for the designed project (structure, environmental controls systems that relate to day lighting, cladding, shading and ventilation, building navigational systems that include egress, accessibility, site and urban placemaking).

  2. 2.

    Interdisciplinary teamwork approach to project and linkages to the course reader and additional “deep-research” that is applied to the design work.

  3. 3.

    Clear project design representation and concept documentation for project storytelling, which was augmented with reflective journals that were submitted weekly by all students.

  4. 4.

    Iterative design processes for critical project development and for critical exploration of design concepts and technical structures development.

  5. 5.

    No disciplinary hand offs were allowed during the project process, the studio promotes a team in which all members or disciplines contribute to all levels and areas of design development.

Fig. 1
figure 1

The seven linked courses with learning objectives

Throughout the 20-week experience, the student teams and individual team members were continually asked to demonstrate how the five learning objectives were expressed in their projects during desk crits, bi-weekly studio reviews, and side-bar consultations with the instructors. Figures 2 and 3 provide an understanding for the context in the curriculum for where this Collaboratory was taught.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Location of course in curriculum (3rd Year – BARCH)

Fig. 3
figure 3

Course location details

The collaboratory course reader and discussions

A course reader (Fig. 7) was developed with a range of articles on the skyscraper, covering topics that included tall building history, structural systems and systems evolution, housing, vertical communities and urban placemaking and the responsibility of building designers. This reader provided students with an understanding of the role of structure as form maker, the role of structural tectonics in the development of concepts and form making, exploration of urban place making, and interpreting environments through readings from “Cool Gray City of Love” by Gary Kamiya.

Supplemental in-class readings and discussions about teamwork [4], cross disciplinary design [5], and holistic approaches [6] were assigned as well. The class discussions were an important aspect of instilling open approaches to team dynamics and raising student awareness about collaborative relationships between design professionals.

A dedicated text [7] for structural design was assigned to all students. In the words of Mark Sarkisian, the structural partner involved with the Collaboratory, the text is “meant to illuminate the design process for tall building structures with fundamental concepts and initial considerations of the site developed into complex solutions through advanced principles related to natural growth and the environment.” The text served as a high-rise primer for the architecture students and good launch point for the architectural engineers. Sarkisian covers fundamental tall building behavior, building system configuration and development, as well as systematic construction details. The readings were reinforced with three structures-based lectures during the term as noted in the class schedule outlined below.

Unique pedagogical approaches to collaboratory

In order to effectively mirror the advanced collaborative practice model of the partner firm, the authors needed to make some adjustments to the course requirements. We established a zero tolerant policy for missing classes and assignments, which seemed to place high expectations for each of the teams to self-organize for determining best practices for getting stuff done, SOM established a frequent, every 2 weeks schedule, for providing feedback to each of the teams on project’s evolving design. And off review weeks there were workshops, discussions, and lectures. The instructors, in addition to managing the entire structure of design studio and reinforcing deadlines, developed assignments/lectures/design charrettes that complemented SOM’s content along with developing a series of periodic assessment survey tools, that provide frequent reflection / evaluations for evolving projects.

There were five (5) categories used to evaluate the holistic work of the team coupled with individual performance of each of the team members. These assessment components were helpful to the instructors in understanding what and how students were learning, along with how the collective work of the team was progressing and what course adjustments needed to be made to improve the workflows for the Collaboratory. The five assessment components have proven to be valuable in validating and reinforcing observations by the instructors and have been used in other versions of the Collaboratory. Dong and Fowler [8,9,10]. These are the 5 categories:

  1. A.

    Studio and Periodic Disciplinary Assignment/Project Evaluation Rubric for team and for individuals. Assignments related to a student’s concentration, such as development of space, circulation, materials, structural systems, framing, building envelope.

  2. B.

    Review Buddy Notes captured by an assigned team during each of the reviews helped to capture the range of both technical structural and architectural information. With project reviews every 2 weeks these notes were helpful for teams to establish lessons learned from work prepared and Next Steps for Project Development.

  3. C.

    Final Reflective Essay served as a tool for, as the title suggests, for individual student self-reflection of learning and also, helped to document these pre-career experiences.

  4. D.

    Trust Battery Survey (Lütke 2016) each student completes and posts anonymously their assessment of their teammates, their group as a unit, and themselves every 5 weeks for check-ins and to communicate with the instructors how each team is working and provides a tool for the instructors to identify and assist, if necessary, with conflicts and scheduling issues.

  5. E.

    Weekly Reflective Journals by Each Individual Student answering 3 questions (4th question optional): 1. What did I learn this week regarding project and If teamwork involved mention?; 2. What are your goals for next week?; 3. What happened this week that was weird or unexpected (that you can share)?; 4. OPTIONAL: Anything else you would like ADD that is exciting?

