A Way Forward (II)

A bit of a follow up from a post from September 2010.

I’ve been watching a TV series – online – produced by Channel 4 in the UK called Grand Designs. Most of the episodes seem to be about modernist architecture – oh, that’s right, I’m supposed to use the word ‘uncompromising’ to describe that stuff. Frankly I’m sick of these glass, concrete and steel boxes with their flat leaky roofs, and more than few Grand Designs I have turned off after hearing the introduction. The following episode however was a most welcome antidote:

It reminded me of the experience many years back of building a pole shed which eventually became a cob cottage. Compared to many of the other episodes in the series, where couples drop £300,000, 400,000, even £750,000 on their assorted housing dreams (which invariably become extremely stressful build experiences), the ‘woodsman’, Ben Law, a fellow who earns his living by coppicing trees and making charcoal in the forest, created a lovely spacious home for his family in less than a year with his bare hands using poles straw, and stones, all for £25,000 and no mortgage.

Timber, clay, straw, stone:  these are the materials that connect to sustainable architecture. These are the materials which connect a human build to the natural world. These are the materials which are light on the land, easy to modify,  relatively easy to shape and manipulate.

Reflecting further on modernist architecture, one can have a hot or a cold reaction to the way it looks – people like what they like to a certain extent though it’s hard to deny that a certain amount of marketing comes into play in terms of shaping opinions – but what clearly separates it from traditional building practice based on pattern and precedent is modernist architecture’s treatment of, and reliance upon, materials. Not so much in terms of which materials are used, though invariably they are largely high-tech industrially-produced non-local high embedded energy materials which invariably offer low recyclability at the end of their life cycle, but in terms of the fact that the very way modernist structures are often designed involves an utter reliance upon materials to do the job of keeping people warm and dry. A job, I might add, once a shared task between materials and geometry, with geometry being the more crucial aspect. By ‘geometry’ I refer both to the angles in which pieces are arranged and their spatial relationships to one another.

The flat roof relies upon a rubberized membrane  to keep the water out, as a flat surface’s geometry does not tend to drain water especially quickly. And if that membrane is not perfectly installed, if the contractor was in a hurry and perhaps cut a few corners, if a piece of flashing doesn’t quite fit properly, if environmental conditions at the time of install were not totally favorable, or a later bit of work on the roof involved some change with a component attached to that roof, like swapping in a new air conditioner, then failure is likely in that roof sooner rather than later. And when such a failure occurs, the result is invariably rather catastrophic. Most people want a roof to keep the weather out, not allow water to pour down their sheetrock and drip onto the dining table. And yet they think a flat roof is a safe bet? Are they nuts? Or was Frank Lloyd Wright correct when he quipped, “If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough“? When the owner of the building continued complaining about the roof leak, Wright said: “That’s how you can tell it’s a roof” (see the article in Architecture. November 1989: Fixing Fallingwater’s Flaws). Perhaps architects aren’t interested in technical quality, just in how it looks? Naw, that’s a crazy theory.

Now, with a conventional pitched roof there are equal opportunities for shoddy installation and sub-standard materials, adverse installation conditions and so forth, but at least the geometry of the roof – it is sloped – encourages most of the water to run off.

Similarly, many modernist boxes, uncompromising as they surely are, have no eaves to speak of, and thus the walls bear the full brunt of the weather. Again the same issues affecting the quality of installation of those walls are a significant factor. So, premature degradation of those walls, increased likelihood of water ingress, and increased maintenance costs are the almost inevitable result. Many of these modernist cubes now have their walls planked in wood, which seems like an especially fancy way to put wood out to rot. How long is that going to last? The old sawmill across the street from where I used to live had pine planks on the exterior walls over 125 years old – and it had eaves.

Another aspect to this reliance upon materials in modernist architecture comes into play when you have designs featuring large expansive flat surfaces – like most of the walls, inside and out. When the surface is monochromatic and large, it is easy for the eye to spot defects in the flatness of the wall and evenness of the finish, which means that such surfaces present significant technical challenges to both the fabricator. A case in point is the new bus station being built in the town in which I live, an avant garde assemblage:

This building has a lot going for it in many ways, with all the trendy upbeat sounding stuff – Zero Net Energy, low v.o.c. finishes, passive solar, geothermal, low-e glass, etc. And that’s most heart-warming. The upper part of the structure, a bowtie-shaped box, is clad in roughly 2′ x 3′ copper (or copper-anodized aluminum) sheets. In the architect’s rendering, the wall is smooth and presumably reflects light evenly, however in order to achieve that outcome one must fold the edges of such copper sheets very cleanly and carefully and install them without introducing any distortions from either handling or fastening. The surface to which they are to be attached must also be very even, or can be readily adjusted so as to be even and straight. Tough to do. The panels must also make it to site without being dropped off the truck or strapped carelessly to the flat deck of the truck, or thrown over the fence by the Fedex guy.

