How Cobe future-proofs its designs and way of working with new digital processes

Spacemaker Team
Spacemaker Team May 23, 2022 10 min read
Rendering of an entrance square to a large, historic brick building.

Executive summary

The future is always present in the work of architects and urban planners, but what does it look like? And what does it mean to future-proof a city, landscape or building? For award-winning Danish practice Cobe, the answer lies in the ‘extraordinary everyday’, be it the simple act of biking or a community-centered approach to urban planning. To achieve more future-proof outcomes, Cobe evolves its early-phase workflow with new digital processes offered by Spacemaker’s data-driven software.

Places and spaces that improve urban life

For Cobe the ‘extraordinary everyday’ is about small and big gestures that elevate people’s experience of their daily life, enable them to make sustainable choices and allow cities to function well so that they make a positive contribution to people’s lives. When spaces are designed with a holistic, long-term view to working well from the outset, chances are they’ll last longer and be cherished by the city and the people using them. In Copenhagen, citizens rarely pass a day without meeting one of Cobe’s projects. Nørreport station, Israels Plads, Krøyers Plads, Orientkaj Metro Station, Nordhavn Masterplan. What connects them is how interwoven they are into the urban fabric and everyday life of the city, bringing together different functions, users and scales of architecture, urban planning and landscape – it feels as if they’ve always been there. 

Nørreport station designed by Cobe and Gottlieb Paludan Architects, photography Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

“When building, we work to achieve sustainability through long lasting, contextual and aesthetic solutions.”

Mads Birgens, Head of Urbanism, Cobe

A playful urban living room for Copenhagen

What does a future-proof space look like? Take Israels Plads for example, which Cobe calls ‘an urban playground for all ages.’ Public space has been a core part of the practice’s work since its founding in 2006. Israels Plads was commissioned in response to the need for more public space as Copenhagen, like many cities today, densifies. As one huge urban living room, the space adapts to the city’s changing needs, from being a schoolyard for three schools to hosting markets and sports activities. Integrated water features that double as play elements help manage excess stormwater during extreme weather to improve the city’s climate resilience. Plus there’s more than ample room for people to just hang out and people watch, necessary activities for every good public space. Importantly, cities designed with the future in mind are better placed to avoid having to be retrofitted later down the line.

Israels Plads designed by Cobe and Sweco Architects, photography Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

“Israels Plads is a good example of the way we want our designs to give something extra back to the city and residents of Copenhagen so they can have a place to be proud of.”

Arendse Steensberg, architect and urban planner, Cobe

Intuitively merging hands-on and digital processes

New tools and processes are essential for Cobe to advance its way of working as ‘a laboratory for architecture’; in particular the team was looking to find intelligent tools for early phase analysis and testing that are easy to use. Using Spacemaker, the team gains a new layer of digital insight from day one. Combined with analogue processes of hand sketching, ideation and making physical models, this enhances the practice’s integrated approach to creating solutions that benefit both people and the city. “We build our projects around strong storylines; getting these qualified early on is important so that we can avoid redoing designs, or be confident that people can enjoy a public space because it has a good microclimate. Spacemaker helps here with the proof of concept. And that’s definitely advanced design which is going to bring us forward in terms of building future-proof architecture,” says Mads Birgens, Head of Urbanism at Cobe.

“We can raise questions early and bring forward challenges that sometimes weren’t addressed earlier because there was an extra cost and process. There’s also potential for a new transparency in the team because everyone can access the same model on the same platform.”

Mads Birgens

Optimizing the early phase in complex urban projects

Many of Cobe’s projects are part of a complex, compact urban setting that brings both opportunities and challenges. Cities need a certain density to allow vibrant urban life but as they continue densifying, it’s vital to find a good balance between the economic side of development and ensuring good living conditions for residents. Cities need the resilience to weather the consequences of climate change, and each neighborhood and street has its own microclimate. Especially, the early phase of a project poses a dilemma for many architects and urban planners because it often involves low budgets and tight deadlines but generates the most value. In addition, urban projects involve a multitude of stakeholders. “There are so many different perspectives of what is actually the right city to build here; these conflicts are part of the process of every urban plan,” says Birgens. Given this complexity he believes it’s all the more important to invest wisely at the early phase to create a strong basis for the practice’s long-term approach. “So the more effective we can be in the early phase, the better designs we can do,” he adds.

The Silo, photography by Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

“Spacemaker is an amazing tool for the early phase because we can do quick tests of design ideas and prove their qualities, both in terms of microclimate studies like wind and sun but also for noise and many other parameters. It’s an obvious tool to use especially within urban planning and when shaping building volumes. I think this process is a fantastic opportunity to derive better projects early on.”