Collaboratory course calendar

Collaboratory course assignments (Selected)

Weight testing models assignment (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4
figure 4figure 4

a Calendar details. b Introductions to studio, weight testing model assignment, structural systems testing

The act of construction at its most fundamental level is one of lifting and supporting a mass above the ground. Whether this is for a sheltering roof, a raised platform offering a vista, or multiplying floor areas, the challenge for the architect/engineer is to accomplish this with the minimum expenditure of material and maximum artistry and functionality. Prologue Assignment [11] Students worked individually to design a structure to support a standard American construction brick (3 5/8″ × 21/4″ × 8″; 4.5 lbs.) 18 inches above the table or floor surface and must only use basswood material with glue only (no fasteners). This task expanded beyond the functional to incorporate a design idea, tectonic requirements, and craft. The design idea not only emphasized the aesthetic, but also became the driver for how all decisions are made. Three criteria used to assess the results of this exercise: 1. Concept—Is there an idea that goes beyond simply supporting the brick? 2. Aspect Ratio—Proportion is a significant consideration in the aesthetic evaluation of an object. 3. Weight—Weight supported divided by ( ÷) weight of structure.

Structural prototyping assignment (Fig. 5) [12]

Fig. 5
figure 5

Structural prototyping assignment

As an outgrowth of the Weight Testing Models Assignment, each team developed a minimum of three (3) iterative options based on a central theme or concept such as compression, weaving, or tension. Both digital and physical models which exhibited massing and initial structural prototypes were created. These early models served as the core idea or the introduction to their story for each team and would remain the conceptual basis for evolving their project.

Energy modeling / wall assembly assignment [13]

Each team developed a technical understanding of material assemblies coupled with linkages to the story of project and sun shading and passive wind strategies. This assignment served as the final assessment for the building skin and was coordinated one of the assignments in the support course as described in the next section.

Precedent dissections assignment [14]

51 skyscraper precedent studies were divided equally across the nine teams and used the buildings to research the following categories: function, vertical communities, performative envelope, urban placemaking, and structural tectonics. The early research allowed students to better understand how; tall buildings are organized, systems are configured, communities are engaged or affected, and the strong relationship between structure and architecture.

Collaboratory linked course assignments (Fig. 1)

The architectural engineering students were tasked with understanding high-rise structural systems based on their exposure to simple three-story building projects completed in their core classes. A supplemental mentoring hour was scheduled twice weekly. During those sessions the structural engineering teams studied structural system behavior for diagrids, coupled walls, the effects of belted trusses, and outrigger trusses, and the impact of height to depth ratios. The team also conducted parametric studies on both lateral and gravity load carrying systems to better understand how systems which embody a full story may replace repetitive story by story solutions. To complete their exposure to tall building design, the structural design teams developed building façade details and jointing strategies to work with their architectural design teammates.

Parallel to the architectural engineering students, the architecture students were exposed to the building skin as a performative envelope – understanding shade, building orientation, massing, and attachment for the building envelope. The architectural students were tasked with developing the shade pattern in plan and section should glazing be placed in any orientation and to understand the shade pattern during the mornings and afternoons. Additionally, the students were exposed to modulation and connectivity of the building skin to the structural frame such that lateral and vertical movement is accommodated. It was expected that the students could and would translate the concepts discovered in the support classes into their Highrise Collaboratory project.

Collaboratory tower projects [15]

The Collaboratory had many moving parts, and at times was a bit overwhelming for students in collaborative teams to sort out the best workflow strategies in evolving the design of their project. During the first ten (10) weeks of the course, each team was to establish a clear commitment to their tower story based on foundational structural prototyping studies and the application of lessons learned from the five categories noted in the Precedent Dissection Assignment, along with application of knowledge from linked technology courses, particularly the massing of the structural system and its relationship to building form and spatial organization. The second ten (10) weeks of the course were used to further develop the building form, but a strong emphasis was placed on building tectonics. Collaboratory teams worked with SOM on elevator and egress issues, addressing SOM comments regarding tall building behavior due to wind and forms to consider when designing for wind, and finally, integrating linked building structures and cladding courses. These design issues provided a framework for each team to refine their tower design, as well as its building systems.

