Love of the Details, As it Pertains to the Designer
and the Builder // Jacob Pivonka

02/28/2017

Abstract: What makes a good building great?  Can small, thoughtful details define a project?  We say both God and the devil are in the details, but can both be simultaneously true?  How does constant and consistent attention to detail elevate housing into architecture?  What impact do designers, builders and craftsmen have on these details?  In the following discussion, I will offer support on how attention to detail matters in architecture down to the smallest level.  Furthermore, I’ll attempt to explain ways in which the Waldo duplex sets itself apart from other affordable housing options.

 

Audience: Future tenants of the Waldo duplex.  

"Love of the Details, As it Pertains to the Designer and the Builder"

 

There are two common idioms that seemingly contradict each other.  The first states that “the devil is in the details”.  The intent of this phrase is to warn people that mistakes are most often made at the most minute levels and that such mistakes can greatly complicate the effort. Often people tend to get the broader strokes right, however, issues arise when it comes to smaller more intricate parts of whatever task or assignment is at hand – in the present case it is the design and construction of the Waldo Duplex.  

 

The second idiom was made famous by seminal architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.  With his statement, “God is in the details,” he is suggesting that true success and beauty must be obtained through attention to the smallest level of detail and that those tiny executions can drastically change the overall outcome of a project. In essence, these two idioms mean the same thing; details can either make something very good or something very bad.

 

In my opinion, details are what differentiate generic construction from “architecture”. The degree of thoughtful execution found in good architecture is something that will be hard to find in mass-produced, contractor-built homes.  This degree of thoughtful execution is probably the largest reason why there is still a need for small residential architects.  It takes a discerning client and a certain type of architect or architecture firm to care enough to set them apart from the ordinary.  It is the small details included in creativity and thoughtfulness that take time to realize and possibly may not ever be understood without residency.  This creativity and attention to detail can truly set a project apart from its neighbors across the street.

Left: Rendering of the island using HSS 2X1. Further development pushed this to be constructed out of 2x1/2 cold-rolled flatbar.

Right: Final plan, elevations, and axonometric of what was built.

For details to be properly executed, collaboration between architect and builder or craftsmen is paramount.  This synergy is one of the reasons why there has been a movement to combine the two into a single, design-build firm structure.  In such an organization, architects act as their own general contractors, allowing them to have greater control over the end product vs. the more traditional corporate model of design-bid-build.   In the design-bid-build model, a client contracts an architect for design.  The design is then bid on by independent contractors and oftentimes awarded to the lowest bidder. While this is not necessarily a bad system and arguably leaves designers to do what they do best (design), to get the job done right, it also means that a contractor or craftsmen that have similarly unwaveringly high standards for quality of construction.

 

Our studio is diving into the design-build approach.  In our current project, the Waldo Duplex (an affordable housing duplex in Kansas City), we are looking at details in not only a purely functional way but also as they pertain to a thoughtful aesthetics.  I feel that deeper understanding of detail is one of the larger benefits of taking the KSU Design - Make studio.  In my five years of architecture education, I’ve been involved in no other studio that even comes close to approaching the level of dedication and concern for “real world” education with attention to the smaller facets of the project.  Examples include: thoughtful handrail connections, custom cabinetry, island furniture and etc.  While there is a very strong argument for this level of detail being unnecessary in affordable housing, it is invaluable as it pertains to the design educational process.  It’s ironic and somewhat contradictory in that focusing on the small things can lead to a more holistic education process.

 

Now that we are immersed in the construction stage and individual tasks have been assigned, I’m starting to see why there has historically been tension between designer and builder.  This tension is exacerbated because we are involved in both the design and build phases.  As such there the can be some disconnect between how we envisioned the final product, what we can build and just as importantly do we have time to build it.  For instance, the kitchen island, which I am currently working on, can undergo a change that may take three minutes in the computer yet may take hours to properly execute in the shop.  In the role of fabricator, one could start questioning some of our design decisions as they pertain to time and ease of fabrication. From the fabrication side alone, one may be inclined to question whether that change was ever worth it.  As an architecture student, I say “YES” as the builder I say “NO”. For instance I am currently working on the kitchen island. Originally we were planning on using tube steel and MIG (GMAW) welding. However now we are using cold rolled steel flat bar and TIG (GTAW) welding. The first process is easier cheaper and less time-consuming and cumbersome process. However, it’s not an art. To most people this difference, while noticeable, has no meaning. Only a discerning eye would know or care that there is a difference in rigor from the original proposed island to what we have now. More than ever, I now feel the disconnect between the designer and builder in myself as it pertains to details.  Therefore, it is easy to understand why there may be tension between designer and builder in professional roles.  If there is not a constant communication and understanding between the designer and builder, the natural priorities may conflict and the resulting product may be less than desirable.  The competing priorities, requirements and timeframes in the design-bid-build approach are quite possibly why design- build firms have become more popular in the past 10 years.

Written by Jacob Pivonka