ELEVATION: Raising the Bar for CRTKL’s Digital Innovation
Elevation is a collection of stories, thought leadership, and unique experiences from CRTKL’s Design Technology Group (DTG) on the frontlines of architecture, engineering, and design (AEC).
Growing up, my parents happily helped cultivate my interest in science by gifting me an entry-level telescope on my 11th birthday. Emphasis on ‘entry-level’–later in life, I would realize the large sums expert hobbyists sink into their equipment. Another aspect of my childhood that helped foster this curiosity was growing up in relatively high altitude, semi-rural Veradale, WA (a suburb east of Spokane) — which made for clear, dark nights perfect for easily spotting globular clusters and observing crisp views of craters on the moon with my telescope. Years later, I would develop a fascination with photography and gain a better understanding of optics and digital photo editing techniques that would resurrect my early cosmic curiosity. Only now, I see that my very profession may inadvertently be preventing curious young minds from appreciating the cosmos as the built environment expands and increasingly bleaches our night skies.
As an architectural designer and now as a Simulation Lead at CRTKL, I have been lucky to work on a wide range of domestic commercial projects and put my photographic skills to use, albeit in virtual form, by helping create compellingly composed renderings to sell our designs with an emphasis on lighting and materiality. With renderings, the same technical principles apply as with photography. whether toggling exposure settings on a DSLR camera or establishing a focal length, managing lighting and composition. For me, the thrilling part of doing renderings/ is that so many aspects are under my control with few constraints– unlike the real world– where you are limited by what is already built and their materials: which lights you have available, or the weather conditions in the field, etc. I sought to imbue designers with these same possibilities when I helped conduct ‘Render Royale’ competitions across some of our offices. During these events, I covered techniques for improving lighting and materials in order to create fun 80’s inspired synth-wave renderings. Beyond VR and AR, a static rendering with thoughtful lighting and composition can infuse an image with a narrative and mood– beyond a straight-out-of-the-can Enscape rendering with flat sunlight set to Noon. This knowledge of lighting and composition has proven useful with my foray into astrophotography over the years: a hobby that benefits from attention to detail and precision.
Consumer cameras with large sensors have become increasingly affordable– enabling novice photographers to have similar capabilities that, in previous years, were reserved for high-end professionals. Importantly, camera sensors have now achieved a level of sensitivity that can gather photons from even distant faint stars, galaxies and nebulae–with a few conditions, of course. I eventually dove into this hobby when I first moved to Seattle permanently in 2013, and I reunited with an amateur astronomer on the Olympic Peninsula. With their knowledge of constellations, celestial object locations and my experience with photography, we were able to join forces and learn to capture images the human eye was never able to resolve through optical observation alone.
Imaging deep-sky objects, unfortunately, is not as simple as aiming in a direction and opening the camera shutter. Although cameras today have come a long way, to image deep-sky objects–like a galaxy, for instance– an individual exposure needs to be anywhere from several seconds to a few minutes to gather enough light. Our spherical planet is spinning on its axis and, while we stand on its surface, we are racing across the geologic center of Earth in exceeding hundreds of miles per hour (several, depending on your latitude) and, since each exposure crucially depends on compensating for our axial rotation, using specifically made electronically controlled rotating mounts that match the movement of the night sky. As it turns out, our position on the planet also plays a large role in the setup process when setting up for an imaging session, as well.
To achieve stable exposures of a few minutes each, German Equatorial Mounts, like the one I use, feature a mini telescope that must be aimed precisely at Polaris: The North Star. After leveling the mount and setting its angle to my latitude, Polaris must then be targeted by looking through an integrated optical piece and adjusting the alignment so that the star sits precisely in the reticle. This is called ‘Polar Aligning.’ Online guides provide exact locations on the ring it must be placed since ‘Planetary North’ varies because of Earth’s axial precession (imagine a wobbling top). As you imagine, the level of precision needed is quite high in this process– akin to how our work as architectural designers depends on such accuracy and thoughtfulness. Only, instead of careful drawings of details and modeling designs precisely, these steps involve careful setup with limited illumination.
