What does the site tell us? How can we help improve social and ecological sustainability? And how can we make spaces that adapt over time to fit people’s changing needs? These questions are some of the drivers of Mei architects and planners’ work. Whether it’s adaptive reuse, new build or urban planning, Mei’s projects center on lively, inclusive and sustainable environments for people to live, work and play. The Rotterdam-based practice works on projects from residential to commercial and mixed-use, often part of dense inner-city redevelopments. A new project called SAWA, Rotterdam’s first wooden residential high-rise, pushes the boundaries of new construction techniques. “We design the buildings not for ourselves, but for the people who will live in them in the future,” says Rob Grim, Head of Urban planning at Mei. “We focus our way of working on these users, and on their future, and always ask: what is needed for people to be able to live in happy, healthy cities for the next 100 years?” Integrating the ecological and social sides of architecture and urban design, Mei’s long term and user-based approach is enhanced by a data-driven way of working. “We believe that designers can and should play an important role in creating a healthy and shared living environment,” says Grim. “From stimulating social cohesion to integrating urban nature, we incorporate social and ecological design principles, both on the scale of the building and of the neighborhood or district.”
Making the invisible visible at the early stage
Many factors contribute to creating cities and spaces that people enjoy spending time in and improve their wellbeing. For instance great cafés or lively sidewalks. “But there are also many invisible aspects involved here such as noise, wind and microclimate,” explains Grim. “It’s challenging to show people the effect of sound but it’s an extremely important factor to consider when we design new neighborhoods. For example, people who live beside a train station want good public transport but also be able to sleep well at night. Spacemaker helps us visualize these factors and to talk about them.”
The team at Mei actively seeks new digital tools that support their user-based design approach and help improve project workflows from concept to completion; for early-stage planning and design, Mei integrated Spacemaker into their way of working. Process designer and BIM coordinator Max Brobbel who works at the intersection of strategy, people and software explains: “We’re always searching for new tools that help us navigate the building process as it becomes more complex and lengthy, with more parties involved. Projects need to include truthful data and there’s an enormous amount of paperwork and information involved, for example for BREEAM certifications or submissions to the municipality. We felt that Spacemaker brought in an extra tool set we were missing. The amount of insight and validation that Spacemaker gives in the beginning of a design process is very valuable. Another important aspect is, how easy is it for someone to use a new tool or software? With Spacemaker, it took one to two hours to get a good grip on it and one day to be able to create detailed proposals; with other established architecture software this can take two weeks to one month.”
"The amount of insight and validation that Spacemaker gives in the beginning of a design process is very valuable."
Max Brobbel, Process designer and BIM coordinator at Mei
An integrated way of working
Mei’s user-based approach is part of an integrated way of working from day one. Research always forms the basis of a project where the team investigates different aspects such as the site’s history, the program, the future residents, CO2 emissions, biodiversity and microclimate. “From this cloud of context and conditions, we create design solutions. The more information we have in the beginning of the process, the better our design will address the design question,” Grim adds. Interventions made at the early phase have major consequences for the long term. “The interesting thing about urban planning is that we make major decisions such as shaping a volume, which is one of the first steps in the design process,” says Grim.
“It’s essential at this early stage to get as much information as possible about factors such as noise, sun and wind. Traditionally these are considered as detailed information which is usually too time-consuming to run or only available later in the process which is when problems may arise. These could be solved with a cosmetic or short term solution but if we already have good analysis tools and more information at the beginning, we can make better decisions that have more impact.”
Rob Grim, Head of Urban planning at Mei.
Telling a compelling story
Architecture, urban planning and storytelling go hand in hand. Creating a convincing concept is a vital part of the early phase but communicating this well is equally important. In Mei’s case, it’s about creating happy, healthy cities where people can thrive today and in the future. “When you create a design, you need to tell a proper story about it. Architects and urban planners are storytellers who connect the dots – Spacemaker really understands this process,” says Brobbel. That's where making the invisible visible comes in. “The visual aspect makes it easier and more fun for us to talk about these technical aspects which are very important but can be difficult to explain. Both people with and without technical knowledge can easily understand Spacemaker’s clear images. They give quick, crisp information about noise, wind and sun in a visually appealing way,” adds Grim. “A designer can have a nice sketch of a building. But for us, it's not about this sketch but about the people who will live there and don’t want to be blown away by wind. Using Spacemaker helps us increase awareness about the importance of these subjects, which we as a company support, and to tell the story we envisioned.”
"Architects and urban planners are storytellers who connect the dots – Spacemaker really understands this process.”
The value of validation
Using Spacemaker to gain more insights at the early-phase, the team at Mei architects and planners can easily identify the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal, and test and validate designs. This allows them to work with more data-based precision when it comes to making high impact, long-term decisions about defining volumes, and the qualities of the public spaces and program. For example with an urban project in the Netherlands, the team had to deal with the challenges of adding a large new volume into a complex inner-city site and addressing the residents’ concerns. In a presentation to the community, the team used Spacemaker images to show that overshadowing of the public space would not be an issue. “To make changes on this site, we needed to work with surgical precision,” says Grim. “Using Spacemaker’s analyses we were able to exactly show the building's impact. It also helped us explore the possibilities of the site within the constraints – we showed how it could work within the boundaries.”
A healthy balance
For another project, the team used Spacemaker to enhance their iterative way of designing. On this compact and complex urban site, the concept was carefully designed in line with Mei’s user-based approach. Using Spacemaker, the team was able to easily test the impact of new structures on the site and ensure good conditions for the public spaces all year round. “We used Spacemaker to not only improve the positioning of the volumes but also to define the program, for example where workspaces might be more suitable instead of housing depending on the daylight situation,” says Grim. "Having greater insights gave more depth to our decision-making process and confidence in our design decisions.”
“Using Spacemaker we could investigate how to keep the benefits of a higher density to create a lot of housing, a big mix of program on ground level and a lively neighborhood, and, at the same time, have a good grasp on the living conditions."
Cities and neighborhoods of the future need to support the long-term wellbeing of people and the planet in a time of increasing complexity; this is an immense challenge for architects and urban designers to tackle but a data-driven approach that offers more detailed insights than ever is set to change the game. With their forward-thinking way of working, Mei shows us that the future looks very bright.
Main image: Mei architects and planners in Rotterdam, image courtesy of Mei