Inside BIG Ideas, the Incubator Where Architects Become Inventors

How do you turn dreams into reality? Make it your business, say Bjarke Ingels and Jakob Lange of the architecture firm BIG.



A common complaint with architecture today is that the experimental, exciting design presented at the beginning rarely finds itself expressed in the final building. That which was compellingly rendered does not become a reality, because somewhere between competition drawings and construction documents, the design morphs into a tepid version of the original concept, often owing to value engineering or a disconnect between vision and available materials. Today, as BIG, along with artists realities:united, Peter Madsen’s Rumlaboratorium aerospace organization, as well as the Danish Technical University, launches a Kickstarter campaign for a prototype of a first-of-its-kind steam-ring generator, we’re reminded that Bjarke Ingels and his renegade band of architects manages to achieve what few others can. They routinely realize their far-fetched schemes. How do they do that?

At BIG—currently working on projects from New York’s 2 World Trade Center to Google’s North Bayshore neighborhood in Mountain View, CA—it begins by expanding the ways in which an architect influences a project. “We start our involvement earlier by gathering information that informs the design,” Ingels says. “And we extend our involvement further into manufacturing. As architects, we are too often limited by the building products that we can specify.”

It was that last concern that prompted BIG, in 2014, to launch a new division within its firm called BIG Ideas. The new department, run by partner Jakob Lange, is a research and development lab staffed by engineers and other technical specialists meant to support the designs coming out of BIG’s Copenhagen and New York offices, as well as develop new products and building materials. The department focuses on three main things: solving the architects’ experimental concepts for a building; designing materials for these buildings that may also go to market; and performing in-house simulations for things like wind, solar, shadow, acoustics, and snow accumulation, in order to build smarter buildings.


DIY, Scaled (Way) Up
The concept for BIG Ideas came after Bjarke and Lange hit a roadblock with their Copenhagen power plant project, scheduled for completion in 2017. The firm had won the competition with a unique concept. The Danish energy company, ARC, uses refuse and recycling to fuel the plant, and BIG proposed a ski slope on top of the mountain of trash, turning what could be an eyesore into a public amenity. (The firm used a similar ecological metaphor with the Mountain Dwellings apartment building. Here, they turned the necessary infrastructure of a parking garage into a concrete hillside where the houses spill over the top.)

BIG also proposed a massive steam-ring generator—a riff on an industrial smoke chimney—that would pump a visible circle of vapor into the sky for every ton of CO2 burned in the plant. This plant promises to be one of the cleanest in the world, but it will still generate some CO2. The plant operators will rely on residents to recycle in order to create more clean energy. The goal of the generator is to make visible the need for recycling and to create a reminder of our carbon footprint in the world.

“Right now pollution is intangible,” says Jakob Lange. “People don’t really know how to measure pollution, and if people do not know, then they cannot change or act. The idea of putting out a ring for every ton of CO2 is so that people in Copenhagen can look in the sky and count the rings. If citizens recycle more, there are fewer rings.”

It’s an inspirational concept that quickly caught the public’s interest, bolstered by BIG’s media-friendly renderings. The idea killed in presentations. Problem was, Ingels and Lange couldn’t find outside vendors to build their concept. As Ingels likes to say, “There were no smoke ring-emitting manufacturers in the yellow pages.”


After a partner meeting in Austin, TX, Ingels and Lange formalized Big Ideas while jogging. “We had some other people looking at the generator and it never really worked. We couldn’t find a solution,” Lange says, “Bjarke and I were out running one day in Austin and we said: ‘Why don’t we do it ourselves?’ We decided to continue developing the steam-ring mechanism and to establish the department later called BIG Ideas.”

BIG Ideas collaborated with rocket scientists and combustion engineers to design and build working prototypes for the steam generator. Two of these have already been successfully tested at the 1 to 10 ratio of the final size. “Before building a bigger prototype that would work exactly like the final mechanism, we needed to build and test our ideas in a smaller scale, basically our proof of concept,” Lange says.

Now they want to build a model about a third of the size of the final object. “Scaling up to the bigger 1 to 3 prototype will give us vital information about the pressure and energy needed, the amount of water required, and will also tell us how stable the steam rings will be in windy conditions,” Lange says.

Getting to the Future, Faster
This is where the Kickstarter comes in. The first prototypes were funded by BIG, now they hope to secure some additional revenue for what is effectively a massive public art project. “Because the power plant is publicly owned, they can’t spend money on art, so we have to seed fund the generator ourselves,” Ingels says. “BIG Ideas allows us to realize things, like the generator, that we wouldn’t be able to realize, and to inform our design process.”


One way BIG Ideas informs that design process is by closing the gap between architect and outside specialist. BIG projects fire on so many levels. They are high tech, yet human-centered. They are striking yet environmentally sound. They are intricate puzzles requiring lots of collaboration. “Both engineers and architects talk about how engineers should help inform the building design in the early stages, but the problem is, we don’t sit in the same office space and often the engineers are singular specialists,” Lange says. “So you call a daylight specialist, and then you call an acoustic specialist. But now, we are educating the people we hire internally at BIG ideas to handle these questions. We’re trying to sync this up more.”

It’s also about speed, Lange says. “When we collaborate in this way, we can deliver results that the design teams can use, and we can react and act faster.”

Perhaps most valuable, is how BIG has figured out how to propose and fund research and experimentation into every step of the design development process. Take the design competition. “We have big ideas born in the competition stage,” Lange says. “When we win those competitions, we also win that big idea. Then, when we negotiate contracts and so on, we not only discuss our regular fees, we ask the clients if they are wiling to pay for a feasibility study of the big idea. Then, it’s our job to prove that it’s not so crazy.”


Dreaming BIG
Kim Loudrup, CEO of the Danish firm Urban Rigger, has been collaborating with BIG for a few years now on a solution to the dire housing crunch for European university students attending schools in crowded cities. The project, called Urban Rigger, is now under construction, and uses water instead of land to create floating student housing out of shipping containers. Loudrup says he’s been transformed by watching the way nascent ideas blossom into actual outcomes at BIG. “They come up with an idea and you might say, ‘I don’t know. I can’t quite see it.’ And then they prototype it and show it to you and your mind is blown,” Loudrup says. “I’ve worked with other architects and firms, and it’s just not the same. With BIG, you become part of something. It’s contagious. They are contagious. You get dragged into the energy of their process.”

In addition to supporting in-house designs, BIG Ideas is currently working on several independent projects, from an Internet of Things door lock called Friday, to prototypes for a life-sized Tesla coil at the Battersea Power Station in London. For the Urban Rigger project, they are in conversation with Elon Musk about Tesla batteries to fuel the houses.

As inventive as it is with designs, BIG Ideas is equally inventive in its funding. Most architecture firms earn revenue for service fees on the buildings they create. “The BIG Idea here is that since architecture is always suffering from being one-off, we can’t really scale in the same way that a technology company or a product company can,” Ingels says. “From a business point of view, we get a consultant fee as architects, and in the case of BIG Ideas, we also take equity in the projects we’re involved in. That offers more long term opportunities.”


Funding for BIG Ideas comes via different sources: Company investment, like those early stage prototypes of the generator; through additional services for projects, like daylighting studies and energy modeling; and via royalties on the products that they’re inventing. It’s yet one more way BIG is figuring out how to move from concept to conception.

“There’s a lot of good ideas out there, but to execute and make them real, that’s the big jump,” Loudrup says. “And they’ve mastered that.”

About the author

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson has been writing about architecture, design, and cities for nearly two decades. A former editor with Co.Design, her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Metropolis, and many others