The “Knotted Tubes” project (Figs. 5 and 6) provides a sample of the evolution from earlier foundational structural prototyping assignment to the structural and cladding systems studies that teams developed over the 20-week period. In Fig. 6, the final design of project: iconic view of tower, the exploded isometric of building systems, typical wall assembly detail and an interior view of project inside the structural knot of multi-story space. The concept behind the “Knotted Tubes” project revolved around the re-evaluation of the traditional bundled tubes skyscraper typology. Exploration in the separation of these tubes and their knotting or reconnection at a single junction became a focus of the project design. The “Knot” expressed in the tectonics of project celebrates the dominate vertical community space in the tower. The structural system was configured to intersect and emphasize the knot by intersecting the vertical and lateral framing elements at these junctures.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Final design proposal, building massing, daylighting, and structure at Knot

Design studio: closing thoughts

Collaboratory lessons learned

Despite the large cohort of students to manage in a studio setting, the sudden surprise of needing to pivot and abandon all of the physical modeling and replace with remote collaboration was action packed with beneficial lessons to both the students and us the co teaching instructors. The experience of shifting the classroom workflow to emulate how SOM practices design was a benefit in going remote for the second half of the project. All teams had to hone their communication and representation skills in real time to compensate for the inability to meet in person. The downside of the remote environment is that when there were team workflow or personality conflicts, the remote environment seemed to magnify these problems. We were, however, very fortunate to have had this opportunity to work with SOM at this time, due to their familiarity with using remote tools across several geographical time zones on a regular basis and therefore being able to share effective strategies for accomplishing interdisciplinary design with the same communication mediums that we were using. This sharing of remote workflow strategies was, helpful to the students and was a relief to the instructors who at first had huge concerns for how his intense collaboration was going to continue effectively (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7
figure 7

Skyscraper literature / course reader

Collaboratory conclusions

The success of the Collaboratory is four-fold.

  1. 1.

    The level of student’s accountability was heightened in this academic environment, when working with professionals who do expect that the students have similar levels of accountability for their academic project work as they would expect from someone who is working in their office. The high caliber of professionally framed feedback that all of the students were exposed to was a motivating factor in getting students to embrace the high learning curve that was needed in developing a project at this scale. The survey / assessment tools tailored for this Collaboratory by co instructors did assist the students in staying focused.

  2. 2.

    The scale of this project does require that no single discipline can design this building typology alone. All the architecture and engineering students did have a front row seat to understanding this as we all went through the design process, and they were able to apply these lessons in developing their collaborative team skyscraper projects.

  3. 3.

    The extended deadline of 20 weeks (as opposed to 10 weeks) allowed the collective design teams to dig into the technical weeds of this project and sort out the conflicting building system integration issues that in a large-scaled project like this requires. Students gained insight into why this level of design development is important to understand, even in the academic design studio setting.

  4. 4.

    The authors enjoyed working together and is a primary reason they have co-taught a version (but never at the scale of a skyscraper before) of this studio for almost fifteen years. They admire each other’s work, value each other’s ideas, and respect each other’s contributions. This chemistry has allowed them to freely share ideas with each other, but more importantly with students, design professionals, and colleagues and to take on what we would consider the most complicated academic / professional partner collaboration during this period that we have worked together. We do have an interest in developing another collaboration at a similar scale in the future, given the lessons learned from this one.

Collaboratory reflective student design studio comments [15]

The collaboration has helped me step out of my comfort zone and delve into the world of interdisciplinary design. I have learned to look at the project from another perspective other than structural and consider design aspects that I have never truly considered before. The advanced building systems Integration is beginning to make more sense to me as an engineer, which will be invaluable in an actual practice interdisciplinary workplace.

The high-rise interdisciplinary studio was a great experience of trying everything for the first time. I have learned a lot from all the activities we had as well as working on a project not only in an architectural environment but collaborating with a structural engineer. It showed both how challenging and rewarding this real process is.


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  11. Prologue Weight Testing Assignment, Chow/Sarkisian, 2020

  12. Structural Prototyping Assignment, Fowler/Dong, 2020

  13. Energy Modeling / Wall Assembly Assignment (Fowler/Dong 2020)

  14. Precedent Dissections Assignment, Chow/Sarkisian, 2020

  15. Fowler T, Dong K, Chow L, Sarkisian M (2020) Skyscraper Collaboratory, SOM + Cal Poly, January – June 2020, AeD Press, Architecture and Architectural Engineering Departments, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, CA, January 1, 2020, Accessed 20 Feb ’22

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We thank Skidmore Ownings and Merrill, San Francisco, CA office for the extensive amount time devoted to preparation for this course along with the generous time devoted to course project reviews, lectures/workshops. Thank you for the hosting of the 34 students for our first field trip in their offices in San Francisco (pre pandemic), and providing the overview for skyscraper site, compelling introductory lecture on the importance of the skyscraper typology along with going through all warmup tower models for brick weight testing. During this 20-week course, it seemed at times, that SOM had devoted their entire office to supporting this studio with the supply an endless number of amazing critics who offered in depth architectural and structural insights to the range of team projects – which was an inspiration the students and of course paper authors.

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Fowler, T., Dong, K. 2020 Skyscraper Collaboratory. Archit. Struct. Constr. (2022).

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  • Interdisciplinary design studio
  • Architecture and structural engineering collaboration
  • Skyscraper design studio
  • Academic design studio collaboration with industry
  • Advanced structural systems design
  • Skyscraper cladding systems design