Studio Ma: Firm Profile

What is the history and background of the firm?

Studio Ma is an internationally recognized architecture firm, founded in 2003, that designs inspiring environments for all. Guided by holistic perspective, deep expertise, and shared passion, we create the balance of joy within and function throughout. Together with progressive clients, we transform ideas into significant spaces that create lasting connections between people and places.

The founders are principals Christiana Moss, FAIA, and Chris Alt, RA, who studied together and received their Bachelor of Architecture degrees from the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning. The two also spent a semester prior to graduation working and studying in the studio of Pritzker Prize-winner Sverre Fehn at the Oslo School of Architecture, an experience that was highly influential on Studio Ma’s core principles.

One of those principles is the concept understood in Japan as “the space between”: ma. This concept explores the dynamic relationship between object and environment. Attending to this relationship allows us to balance the given aspect (function) and the felt aspect (joy) of any space. For us, ma is both a perspective and approach. It guides our projects and partnerships towards the highest possible value for all. Together with our clients, it helps us create net-positivity in every design — optimizing aesthetics and functionality in harmony with the natural environment and human wellbeing. In short, joy within, function throughout.

Centered in the essence of the desert southwest, Studio Ma focuses on delivering innovative, sustainable, and inspiring designs to forward-thinking institutions and individuals. Our designs take root in the stark profiles of the surrounding mountains among other strong, simple and natural forms, as we strive to create built works that resonate with the surrounding context, extending the idea of ma across multiple scales, from freestanding structures and homes, to the complex urban and natural contexts of major cultural and higher education institutions, to the planning of entire campuses and cities (Figure 1).

We are also longtime proponents of investigating new AEC tools and technology, and much of our effort goes toward experimentation to find tools and applications that improve our workflow, produce better project results, and help us communicate effectively with clients, project team partners and other stakeholders. We are also highly motivated to uncover highly sustainable, net-positive solutions that meet the strictest criteria and loftiest goals for green building — regenerative, bioclimatic and creating new resources.

What is the firm’s current focus? What are the key projects you are working on?

Our work these days often includes major research components. For example, on behalf of a major federal agency client, we are currently looking into the uses and impacts of mass timber and rammed-earth construction with an eye toward making U.S. and overseas facilities more sustainable. This includes investigating strategies for heat and drought mitigation for multiple regions and climates. Studio Ma also has a number of recently completed and on-the-boards projects representing a wide spectrum of scope and scale.

At one end of the scale are highly sustainable workplaces and transformations of existing buildings designed applying principles of regenerative architecture and net-zero energy and water performance. One of the latter is our own office, Xero Studio, adapted from a nondescript, circa-1970 dental office building in Phoenix (Figure 2). Manifesting our values of sustainability and net-positivity — optimizing aesthetics and functionality in harmony with the natural environment and human wellbeing — the project’s design partí reflected our best possible work experience as well as Living Building Challenge ideas for sustainable design strategies, including passive design and xeriscaping.

At the other end of the scale are wide-reaching research efforts and campus planning commissions for large institutions. For Washington University in St. Louis, we’ve been engaged in a campus masterplan that focuses not only on sustainability but also on inclusion and engagement. With the use of focus groups, town halls, live polling and technology-supported techniques like emotional heat-mapping, our team evaluated places and dimensions of the university experience and produced quantitative results suggesting that access is a real barrier to an equitable college experience — including in critical areas like healthcare — and offering avenues to making improvements.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? 

We have been using a variety of applications since our founding in 2003. Cofounder Chris Alt has led the studio’s development of BIM strategy, with an eye toward use of energy, light, and design modeling to improve outcomes and enhance building performance. As mentioned, the firm also continues to investigate new platforms and applications. While we are small and do not have unlimited resources, we consider this to be essential for serving our clients and achieving our mission of joy within, function throughout.

Recently we partnered with MIT and software developer Solemma to beta-test Climate Studio, and as a result the software has become an integral part of our workflow. As part of our design process, we regularly run studies and simulations using Climate Studio as a plug-in with Rhino (Figure 3). The setup allows us to deliver more sustainable work by providing a platform for solar and shading studies, daylighting modeling, plotting natural ventilation, predicting interior thermal comfort for the end-user, and looking at renewable energy. To tackle carbon output, we use both the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) and the Athena Ecocalculator. While applying Solemma and other software to individual projects, we are also using it to help us achieve an internal goal of a set of standards for all our work that aligns with the 2030 Challenge.

We have also used Solemma’s tools for daylighting studies during the design of a significant mixed-use academic building and residential hall for the downtown Phoenix campus of Arizona State University (Figure 4). Now in the construction phase, we have shifted from Solemma and Rhino to NavisWorks and the Glue, Plan, and Field applications in Autodesk’s BIM 360 suite. These are more easily plugged into the contractor’s platform, allowing us to collaborate with them as a design-build team. Their platform is integrated with subtrades and is accessible to all stakeholders, a streamlined approach that saves time. As part of a design-build team, we committed to using this platform rather than our own proprietary tools for a more integrated process that we feel is better for project delivery and client satisfaction.

Also worth noting here, during the time of social distancing, the small contractor we are working with on a single-family residence on a mountaintop in Utah recently bought a 360-degree camera. This residential builder doesn’t use AEC tech extensively, but the camera allows us to do more virtual site observations while options for travel are challenging and limited by pandemic restrictions as well as by the remote location.

What is the firm’s approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology?

