Holding It Together // Nick Kratz
During the first few weeks of class we were told that we would be asked to do things we’d never done before—tasks we weren’t prepared for; some level of failure was inevitable. Hardware and finish selection (while very different independently) can make or break a project of any size. The issue is particularly relevant to us, we have little to no experience creating assemblies that actually work and now must rapidly make choices on crucial joints in all of our projects. Architecture theory and practice find common ground in the expression of the joint—how do two different pieces come together? Architects and historians like Kenneth Frampton, Colin Rowe, Marco Frascari and many others have devoted their lives to exploring the larger implications of a “simple” detail. An excerpt from Frascari’s “The Tell-the-Tale Detail” reinforces the idea that the joint has both theoretical and empirical properties—materials and the things that hold them together are the lynch pin to all design: “In the details are the possibilities of innovation and invention, and it is through these that architects can give harmony to the most uncommon and difficult or disorderly environment generated by a culture.” A finely crafted detail can replace the need for ornamentation (according to Louis Kahn), and Frampton argues that architecture begins and ends with the tectonic.
With much to aspire to and realize (in both senses), we have begun the fragile process of detailing our projects. Joining this with that has become one of the most prevalent issues in Seaton 109. So, you want to hang that flat-stock material on that tube steel—okay, but what does that actually look like? And more importantly, how does it reinforce the overall idea? Hidden connections, exposed connections, adjustable connections, corrosion resistance . . . the list goes on. There are a seemingly never ending number of options to choose from, so as students we come by the trial and error process honestly.
Week one of prototyping came around, we were excited to get going on the build, glad to be out of the computer and into the hardware store. We loosely drafted a list of parts, feeling pretty confident that we knew exactly what we needed. 15 minutes into wandering the aisles, Cory, Jared and I looked at each other knowing that we were in trouble. Not only were we not finding anything we “needed” but we couldn’t really say that it all even existed. Did we just make up parts? Do they even make a flat head socket cap screw in fine thread that is not covered in whatever that yellow stuff is (later to find out that yellow stuff is “zinc-chromate”, a protective coating)? What’s the difference between Grade 5 and 8, and is that trucker we asked about it believable? We ended up leaving frustrated, confused, but hopeful that the next store would have a better selection. No such luck was had that day. In general big box stores are entities trading convenience for quality and variety (who knew?).
Green as we were, the parts we ended up with either didn’t fit together or weren’t remotely right for what we wanted to do. Hardware usually either works or it doesn’t. With our (imaginary, student) 1/64th” tolerances it all had to line up just so. When we finally discovered that McMaster Carr’s online catalog was our friend, the struggle wasn’t as uphill, but the decision to pick A over B, C, or D was still there and the learning curve was still bending us into shape. Lucky for us, we had a prototyping budget that allowed for all our floundering. After mocking up 3 overly complicated ways to attached an oak top to a piece of steel, we landed on one that has an elegant piece of hardware but remains visibly simple. We found out the hard way that t-nuts have a directionality, put them in wrong and the pallet you wanted to stay in the air will end up on your foot. The best drilled holes of students seldom (read: never) line up—they will need to be oversized posthaste, and now washers and bigger cap screws must be overnighted.
Once the joint is resolved, as in has some way to adjust for slop, is visually appealing, reinforces the concept, doesn’t break the budget, and won’t take 7 weeks to get from an exotic location, said “stuff” that was connected needs to be finished. New questions arise to complicate things further. How durable, soft, hard, flexible, colorful, or natural does the finish need to be? The issue of how it will be used, the programming, comes into full effect here—architects must be able to foresee problems and opportunities. However, students tend to lack the years of experience necessary to know how finishes really work. It is not simply an erudite issue, to truly know how yellow polyurethane can get you have to use it—and wait 5 years. This semester we have relied heavily on the wisdom of our mentors, and any live examples of relevant finishes we could find. Information can be a tricky thing. Using skewed, biased or just blatantly wrong sources for information is easy to do if you aren’t paying attention. Not only are we on a quest for the right advice, but we have to guard ourselves from bad (or misleading) data. At one point we were told to use these massive elevator bolts to hold our desks down, we ignored this opinion because they are bulky, ugly connections—even though they technically would have worked. Experienced tradespeople have been doing things a certain way for a long time, which is both valuable and dangerous. Design shticks need to be spotted and judged quickly. We are constantly making sure the advice we get is right, having multiple sources has never been more valuable.
Conversations often start with knowing smiles from our professors and critics, then end with us fishing for the information they want us to discover ourselves. Holding our heads above water is a constant job, the trial and error process of discovering that a finish won’t work out can be nerve wracking. As we finalize the design decisions and start “making”, which grey paint to use, what kind of wood filler, how smooth pallets are, and sequencing everything have come to the forefront of our minds. The gravity of our decisions becomes very real, as such, testing finishes has been useful--we poured an epoxy resin over our reclaimed oak top and found that it was definitely not the way to go. The glossy surface didn’t let the wood breath, pitted where there used to be nails, and made our desks look like tables at a sports bar. Not exactly elegant. Paint takes forever to coat a pallet by hand, is the spray booth the way to go or can we not afford it? Will our powdercoat reveal too many welding and grinding defects? These things and more we will continue to test as the semester comes to a close.
Becoming an architect takes years for a reason. There is simply too much information to know; what hardware to use and finish to select are just a few examples of things that take years of experience to get right. Diving in headfirst with guidance from el dorado and other experienced fabricators has given us a glimpse of what we may end up doing for years to come. The crucial end-user experience is facilitated by the smallest details-—what they see and come in contact with. A table surface that’s easily written on or a steel frame that shapes a space into something inhabitable can make all the stress and heartache worth it. We now have, at least to some degree, first hand experience with intentionally shaping details to meet a certain need. The tectonics of our system are repeated in many places; the parts and pieces are beginning to act as a cohesive whole. In our case specifically, we had to decide which joints to expose (creating mystery) and which to reveal. We drew them one way, but ended up changing things once the welds were complete and the washers in place. Everything is easier on paper.
Written by Nick Kratz