‘This is a cool idea, lets build it right away!’
As featured in The Globe and Mail this week, the WZMH Innovation Lab is breaking new barriers and inspiring creative collaboration toward smart city building. Contributing writer Dave LeBlanc explores the Lab’s journey from the initial development of the Intelligent Structural Panel (ISP) in 2017 to the refinement of the new mySUN and Sunrider inventions. WZMH Principal Zenon Radewych leads the Innovation Lab efforts and is supported by a talented team including Hiram Boujaoude (Innovation Manager), Ruta Kraujutyte (Visual Designer), and Oleg Gorlenko (Industrial Design Assistant). Please read the article below.
By: Dave LeBlanc
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published July 13, 2021
Two metal plates with some polyurethane sandwiched in between: That’s how it all started in 2017.
Manufactured by SPS Technology, this one-inch-thick structural panel was first used in shipbuilding, and then in building bridges. Since these plates possess the strength of an eight-inch concrete slab, they soon attracted the attention of architects for their cost- and space-saving abilities as floor and wall systems.
But in the hands of WZMH Architects principal Zenon Radewych, they were a gateway drug to a whole new initiative for his storied firm, which rose from the ashes of Peter Dickinson & Associates in 1961.
“We didn’t know we wanted a lab,” Mr. Radewych says, standing in front of the third mockup of WZMH’s “Intelligent Structural Panel” that demonstrates how an SPS panel can accommodate an intelligent layer in its core. Inside the polyurethane is “a highway that has wiring and cabling, where you plug in your lights, your fans, your motors, speakers – everything you see in the [conventional] ceiling here, you plug into this.
“It’s all low-voltage based,” Mr. Radewych continues, “and it marries very well with solar, so when there’s good sun, we could run some of these devices on solar [energy] – the whole thing is plug-and-play.”
An informational booklet produced by WZMH goes on to explain that these ISPs could also contain smoke detectors, radiate heat at selected points and incorporate floor sensors “to guide the visually impaired.”
A game changer for the construction industry? Perhaps, but Mr. Radewych and his lab-mates (who are all architects) soon moved on to other ideas, since their guiding philosophy is: “This is a cool idea, let’s build it right away!”
Also high above St. Clair Avenue West – but this time with a commanding view of the ever-rising city skyline a few kilometres south – the “Sunrider” bike and its mate, the “mySUN” box, sit on a low wooden pedestal. And while WZMH staff can now hop on and pedal away lunch calories, this three-month-old pair may just light the way to a greener future in which individuals generate their own electricity.
While the bike came first – and Mr. Radewych admits his team was certainly not the first to demonstrate how pedalling can generate electricity – it was when WZMH came up with the power storage box, the mySUN, to plug the bike into that the, ahem, light bulb blinked on over their heads.
“We realized, ‘Hey, wait a minute, it’s a DC micro-grid but it’s [also] your own Pickering nuclear power station, but a green version,” Mr. Radewych says with a laugh.
It symbolizes a future, he continues, in which offices or condominiums offer exercise rooms in which spin classes would spin off electricity to feed the lighting above people’s sweaty foreheads; or a world in which a smaller mySUN box would plug directly into the side of non-stationary bicycles so folks could pedal to meetings or lunch dates, and then return to drain their human-generated power into the building’s electrical system; or a different version that would allow folks to plug in the battery from their power drill or lawn mower for a quick recharge.
And of course friendly competition could be harnessed also: “If you have an app that tracks how much green energy you produce and/or avoid using fossil fuels,” Mr. Radewych offers enthusiastically, “you get points for it [and] you’re now competing against your friends, your coworkers, other students. And then [there could be] corporate sponsorships.”
So maybe if one bests their coworkers in filling up their mySUN that week, a $10 coffee card is the reward.
And speaking of corporate sponsorships: While the WZMH team doesn’t actively pursue them, a number of high tech movers and shakers have come a-calling after hearing about the lab’s work. Microsoft, for instance, has taken so much interest in the ISP the two companies now co-host online brainstorming sessions each week. ASCA, maker of flexible, thin solar panels in France, has helped with the mySUN box. Startup companies, too, are getting in on the action. According to the WZMH team, Jeremy Lytle’s soon-to-be-launched Sponge hopes to develop the mySUN box for the consumer market, while Argentum is working with WZMH’s on their “Black Box” initiative (little brains that can connect multiple low-voltage building systems together).
Which begs the question: Will Peloton show up and shower the WZMH lab with money to rebrand the Sunrider? Is that something Mr. Radewych would consider?
“We didn’t start these things with a business plan,” the architect says. “We went into it saying, ‘Let’s make a difference, let’s have some fun, let’s build some prototypes and go from there.’ I think the idea about the lab is that it brings a breath of fresh air to the studio, a lot of staff get excited and want to be involved, it helps us retain talent [and] we show this to our clients.”
In a world in which one’s competitors offer pretty much the same services and talent, that WZMH can point to sexy, futuristic inventions makes a big difference. It helps, too, that Ruta Kraujutyte creates incredible logos and booklets that elevate these prototypes into images of marketability, that Hiram Boujaoude worries about making things hacker-proof and that Oleg Gorlenko – with his industrial design training – constructs displays that are tradeshow-worthy.
While big architecture firms often come across as cumbersome and stuck in their ways, the WZMH lab is proof that, sometimes, a large employee count (and access to petty cash) can also be an advantage. Besides, with Elon Musk toying with solar roofs and Google dreaming up smart cities, it’s time for architects to take back what’s rightfully theirs.
“We’re having a lot of fun, that’s for sure,” Mr. Radewych finishes with a big smile.