Tim Phillips, director of Tilt Industrial Design, recently spoke about how architects can benefit from industrial design.

Phillips has previously been involved with One Central Park in Sydney where he led the design of an architectural heliostat and daylighting system.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about heliostats, why industrial design in architecture is important and the barriers to successful design integration for industrial design.

Can you tell me about architectural heliostats? 

Architectural heliostats are a technology adapted from industrial energy generation plants. Heliostats (sun tracking mirrors) are typically used in concentrated solar power (CSP) installations to reflect and concentrate sunlight in order to create heat and subsequently energy.

We are taking this technology and using it more specifically to reflect sunlight in order to provide natural light to areas that would otherwise be in shade. The sunlight is not concentrated in architectural applications. Rather, it is dispersed to create a more natural lighting effect. The shaded areas are typically created by surrounding building forms, and the heliostats offer an opportunity to provide a controlled amount of light to these designated target areas. Areas of interest might be retail precincts, parklands, cafes, beer gardens, or used to supplement levels of natural light for light wells between buildings.

The heliostats adjust their position regularly to ensure the reflected light remains on the nominated target area at all times. The amount of sunlight that can be reflected is a combined result of the number of mirrors, the total surface area of each mirror, the location of the mirrors and target areas relative to the sun position, and the total amount of sunlight available to reflect. i.e. how sunny it is.

But the heliostats are not effective at times where natural sun is not available (cloudy days).

Where did the inspiration come from? 

Heliostats have been used in architecture for some time. However, the installation at One Central Park was a world first with regards to its size and technical complexity. The original concept was provided by Ateliers Jean Nouvel with the objective to provide key areas of the site with additional natural light in a 'dappled' manner so as to simulate the light one might experience beneath a tree canopy.

The technical feasibility of the idea was explored early in the design phase to ensure that the concept could be achieved effectively. Our experience in developing heliostats for the solar industry allowed us to assess the concept and provide detailed design for all reflective elements. 

How easy or hard was it to develop from a technological viewpoint? 

The heliostats and any secondary reflectors are not a particularly high-tech product concept individually, however a significant amount of research and development sits behind the resulting designs. When the system as a whole is considered, inclusive of the software that manages the system and the lighting strategy for the installation, the engineering achievement is definitely one that requires a high level of understanding.

There are many risks that need to be addressed when deploying an industrial technology into an urban environment and it is quite a technical achievement to ensure the smooth running of so many elements.  

How do you think architects can benefit from industrial design? 

The relationship between architects and industrial designers has not been well explored.

I see the opportunity for architects and industrial designers to work outside of the constraints of traditional building materials and construction methodologies to deliver concepts that push the boundaries of architectural design. I see the position of the industrial designer as not limited to creating objects that sit within a built structure, but rather deliver concepts that are extensions of the building itself. By utilising modern materials and advanced manufacturing processes, the industrial design process can realise architectural vision and provide creative freedom.

 How difficult is it for architects to incorporate industrial design in their projects? 

The barriers to successful design integration often lie in a lack of project delivery confidence and concerns over contractual responsibility. An architect needs to develop a relationship with a design firm who can explore new ideas and confirm the feasibility of the concept before committing to the detailed design. The feasibility assessment should consider not just the design in general, but the complexities of installation and maintenance methodology as well.

From a project management perspective, an industrial design firm that assumes contractual responsibility for design, manufacture, installation and maintenance of the feature provides the confidence a client needs to pursue creative architecture.

 What's the best piece of advice someone has ever given you?

Most of the advice I take these days comes from my father. He was a business owner for 25 years and whilst he doesn't have a background in design, he is a sounding board for all major decisions. His advice is to build long-term client relationships and look after the interests of my staff. I'd like to think that his words of wisdom will ensure I develop a company legacy as he did.