First, AEC technology needs to help the design process and help us achieve breakthroughs in concept and execution, especially with regards to sustainable design. That is our focus.

We have developed our digital technology approach to streamline Studio Ma’s design workflow, and to integrate with Climate Studio and other analytical, environmentally beneficial software so we can actively use multiple energy simulation outputs, for example, or daylighting analysis and heat gain studies to guide our design decision-making. We tend to iterate very quickly, and we’re not afraid to take a detour that emerges from observations that diverge from our initial set of assumptions, so facilitating the integration of analysis into the process as much as possible is a cornerstone of our approach. Our commitment to our clients is to do the best we can with the allotted time and resources allotted, so we want to spend as little time as possible translating outputs.

Studio Ma is careful to avoid operating in a vacuum. In the past, we have relied heavily on engineering partners for feedback, which slowed us down. Integrated software allows us to quickly test assumptions to make sure we are getting best performance, without having to create models multiple times. With Rhino, we don’t have to maintain multiple models in different platforms, because we can make changes in one model that will be reflected in all integrated applications immediately. As a result, we don’t have to sacrifice performing additional energy simulations just because we have limited time. For us to meet our studio’s goal of contributing to climate health, all of our projects need to be moving forward this way, working faster and getting better results for happier clients and a healthier planet.

Interestingly, the software and technology we are using to work remotely has helped us to work together better, because our language has become more precise and our habits more consistent and conscientious. We now have a better quality-control protocol, because we can’t make assumptions and we have to check in with each other. This has only increased since the onset of the pandemic because the lack of in-person engagement necessitated even greater precision and more deliberate engagement.

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

Interoperability may be the biggest challenge right now, which crops up when working externally and stakeholders must interact frequently across platforms. As a small office, we have to be careful about what we commit to using because each commitment — to BIM 360, or Microsoft Teams, and so forth — represents huge investments. For the Arizona State University project referenced earlier, there are over 20 different consultants and engineers, and the general contractor on the back end has to work with all of them. This was a big enough project that we made the effort to adopt the BIM 360 platform (Figure 5). Now that we are using the suite, we find that using its Glue, Field, and Plan applications are excellent for coordinating with the contractor, consultants, and trades.

At the end of the day, what gives the client value is a project that is designed with excellence, built well, highly considered, and imparts joy. We will use whatever tools deliver that outcome, regardless of the challenges. But we need to choose wisely and invest carefully. We get ten emails a day about new products and platforms, which is overwhelming. Keeping up with every new platform, learning them well, and maintaining necessary updates can feel like a fulltime job on its own. We rely on our entire studio to help us stay abreast of the most important developments, but we need them doing more than investigating technology all day.

Rhino, with Climate Studio plugged in, may be our most successful adoption case study, because we can accomplish so much of our design workflow under the one umbrella. Also, these work not only well but as promised. Some of the biggest platforms have to be “broken” for them to give us paths to communicate with our partners, consultants, and clients. We understand that no software does everything perfectly well, but we have to be choosy.

How does the firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

The platforms need to adapt to become more user-friendly, supporting our workflow with simple access to the things we need and use on a daily basis. To that end, improvements are needed in the integration of user feedback. We’re fortunate to have meetings with the development team leaders from Solemma. They are actively listening to our suggestions of tools we would like to see included in the suites.

Other frustrations arise when the things you need to be simple and consistent are instead a hindrance. For example, we would like to see more seamless integration with third-party add-ons. Open-source platforms present the best path forward here. Some companies have realized that making their third-party developments open-source carries the potential for faster and better development, making the technology work to everyone’s advantage. In this vein, offices like Keiran Timberlake have developed software that they’ve made available to a broad set of users.

If we were to make any kind of prediction, the future is likely to see ongoing improvement of integration for augmented and virtual reality tech. This is especially important for engaging with clients, who are often impressed by the immediacy and visual power of VR and AR. Plus, they contribute to a better use of everyone’s time, and help everyone to get aligned in terms of expectations and process.

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

It would be enormously helpful to have a tool that provides an overlay of everything you’re working, like a “smart” clipboard. Imagine being able to attach tags to emails and corresponding parts of the workflow so they are easier to find and refer back and forth, without adopting yet another standalone piece of software that we would need to maintain. It would save time on importing and exporting tasks as well. It’s hard to say what such a tool would look like or how it would work, so in the meantime we look forward to better interoperability and intuitive integration. The Microsoft Teams platform suggests a way forward by integrating all team communications via Microsoft Office applications. Extending the compatibility to AEC software would be a step in the right direction, toward a type of hybrid environment to document for archival purposes, for project team collaboration, or for a client deliverable.

Are there any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology from the firm that you would like to share?

The planning work we’ve been doing lately borrows techniques and tools from anthropological studies. One example is the emotional heat-mapping mentioned earlier: as we conducted surveys and engagement, we wanted to map student perceptions about the campus and facilities. As we have learned, there are significant challenges to applying software from outside AEC — such as ArcGIS or various kinds of polling software — to AEC modes of working. Happily, we discovered that our client, Washington University in St. Louis, operated on a platform that could conduct surveys and perform other very helpful tasks. We’re exploring integrating similar systems and software into our planning workflow for future projects.

Acknowledgments: The responses to the questions for this profile were provided by Tim Keil, RA, Principal, Studio Ma, with input from Studio Ma colleagues Christopher Alt, RA, Principal, and Ryan Hughes, Associate. The profile itself was facilitated by Adam Sullivan of C.C. Sullivan.

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