Connections

Connections are the biggest challenge of material design.

Sketch of a femur

Sketch of a femur

I like to use a femur to illustrate this concept. Do you see the straight shaft of the bone? Relative to the rest, it is quite simple. Although you wouldn't want it to happen, a femur broken in the middle can heal, maybe with assistance of pins and plates, back to 100% mobility.

Broken joints, on the other hand, are rarely fully restored. Hip replacements can be pretty successful. But the complexity of interfaces between bone, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, bursa sacs and muscles at the other end make full recovery unlikely.

Architectural materials are no different.

Sketch of column parts

Sketch of column parts

A femur is much like a column. Designing a column size is relatively simple work. There are common tables to set the basic sectional dimensions capable of managing a given vertical load.

The real work in structural design is determining how the column's base and capital are connections at its base and the beams it supports. Are they welded or bolted? Are there lateral forces being managed by those connections? How do we manage cracking and settling at the footing? Are the beams resting on top of the column or are they bolted on to its side? Are vertical columns continuing above? Countless more decisions are resolved. Just like in animal structures, failures in building structures are most likely at the connections, too. So designers spend most of their time working out connection details.

The same principle can be seen in materials. Take for example, wood. It is beautiful, but challenging to work because it is unstable. Wood warps and moves even with minor temperature or humidity changes. Much of wood design and craftsmanship involves designing around this temperamental nature.

The slab in the sketch below is a piece of wood that will move a great deal in the vertical direction. Wood is more stable along its length, but perpendicular to the grain movement can be up to a half a percent. You won't notice this... until it cracks.

Sketch of wood joinery

Sketch of wood joinery

Traditionally, wood movement was managed by floating a panel assembly of wood in a frame. The panel, itself a series of pieces sometimes joined by tongue-and-groove joints, floated in grooves carved into the sides of the styles and rails of the frame that held it. The subtle offsets, grooves, mortises, and tenons all do their job to avoid cracking and maintain a well-formed rectangle for the life of the piece.

In fact, the historical name for a woodworker, prior to these engineered wood products, was a joiner. The skill of the craft was artfully assembling solid wood without it coming apart.

Today, we are spoiled by engineered wood products: plywood, particle board, high density fiberboard (hardboard, such as Masonite), medium density fiberboard (MDF), oriented strand board (OSB), melamine (plastic coating), laminates (phenolic-impregnated paper), thin wood veneers, laminated timber (glue-lam, cross-laminated, laminated strand), etc. Modern glues and resins, in combination with the re-orientation of wood fibers, make it more stable.

I venture that all these engineered products have completely spoiled our sensibilities to natural materials. Before engineered wood products, wood was used only in solid form. Thus the qualitative term solid wood, although I'm not sure anybody really comprehends that term these days. Imagine the challenge of putting together cathedral paneling in solid wood with only weak animal hide glues. Outside of the rare craftsman, all the products we see and use today from big box stores, retail furnishing centers, internet merchants, and mass flat pack channels are created from engineered woods.

So, now that all of our wood products are stable, has our understanding of materials warped?

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Property Condition Assessment

rooftop view

rooftop view... behind the scenes of the design process

Pre-purchase investigations and renovations always begin with a visit to the property and a tour of the existing building. The first question I always ask is to obtain any documentation and information available about the facility. But frequently, no drawings exist and little, if anything, about the building is documented.

Not a problem.

I've recently refined and formalized a detailed initial survey and inventory process for an existing building as a Property Condition Assessment (PCA). Having this detailed method gives comfort that we've turned over all the stones and looked systematically for potential pitfalls before the design process. The team looks at everything from the foundation to the roof, the architecture and all the engineered systems in between, and the site beyond.