This ‘perfect’ and ‘ideal’ outcome has not happened during this installation, and the wall, which I observe almost daily on my commute, giving it little more than a quick glance as I cruise by, shows all sorts of wrinkles and irregular reflections, especially when the late afternoon sun is on it. I imagine the architect would be, as least I hope,  frustrated by such an outcome, as it is anything but the coveted sleek, however part of the responsibility lays with architects designing structures with such crisp flat surfaces. It’s pretty hard for humans, especially with tight budgets and rushed construction schedules to produce perfection in installation, however it is not at all hard for humans to spot unruly surfaces. If an entire surface is uneven, it is one thing – like a hand plastered wall shows slight imperfections and undulations – but a wall that is supposed to be dead flat looks like a mess if just a few spots here and there are out of whack.

And so you can see given such outcomes that the choice would be to either specify surfaces which are inherently more variegated, or to find more sophisticated industrial methods to produce ‘perfect’ materials ever less reliant upon the skill of the installer to put in correctly. And that latter choice seems to have become the reflex. And of course the less reliant one becomes on skilled craftsmanship, the less on tends to need skilled craftsmanship, and the few skilled craftspeople there are over time. Many appear to have either starved to death clinging to principles, or became installers.

I think there is something wrapped up in the modernist ideal of some sort of gleaming sleek technological future we all must move towards, a future filled with marvelous materials that pop out of the lab on a weekly basis and find their way into buildings. And if this one fails there’s sure to be another one coming out soon that will be even better and more marvelous and chock full of all sorts of benefits.

I’ll grant that some modern materials are quite excellent in various ways, however most are made with the concern of economy above all else. To place such faith in materials when it comes to architecture seems decidedly odd to me – absolutely impractical really. The time proven lesson is that buildings work best when they rely upon geometry to weather the seasons, and not materials – pitched roofs, eaves, solid foundations, quality flashing and roofing materials, and so forth. Materials are important but it is more how we arrange them that counts.

6 Replies to “A Way Forward (II)”

  1. Hi Chris,
    Interesting post. Taking that bus station as a case in point, we have similar examples in the UK where the technology of the design seems to have expected too much from the people expected to build the structure.

  2. Chris,

    What an incredible video, thanks for sharing this.
    Sorry to miss you when I stopped by your shop recently, I'll be back out that way again.


  3. Hi Chris,

    You have described to perfection the type of house I was marginally involved in three years ago. It was such a befuddling experience. The ultra-modern architect had no connection to our climate and the flat roofs, box on box, and scuppers plumb with the siding and facing the prevailing west wind caused problems immediately. Leaks, siding degrading and popping off… his aesthetic was so rigid that no “real life” compromises could be entertained. He designed large vanities that were supposed to “float”, with just air space beneath them, no plinth or kick plate, but clad seamlessly in very heavy sheet and composite materials, and without detailing to the builder the need for beefy provisions in the framing. There could not be one single curve anywhere. Everything was based on planes. No circular knobs to drawers, etc. And, oh, it was “Industrial” so plywood shelves and drawer sides were left plain and not lipped in any way.

    I couldn't wait to get out of there. The builder lost his shirt.

  4. I enjoyed that episode. Even in the medium of TV Ben's personality comes shining through.

    On the subject of wood vs. steel & glass, have you seen the modern torii gate at Kanazawa train station? It is quite the example of a visually rich piece set against a cold backdrop.

    It has some interesting features, such as the curvilinear roof built like a torsion box. Also interesting are the posts, each of which alone are not in equilibirum, but together exert an equal and opposite bending moment on the roof due to their spiral form. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the design.


  5. Rob,

    yes, an all to-common situation these days. There are two choices it would seem – the level of the craftspeople has to go up, while industry generally tries to avoid those sort of investments, or the complexity of the materials needs to go down, which architects seem to avoid.


    yes I'm sorry I missed you visit last week and hopefully we'll catch you the next time your in the area. Glad you enjoyed the video!


    well, that sounds like a very familiar story. I suggest you check out more of those Grand Designs videos where you'll see similar things happen. Sometimes the architects are pushing unrealistic things (and since few of them actually do more than draw it's no surprise they are, by and large, alienated from the materials and assemblies they specify), and sometimes the clients are pushing unrealistic things as well, especially on the time and money fronts.


    I posted pictures of that gate on this blog a couple of years back. It is NOT, I might say a 'torii'. Those gates go in front of shrines or the approach paths to shrines. The gate you link to is in front of a train station. In Japan, that gate is actually called a tsuzumi-mon (鼓門), the word 'tsuzumi' meaning 'drum'. It's a 'drum-shaped' gate. I think the columns are supposed to represent a pair of large drums, and the top piece the sound waves emanating from the drum (it's my guess). It's a remarkable structure and a testament to 3D CAD design work.


  6. Chris,

    You mentioned that the level of the crafts people has to go up:

    With regard to home building one of the reasons I stopped working on houses is that where I lived prior to resettling in Mass all the high level craftspeople were tied up working for clients with a lot of money who simply wanted the house to look good and were not at all interested in the work these craftsmen were doing. The level of their expertise went mostly unnoticed by the clients. The craftsman were simply trying to make a living, and feed their families, which is difficult in these times. I admire a client that will look at a piece of my furniture, pull out a drawer to see how it works, if the dovetails were hand made, admire the joinery, try a door, and smile. I need no other justification to do things right and honor the craft.
    This is the primary reason I enjoyed that video so much.
    Thanks again,

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