Architecture, innovation, and sustainability:  
Q&A with Katrin Foerster

Architecture, innovation, and sustainability: Q&A with Katrin Foerster

ABB’s widely acclaimed ‘Frozen Music’ video series showcases inspirational buildings around the world and the architectural philosophy behind each one. Katrin Foerster, ABB’s Global Key Account Manager for Architects and Interior Designers, explains how the project came about, what sustainable architecture means, and how ABB’s Smart Building solutions contribute to enhanced building efficiency.

Katrin, what is your role at ABB, how did it start, and how has it changed during the past decade?

When I started in 2012 and until now, my remit has been to make ABB and our product portfolio more visible in the building industry. As there was no predecessor in my role, being dropped in the deep end was both exciting and frustrating, as most architects weren’t familiar with our name. I madly went to exhibitions and visited architectural offices in person, but soon realized that to engage successfully we really needed a new approach. Sitting down and describing our more complex technologies can end up being rather dry!

Katrin Foerster,
Global Key Account
Manager for
Architects and
Interior Designers
Katrin Foerster, Global Key Account Manager for Architects and Interior Designers

We opted to change tack to becoming more of an industry champion, rather than just another supplier encroaching on architects’ precious time. We started supporting major industry gatherings and awards as headline partner – however, rather than sponsors, we see ourselves more as partners to the delegates at these events, which is an important distinction. This new approach paid off as interest in our portfolio has grown immensely. We’re also proud to be supporting a forthcoming book on the life work of Sir Peter Cook RA, founder of the Archigram group.

Moving on to Frozen Music, what was the impetus for the project and what’s in the name?

In a nutshell, Covid-19. The pandemic slammed on the brakes in March 2020 and put us all in lockdown. We desperately needed a new channel to show we are an enduring partner for our existing contacts while also growing new leads. Our solution was an online video series for architects that would introduce buildings of a high standard from all over the world. Giving architects the opportunity to feature their work despite the pandemic we understood would be of real value. Steering clear of a purely commercial approach in favor of thought leadership also demonstrated ABB’s ability to adapt to a challenging situation.

Katrin Foerster (right) and colleague Coralie Bordeaux
Katrin Foerster (right) and colleague Coralie Bordeaux

As for the name, it is thanks to German polymath and author Goethe, who described music as liquid architecture and architecture as Frozen Music. It has proven to be a catchy title for the video series, which has also been quite disruptive to ABB´s usual approach so far.

Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

How did you go about producing the videos and what are Frozen Music’s key values?

The format enabled us to work right through lockdown; we haven’t traveled anywhere. Everything is organized online in cooperation with the architects, who have been extraordinarily open and enthusiastic all the way. They own the footage that they kindly share with us. Ever since our first project featuring Darcies Mews in London, every new episode has made it easier to get traction with other architects.

For each episode, we draw up a questionnaire designed to bring out the ‘essence’ of the building. It’s enlightening to find out what architects themselves think is important, from the client brief to shaping the design in context. We then develop a script to get over this key message in a way that is concise and easy to digest, and with good flow for optimal delivery.

Shooting, which is our biggest expense, takes place here in Bremen, Germany. We’ve kept the budget right down by renting designer furniture from two local shops, I wear my own outfits, and the flowers are from our kitchen tables! I also write the social media texts for each episode and the newsletter, which our in-house marcoms people put together. It’s great teamwork.

One of our key values is diversity. We try to cover the whole spectrum from star architects to small regional offices, as well as many different building types. Another is how sustainable design is future-proofing building performance. All of them feature different ABB-installed solutions that contribute to their success. In this way we can elegantly include our portfolio and how our products, from building automation to EV charging and emergency lighting, are embedded in the ‘storyline’ of each building, not as the lead but as supporting cast.

How do you think Frozen Music reflects this year’s Generations theme ‘Harnessing the Power of Change’?

There are two aspects. Firstly, architecture is itself harnessing the power of change by incorporating technology that supports the transition towards net zero, while the videos clearly show how the power of architecture is helping to make the world a better place. Secondly, Frozen Music has harnessed the power of change brought on by the pandemic; we found a way to turn adversity into an advantage.

What attention has Frozen Music been getting and how will it develop in the future? 

We have received very positive and encouraging feedback from architects. The videos are perfect references for ABB’s global presence and architecturally relevant products. They are also the first step in creating a combined communication tool bringing together Electrification, Motion, and Robotics with a focus on architects. They also seem to have morphed into a public good as they are being watched by architecture fans outside the industry.

Frozen Music Episode #3:The 16th century coastal gate tower Fat Margaret in Tallinn was extensively renovated to house the Estonian Maritime Museum. Innovative interior design by KOKO architects.
Frozen Music Episode #3:The 16th century coastal gate tower Fat Margaret in Tallinn was extensively renovated to house the Estonian Maritime Museum. Innovative interior design by KOKO architects.

We did one episode monthly during Covid and there will be one about every two months from now on. The latest episode introduced the incredible Raffles City Chongqing by Safdie Architects in China, and now we are working on one featuring the brand-new ROCK Radisson Red hotel by INNOCAD on the Danube waterfront in Vienna. After that we would love to devote episodes to a Powerhouse building in Norway by Snøhetta, the Museum of the Future in Dubai by Killa Design, and many others ABB has played a role in. To add to the diversity in the form of a ‘floating’ building, we also plan to dedicate an episode to a luxury cruise ship featuring many innovative components from ABB Marine & Ports, which supplies electric, digital, and connected technologies designed to improve the sustainability and performance of shipping worldwide.

How does Frozen Music fit in with your other engagement activities, and what have you got out of it personally?

It matches perfectly. The videos are displayed at the big conferences, festivals, and live events we support, as well as major ABB events like Formula-E races. They have also been subtitled in 14 different languages for localized ABB campaigns. Each episode newsletter includes further information on the ABB products involved. 

On a personal level, the project has brought a completely new facet to my role. I’d never presented before, so it’s been an exciting learning process. Some of the first takes were demanding, but I constantly try to improve.

Finally, can you elaborate briefly on sustainable architecture and how it is being achieved in practice?

Good modern architecture focuses on many parallel aspects to create a sustainable building, and how to do more with smaller environmental footprint. Everything starts with a holistic design approach considering regional, climatic, social, and functional impacts, and what new sustainable materials and smart technologies are available. Of course, architects have to work within certain parameters, but many try to influence clients in favor of sustainable solutions. Green certification standards like BREEAM and LEED are also pushing the boundaries of building performance.

Including nature is also becoming an essential part of public space planning and some buildings now feature up to 30 percent of the building mass covered by vegetation. Architecture has undergone a sea change in this respect.

The key sustainability innovation shaping the construction industry today, certainly from our perspective, are digital solutions that help to measure, control, and automate building functions to lower energy consumption while at the same time enhancing the comfort and safety of users. Architects today are much more interested in these kinds of ‘smart’ solutions than even a few years ago, and how they can help to reach their goals in design and building function while reducing energy consumption and costs, and minimizing the environmental footprint.

The building industry is also beginning to leverage the huge potential of robotic automation to enhance productivity, efficiency, and manufacturing flexibility throughout the construction process – such as in the fabrication of modular homes, robotic welding, autonomous installations systems, materials handling on building sites, and 3D printing of houses and customized structures. Here ABB Robotics is playing a leading role in innovating new solutions that contribute to sustainable buildings and lowering construction costs – which is worth an episode in itself.

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