Industry Voices: sparkbird
In our Winter 2022 issue of Connections, we introduced a new column called Industry Voices. The column features members of the A/E/C industry who are elevating the sector through original ideas and influential initiatives. For this issue we interviewed Zenon Radewych, principal at Toronto-based WZMH Architects, and Sadi Wali, a computational design specialist who oversees many of the firm’s sparkbird initiatives.
Launched in 2017, sparkbird is the research and development arm of WZMH, and it occupies a dedicated lab area within the firm’s office. There visitors can view working prototypes on display, and WZMH and its partners can develop and test new ideas and software applications. Although sparkbird has been in existence for only five years, it’s already spawned notable innovations. Read on to learn more:
Connections: How and why did you launch sparkbird?
Zenon: It started with the Intelligent Structural Panel (ISP), an invention that we created within WZMH. The Intelligent Structural Panel – is basically a floor system that is prefabricated and equipped with low-voltage connections. Our objective is to use these panels for new construction related to office buildings, hospitals and residential buildings, to reduce the overall construction timeframe to construct the building, reduce waste, and to provide a plug-and-play solution for many of the buildings components such as lighting, security, audio visual systems and controls for HVAC.
To develop the ISP, we partnered with a firm that created the structural component and we brought in engineers to teach us about low-voltage power. We built small-scale mockups and our first R&D project was underway. Then a large technology company heard about the project and encouraged us to apply to its AI IoT Insiders’ Lab. We were eventually selected, and the technology firm invested about half a million U.S. dollars to support the further development of the Intelligent Structural Panel.
At that point other ideas started emerging, so we created a dedicated lab within WZMH. About a year ago we decided to brand the lab ‘sparkbird.’ Birding enthusiasts will recognize that term: sparkbird is the first bird that sparks one’s interest in birding. We think it is a good reflection of the lab, which combines excitement and exploration.
"We love the way you think. We love what we saw in sparkbird and we’re hiring you."
Connections: How has sparkbird affected WZMH’s architectural work?
Sadi: It certainly helps to differentiate us in terms of winning new business. We don’t try to market our sparkbird inventions to WZMH’s clients. But our clients see that we are questioning traditional approaches and trying out new ideas. They recognize that we’ll bring creativity to their projects.
Zenon: I’ve heard a lot of clients say, ‘We love the way you think. We love what we saw in sparkbird and we’re hiring you.’
Sadi: sparkbird also helps us to attract and retain top talent. People who are graduating from college are looking for more than money. They’re looking for an interesting place to work, where they can develop new skills, and sparkbird really appeals to them.
Zenon: Exposure to other areas of architecture beyond bricks and mortar is also valuable to them -- and to us. For instance, now we’re learning about software development apps that can help us design better and also benefit our clients and the construction industry.
Sadi: The latest app we’ve rolled out is called Parrit, which is a digital standards app. In the past, when clients gave us their design standards, they’d present us with a binder full of pages of information about what type of furniture to use, what type of carpeting to use, etc. Through Parrit we can access these standards through an easy-to-use interface, and our clients can update them in real time.
Zenon: Sadi is also overseeing the development of a product called Doton. Doton is an app that places markers on construction products that are to be installed by a crane. The app, through use of a camera, measures the distance between the markers on the object being installed versus markers on previously installed objects, providing a very accurate measurement between the two items. An alarm sounds off on the app when the distance between the two objects is very close.
Sadi: We’re also looking into ways to turn cranes into robots themselves. We’re working on mockups right now where a small crane we are building in our office will automatically guide an object to a fixed in place position using the Doton app. And we’re piloting a new method of scanning buildings with an iPhone and video camera and then converting the images back into a Revit model.
"sparkbird also helps us to attract and retain top talent. People who are graduating from college are looking for more than money. They’re looking for an interesting place to work, where they can develop new skills, and sparkbird really appeals to them."
Connections: We’ve seen a lot of news about sparkbird’s plans to use Speedstac to help rebuild Ukraine. Can you tell us more about that initiative?
Zenon: Sure. I’m Ukrainian, so this initiative is especially meaningful to me. Initially we developed Speedstac to address the housing shortage in the North American market. But then the war in Ukraine started, and we brought on board several Ukrainian architects who came to Canada. A few of them started working on Speedstac for North America, but then light bulbs went off in our heads and we realized that we could use Speedstac to help rebuild Ukraine.
We pivoted right away and started producing documents and sending them to various professionals in Ukraine. And it really took off. But we realized that there was no point in rebuilding while the war was still going on. So, we pivoted again and used Speedstac as a concept to engage students in Ukraine. We partnered with several universities and we’re hiring their students as interns to further develop the Speedstac product.
Eventually we hosted two hackathons that had nothing to do with Speedstac but that connected Ukranian IT students with architectural students. Now we’re hosting a competition in Ukraine for students and architects to use Speedstac and Kingspan insulated metal panels. Kingspan is one of the sponsors, and Autodesk just joined as a sponsor. We see sparkbird as creating a lifeline for students before the rebuilding takes place.
"Eventually we hosted two hackathons that had nothing to do with Speedstac but that connected Ukranian IT students with architectural students."
Connections: Are you still considering other applications for Speedstac?
Sadi: Yes, we’re focusing on Canada, the Middle East, and North Africa. There’s a housing boom in the Middle East and North Africa and developers there love to work in concrete.
Connections: How do you find partners for sparkbird projects?
Zenon: There’s no strategy behind it. If it’s a mechanical, electrical, or structural issue, we call people we’ve worked with in the past. And over the past year or two we’ve met a lot of experts in machine learning so we’ve added them to our contact and partner lists for the development of apps and software solutions.
Connections: What are your goals for sparkbird?
Zenon: The main goal is to keep our minds fresh and continually thinking outside of the box to solving traditional problems. Another goal is to demonstrate to our clients that we are always learning and innovating. Our third goal is to start commercializing products that result from sparkbird, but there’s no pressure to do that. We are playing and having fun, and that kind of attitude has resulted in some great products and great ideas. But we are about to launch a separate software arm of WZMH called Giraffe, which is going to market Parrit and other software applications.
Connections: What advice do you have for people in the A/E/C industry who want to become more innovative?
Zenon: It comes down to moving beyond improvements. It’s rethinking the old rules and traditions. You might improve material components or install equipment more quickly, but you’re still using the same tools. Don’t just try to improve what kind of paint you use. Ask yourself if you really even need paint. When you question the tools themselves, that is when ideas start to blossom.