top of page

Renzo Piano @ Columbia

Shades at The Forum

The building industry has gravitated towards glass facades with floor to ceiling windows. They offer spectacular views and a sleek appearance that is almost expected in any new design. With all that glass window coverings can no longer be treated as decorations or an afterthought. Shading systems applied to glass facades must be viewed as a building system, on par with lighting, and HVAC.

Too often the solution is throwing generic window treatments at the problem, and expecting satisfying results. The solution usually looks and feels like a cheap add-on, and seldom performs the way it is supposed to. Other building systems are adversely affected, the aesthetics suffer, and the building becomes difficult to live and work in.

Progressive architects like Renzo Piano and savvy clients like Columbia University expect more from the window covering industry. Unfortunately, many manufacture’s and dealers take the “one size fits all” approach and completely miss the mark. The market is simply unprepared to offer the engineering and design to make vision become reality.

This is where the story begins. Decorating with Fabric was contacted by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and tasked with the engineering and production of a “one of a kind” shading system for the Forum project at Columbia. They knew the basic frame work of what was required and how it was to function. The problem was finding a company who could manage the production of custom brackets, head boxes, coupling supports, hem-bars and hardware. Nothing was “off the shelf” and a digital control system had to be designed to manage the entire motorized shading system. Nobody was doing this kind of work in the industry or wanted to accept the challenge.

Everything had to be manufactured from a blank slate with only a vision and some drawings. It was a process that needed to be carefully managed from start to finish. And it wasn’t just getting the parts manufactured. We had to manage the logistics of melding parts from Germany, France, Italy and the US into a finished product that was integrated into the façade itself. This meant extensive meetings to plan all aspects of the system, production and review of detailed in-house fabrication drawings, creating mockups and extensive coordination between all of the related trades.

Shade cloth fabrics were selected based upon their manufactured characteristics such as weight, thickness, fenestration performance, sound absorption, and textile composition. It was not simply picking a nice color and calling it done. We needed to remind everyone that shade cloth selection is an integral part of a successful shading system and essentially a moving fabric wall.

Part of the process was trying to outline how the system would work. Columbia wanted building control with an intelligent overlay of sensors, a low voltage power distribution system, the ability to remotely manage and monitor the system with future potential for BMS integration. Most of the systems they reviewed were simply not up to the task.

Our philosophy at InSync Solar is to utilize the best components possible and blend them together into an engineered shading solution. To meet this demanding task, we partnered with Somfy USA and began engineering a motor and control system that would satisfy the demands placed upon it by Columbia. All aspects of the electrical system needed to be considered along with a very specific set of specifications laid out by us for the electricians to follow. This involved the in-house production of electrical and control diagrams with everything from wire to mounting locations clearly spelled out.

The successful deployment of high voltage motors and controls is heavily code driven. Excessive departures from the code are inevitable as engineers and architects try to balance the NEC code, structural space limitations and aesthetics. This happens all the time – we don’t condone it and it is illegal to do so. To avoid these issues entirely we selected 24-volt DC motors that utilized a completely low voltage power and control topology. This strategy was embraced by Columbia as they were struggling with the problem and had seen how liberties were taken on other buildings on the campus. In addition, Columbia was looking for motors that produced less than 38 dB to enhance the quality of the working environment. Multiple stopping positions were needed with accurate shade cloth alignment. Sun sensing and automated shade movement was also a requirement.

Much of this was driven by Columbia having poor experiences with noisy motors, shade controls that constantly lost their alignment settings and the need for constant maintenance. Of course, it would be easy to say, “How did this happen?” But all too often large systems are designed in stages and pieces without proper oversight and coordination by folks who simply don’t understand the process. Again, dealers are thinking decoration not building system and the client is stuck with a maybe “nice looking” but poorly functioning installation.

When the entire package was assembled, Decorating with Fabric was tasked with managing all of the logistics and installation of the complete system. This entailed multiple preliminary on-site meetings and scope reviews. At each step we were expected to respond to running design changes and conflicts with other building systems. A simple but often difficult reality is that “as drawn” and “as built” sometimes look very different. The biggest challenge is having a plan that takes these issues into account in a proactive rather than reactive way. It is our philosophy that well-designed products and processes should remove stress from the system, not contribute to it.

As the physical installation was drawing to its conclusion Somfy USA was brought on board to complete the final commissioning of the system. This was the process needed to bring the component parts to a fully functional condition. In addition to giving life to the system it was an important step in satisfying the contractual conditions set out by Columbia and to provide final proof of compliance. It took several days of on-site engineering by Decorating with Fabric and Somfy to complete this vital step in the process. In the end we delivered the system that Columbia was expecting and had contracted for.

World renowned architect, Renzo Piano, was at the grand opening of the building and saw his vision come to fruition. Part of this amazing vision was an intelligent and dynamic shading system that provided a comfortable and environmentally responsible working environment. Decorating with Fabric is proud to have been part of this grand adventure and looks forward to the next challenge.

86 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page