What Do We Know? // Jason Barker
Abstract: Architects are charged with being experts in various fields of construction, building and universal design. As architecture students, we have acquired much of the knowledge of design and some knowledge of construction, but partaking in actual construction is the best way to increase our knowledge of it. It is through the experience of building ourselves that we not only make better sense of things that we were cognizant of, but also exposes us to knowledge that we were not aware of previously. This comes through the tactile experience as well as experience with new tools and collaboration with other construction specialists.
Audience: Future design-build students and current students of architecture.
"What Do We Know?"
Now that we as students of architecture have gone through over 4 years of training in our chosen field, we can say that there are some things that we just know, because of repeated experience or research. For instance, we know different methods for basic design such as geometry, form types, alignment, repetition, symmetry and asymmetry, and aesthetic principles. We can quickly orient ourselves with plans and sections and the order in which a set of construction documentation tells the story of a building project. We understand the importance of diagrams which break down design ideas into simple images which anyone should be able to understand with little to no insider knowledge. We understand the importance of making a solid argument for any design decision along with following our intuition for exceptional design.
We can also likely claim that our knowledge is limited due to the circumstances we’ve yet to experience through apprenticeship or further research, which are things that we know that we do not know. We know that there is a world outside of this university where architecture happens but we still do not fully know how it happens. We know that there are hundreds of different ways to create a building enclosure as long as they consist of structure, thermal control, vapor control, air control and rain control layers, but we still don’t know the specifics to all of them. We know that there are a multitude of building materials which can be selected but we still don’t know all of the properties to them or how they are best used.
But also as young designers, with limited experience in construction and building, there are many things that we are unaware that we do not know. Edmond Bacon, the urban planner and father of famed Kevin Bacon, once said that “it’s in the doing that the idea comes”, and similarly it is in the doing that knowledge is gained. Though we have gained much knowledge and understanding through academics, we have yet to scratch the surface of what it means to be an architect, and our design-build duplex has revealed this clearly.
Now that we are at the construction stage, we are having to go back through our construction documents to physically create our virtual ideas. Designers use plans and sections as a way to show details in assemblies. A section through building materials is one way to show all of the parts of an assembly quickly and in a way that shows the most detailed information using the smallest drawing space. However, a section still only shows a limited amount of information. It cannot depict what happens at corner conditions, when items have to transition into another direction. It can’t always depict the different angles of how things meet together and if parts of the assembly need to be fashioned or connected in order to make transitions.
Mockup of flashing pieces converging on the corner of the project’s walls, gable and eave. This exercise of experimentation with material, fabrication and assembly, which is often unsightly, provides an understanding of how to improve design ideas.
For instance, flashing is typically designed using profiles. However, profiles do not explain how different pieces of flashing come together, connect or fasten. This is especially the case when there are different angles involved such as the corner where an eave, gable and walls come together. Our design group has had to perform various full scale mockups of building assemblies in order to gain this knowledge, as well as provide some practice for the final full scale duplex.
Once you actually build these assemblies, you become exposed to the tools and methods that are required to make connections and fasten them together. This gives you a completely different set of knowledge of things to think about when it comes to designing assemblies. It can be easy to draw sections or 3-demensional images of an ideal building condition, but if the tools do not exist or are unable to move or work in a needed way, then the ideal conditions may be difficult, if not impossible to create.
This again can be exemplified by the creation of metal flashing. Metal flashing is easy to come by pre-made, but is often a large visual element to the façade of a metal building, but we chose to design our own to make it slimmer and more visually appealing. Flashing is created by putting strips of sheet metal into a machine called a sheet metal brake. This machine is a large, linear clamp which has another long piece of metal connected below the clamp by a hinge that can be leveraged to fold the sheet metal. The problem with this tool is that it can only bend the sheet metal so far and too many bends can cause the sheet metal to fold back onto itself which makes some profiles impossible to make. Not having the experience with this process can be a problem for designers.
Another level of knowledge is held by the experts of specific building techniques and materials. Since we, the students, are expected to build the affordable duplex which we designed, we have relied heavily on building contractors and construction crews to teach us how to build and provide us with knowledge that we could not obtain otherwise. A designer can obtain a great deal of knowledge from building mockups of the ideas which he or she devises, but the “tricks of the trade” or shortcuts can enhance the creation of building conditions. This could be a tool that is used differently than expected or trade secrets that are only revealed through time and experimentation in each specific building condition. This is why a designer should take the extra time to consult the experts for secrets which can greater enhance the design as well as prevent unexpected problems in construction from designing assemblies without fully understanding the construction methods.
From being on the construction site, many of us have learned another issue is that drawing ideal designs does not allow for a margin of error which is expected in actual construction. This is a result of human error in measuring and cutting as well as imperfections in the materials themselves. Construction workers are used to this problem and have their own proprietary knowledge on how to improvise solutions. No amount of design consideration or extra time spent can fully prevent this from happening. This can result in another serious problem in construction which we currently have little knowledge of: change orders!
As we soon progress into the next phase of our careers, we will be exposed to a world of knowledge that we did not know that we didn’t know. It is expected that the experience we have gained from building a real construction project will increase our understanding of what we know and cause us to think more critically when we get there.
Written by Jason Barker