Mads Birgens

Testing Spacemaker’s data-driven approach

The masterplan for Vridsløse, an adaptive reuse project in Albertslund, was well suited for working with Spacemaker’s early-phase focus. Developed by A. Enggaard, PKA and Freja Ejendomme, the project transforms an iconic jail (built in 1859) near Copenhagen into a vibrant, green cultural and residential district, adding much-needed new dwellings to the city. Cobe’s masterplan opens up the enclosed site to the people and the city, with a new identity that draws on Vridsløse’s distinct heritage and nature on the 160,000m2 site. Reuse is always prioritized at Cobe to give the disused historic buildings a second life. The team used Spacemaker to help with two main aspects at Vridsløse: optimizing the density and living qualities of the two most compact neighborhoods; and iterating the design of the public spaces using the environmental analyses. 

Vridsløse masterplan. Existing and new buildings are integrated in the urban fabric. Courtesy of Cobe

Communities come first
The masterplan comprises six neighborhoods, all with different characteristics, building types and densities. Set in a new public park, the neighborhoods feature varying public spaces from a central park that connects the existing nature to intimate courtyards. “Thinking in communities was such an important part of designing this masterplan,” says Arendse Steensberg, architect and urban planner. “With a wide mix of residents, Vridsløse will become a lively place to live in.” Needless to say, it was essential to get the public spaces right. First, the team used Spacemaker to check their overall conditions across the whole site, validating their assumptions about good sun and wind conditions, for example around the existing panopticon jail building. Using the noise analyses, the team could flag potentially problematic areas near the surrounding roads.
The former prison wings will be transformed into housing, and the people’s park will be accessible for both residents and the rest of the city. Courtesy of Cobe
The neighborhood square in Karrékvarteret. Courtesy of Cobe

“When designing the public spaces, the team was very focused on creating the best possible microclimate conditions. We used Spacemaker to check that there would be enough sun throughout the day and places where you’re sheltered from the wind. It has given us an extra layer of analysis and the possibility to make more qualified decisions.” 

 Arendse Steensberg

Proving feasible densities with facts

Adjacent to the railway, the two southernmost neighborhoods are designed to be more compact both as a noise buffer and to support a vibrant urban neighborhood near the train station. Experimenting with multiple design options, the team optimized the courtyard buildings to create more density without compromising the architectural qualities they envisioned and living conditions such as daylight in the dwellings, sun and wind conditions of the public spaces plus views to the park and lake. “When using Spacemaker’s Compare function, you get very concrete numbers,” explains Steensberg. “Being able to see, for example, the exact percentages of sun on the facade and on the ground for each proposal helps you easily compare options to find the best one.” Additionally, testing noise conditions for the buildings bordering the railway also helped the team define the program and consider noise mitigation where necessary.

Sun, daylight and density study - Spacemaker
Sun, daylight and density study of a courtyard in Karrékvarteret. Courtesy of Cobe
Wind analysis - Spacemaker
Wind analysis of Karrékvarteret. Courtesy of Cobe

“Today, you can actually prove whether it’s a good choice or not to create these densities;  Spacemaker is a good tool for qualifying our plan and demonstrating to a client or municipality that a project is too dense or could actually be denser to act as a noise buffer beside the main roads.”

Mads Birgens

Better communication, more confident decisions

Zooming in to analyze particular courtyards, the team could make specific interventions to both, define the architecture and program and improve microclimate conditions. For example, testing different options for one particular square (see below, top image), the team decided to place a slightly higher volume at the edge of the public space. It not only offered more square meters and shelter from the wind but defined the edge of the square more clearly to create a sense of intimacy while keeping sightlines open to the lake. Using a sun analysis for another courtyard (see below, bottom image), the team could clearly show the benefit of positioning the road in the shaded part in the south to free up the sunny square to the north for public functions. “That’s a good example of how Spacemaker has helped the argumentation and it’s been an extremely good communication tool that we have used together with the client,” says Steensberg.

Wind analysis of the neighborhood square in Bindeleddet testing four options. Courtesy of Cobe
Wind analysis of the neighborhood square in Bindeleddet testing four options. Courtesy of Cobe

“This process of making changes in Spacemaker and directly seeing their effect –  that’s new for us. Combined with spatial studies, it’s very powerful. It’s a really good base for decision making and an extra superpower that you get as an architect.”

Arendse Steensberg

A new edge; a new way of working

Designing with wellbeing in mind is nothing new to Cobe who is evolving a long Danish tradition of designing cities and spaces for people. What is new, however, are the digital data- and outcome-driven processes that Spacemaker introduces and that now merge with the practice’s hands-on processes specific to how it works as a laboratory for architecture. This new approach offers the team a wider scope of insights from day one and a new edge to navigate the complex world of urban developments. Resulting in more resilient and future-proof buildings and cities that are a joy for people to live, work and play in today and tomorrow. For Cobe, their work goes beyond only designing for people; rather it’s about design for life in every sense of the word.

“Digital tools are a huge part of this new design culture. Spacemaker is opening new doors all the time. It’s a whole new possibility of creating much better cities and creating much more future-proof designs. I feel like we’ve just begun to explore this new way of working.”

Mads Birgens
The new lake manages rainwater from the area and serves recreational purposes. Pedestrian-, and cycling-, paths are prioritised in the plan. Courtesy of Cobe

Main image: Entrance square in front of the iconic green gate. Courtesy of Cobe

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