After a successful night of gathering data, the next step involves ‘stacking’ and further processing the photos. By combining dozens of photos into one, the software can average out noise, sensor defects and even optical imperfections which can yield colorful detailed images of deep-sky objects. The techniques towards the end of the process are the same ones used by designers to hone in on the desired appearance of renderings. Fortunately, even the new Affinity Photo program CRTKL has begun adopting has recently released a fully integrated astrophotography function to make stacking multiple astrophotos even simpler.
With so much precision needed in the setting-up process, additional hindrances when shooting astrophotography are the factors that are out of one’s control– such as the weather, the Moon’s phase and the amount of light pollution. Living in the Pacific Northwest near sea level, we are not accustomed to many clear nights. All too often, it seems like treasured clear nights coincide with a bright Moon– which drowns out the dark backdrop of the night sky, thus diminishing the detail that can be gathered. Increasingly, the hindrances are human-made: like the distant glow of the city lights or a nearby illuminated parking lot.
Veteran astronomers would use filters to counteract the glow from sodium vapor streetlamps. Unfortunately, this old trick is becoming obsolete as these types of lights are increasingly being phased out for a broader spectrum and highly lauded energy-efficient LED lights. The problem is that ‘white’ light from these fixtures cannot be filtered out anymore, since the spectrum of light they emit is broad and varied. Much to my disappointment, in Seattle, these newly installed streetlights are obscenely bright– necessitating the need for my car’s sun visor during night drives to counteract the glare.
As the stewards of the built environment, we can steer designs towards a direction away from the equivalent of Baroque lighting and Times Square screens at every commercial center and towards a more responsible illumination level across the built environment. There is also value in the perspective of appreciating and pondering our relative size in the universe. Although the scale of our immediate galactic neighborhood is vast, with dark clear nights, observant people can notice a growing constellation of satellites but increasingly cluttered low-earth orbit above. This perspective can prove to be a valuable mirror to our responsibility as designers– helping steer the direction of how the built environment evolves. There is also the question of social equity– as not everyone can pack up for the weekend get away from the city to enjoy dark skies.
Another threat to astrophotography (and even other scientific fields like radio-astronomy) are the growing constellations of low-earth satellites– promising to bring high-speed internet to even the least developed rural locations. The infrastructure for each competing system involves launching tens of thousands of satellites to blanket the planet with radio waves transmitting high-speed internet. Unfortunately, the nascent system being developed by SpaceX is already interfering with the night sky. I, myself, was able to photograph the bright parade of these satellites recently while writing this piece. Fortunately, SpaceX leader Elon Musk has shown interest in heeding peoples’ concerns over the brightness of the new product in the night sky.1 The irony is that these new satellite constellations, which promise to connect the world together with seemingly unlimited data, are now threatening to interfere with emerging camera technology that is democratizing the ability to capture the cosmos.
Thankfully, there is growing awareness of the light pollution issue– thanks to the International Dark-Sky Association, which provides valuable resources for anyone interested in learning about efforts to mitigate humanity’s impact on the night sky2. Beyond astrophotography, there are many positive impacts to birds and other wildlife if we can bring about a darker night sky. Perhaps one goal might be to coordinate a new ‘Dark-Sky Night’ holiday, where city officials and businesses can plan a black-out where city dwellers, perhaps for the first time, witness the Milky Way galaxy and point out constellations that inspired humanities for centuries– before artificial lighting has forced us to look down at an illuminated sidewalk while our feet bathe in brilliant, artificial light– washing out the night sky with an impenetrable and opaque haze of light pollution filtering out the stars.
To see more examples of astrophotography Orlando has captured over the years, go to his gallery.
To listen to a podcast covering more of the debate between growing satellite constellations and astronomy, see here.
CRTKL’s Design Technology Group (DTG) is a team dedicated to advancing every aspect of the firm’s technological and digital capabilities. This team is integral to the success of existing project work and client ventures, but they are also focused on future horizons. Not only does the DTG promote advanced methodologies and processes for traditional architecture services, but they are exploring what the future of our practice and profession will be.