With a couple of key engineering experts and a contractor to test various budgetary scenarios, clients end up with:

  • visual walk through with the team
  • detailed architectural survey
  • survey plat with known site plan information
  • printed and electronic CAD formats of the surveys
  • building code analysis
  • accessibility analysis
  • interviews of individuals with potential information about the building
  • municipal and authority research for recorded and outstanding problems
  • descriptions of all the systems
  • inventories of all the building equipment
  • summary of any physical deficiencies along a good-fair-poor scale
  • descriptions for remedies of poor conditions needing immediate repair
  • photographic summaries for the systems and findings
  • budgetary analysis for remedying all the discovered deficiencies

This is all documented in a formalized report, useful for purchase negotiations or evaluating the scope of additional projects within a facility.

water heater tangle

water heater tangle

Whew! Producing all this is a lot of work, especially trying to complete it in just a week or two. It's definitely more thorough than the average field verification route. But this methodical approach takes a building from 0 to 100 with a comprehensive document foundation for making any future explorations or decisions. And its in portable electronic formats, not scraps of paper stashed in the mechanical room.

I figured this process expansion and formalization would establish a great place for an architect and engineering team to begin a renovation, but I've recently been finding that a PCA is equally useful to an owner as an initial benchmark of building data, sometimes the first such record since it was built decades before.

I like it when we figure out how to solve multiple problems with a singular effort.

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Contrast, by Frank Ching

Frank Ching can draw!

Frank Ching sketch illustrating contrast

Frank Ching sketch illustrating contrast

I always enjoy Francis D. K. "Frank" Ching's latest sketch articles. The above is just one sketch from his latest blog post, The Principle of Contrast. Back in the day, all of us architecture students had his first work, published in 1979, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order:


It was a beautiful work in pencil, all completely written in his gorgeous hand lettering. Since then, Ching has published several more books and updated the editions a few times. They have recently been re-formatted into a single series:


A few of his older classics are also available, but do not appear to have been re-formatted into his current series:


If you haven't ever seen his beautiful drawings, head over to his blog, Seeing.Thinking.Drawing and peruse!

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Conceptual Design Tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

A diagram of conceptual design tools

After defining the project, design explorations begin.

The project can come to life through a number of physical and virtual tools. I believe the pinnacle of architecture is a great physical model accompanied by sketches and drawings. But digital tools are usually more expeditious and flexible.

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Sketch 2016-06-21

Here's a quick glimpse into the very beginning of the design process.

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

sketch, 2016-06-21, canteen design diagram

Background

This sketch is for the renovation of a large corporate canteen. The spaces are used by more than a hundred employees at a time for eating lunch or taking a quick break at a large food distribution center.

There are three existing rooms:  two seating rooms with tables and chairs on either side of a central food pantry. This last space is a place for employees to store their lunch bags in large refrigerators with sinks, microwaves, and vending machines to support warming and supplementing them.

I've added a shaded zone to indicate the larger facility beyond. The left and bottom of the canteen space have glass to the outside, with the bottom facing east and the left facing south.

One final item was the existing televisions mounted on the walls of both existing seating rooms. Tuned to inane daytime talk shows all day, I could imagine resting in this din only in some Harrison Bergeron dystopia and was determined to provide relief for the minority if I could help it.

Concept

I usually start design with an attitude about the sun and environment beyond the architecture. They are like a free design feature. Here, the bottom seating room had strong sunlight and expansive views outside. It struck me as a meadow of sun and views to nature, the tranquil place of repose to relax with connections to outside after long hours in a dark warehouse. It could be a social space for talking and enjoying human conversation removed from blaring electronic media.

But the upper seating room had limited glass. With little natural light already, why not darken it further for an enhanced television watching experience for those that care? It could be the inwardly focused space with multiple televisions, supported by dark finishes, soft lighting, and smaller groupings of tables at different heights. Imagine a pub or sports bar.

With contrasting rooms on either side, the central pantry bottleneck was broadened and straightened to simplify passage within and to either side. Two "streets" were carved across the transitions between to exterior doors for smokers.

The entire cityscape come together in a singular metaphor. Does this help to explain how design is at the same time a philosophical idea and a solution to physical needs?

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