Category Archives: 4D»2B

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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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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Project Math

Dilbert 2009-12-07

Dilbert 2009-12-07

As explained by Scott Adams, design has to be resolved before the final cost of a project can be established. Yet I'm often asked how much a project will cost even before a napkin sketch.

But defining the project isn't difficult and doesn't take long. For a small project, it might just take an hour. And even if more information is needed, what is outstanding can be mapped out the first meeting.

Terms

The goal is the project definition. We can also define its constituent terms:

PROGRAM   =   Space Names   +   Space Sizes

The program is simply a list of all the spaces needed. These might adjust as details emerge, but an initial program is key to start design.

SCALE   =   Program   ×   Efficiency Factor

It's difficult to figure out non-spaces:  thicknesses of walls, chases, corridors, stairs, mechanical rooms, electrical closets, utility rooms, storage, and other incidental uses. Some factoring of these inefficiencies is required to better predict the final area of a building.

QUALITY   =   Non-quantitative project parameters

High quality design, envelope, energy efficiency, finishes, furnishings, fixtures, and equipment will have a more dramatic effect on budget than its size. For example, low grade builder homes can cost just $75/SF and take just a month to build while an exquisite jewel might cost more than $600/SF and take two years. Quality is the most significant factor in a building's cost and needs to be decided at the beginning of a project.

SCOPE   =   Scale   ×   Quality

Although defined early, adjustments between these two factors is a component of the design process. This blog attests that Better Than Bigger and we often find that great design may supplant the need for overly large spaces.

SCHEDULE   =   Time to complete the project

Can a contractor take two years to finish a small project? Must he complete the work before the home owners return from a three week vacation in Europe? Does a school renovation need to be worked on after hours? Are there elaborate security and cleanliness requirements for a hospital renovation? Does a large house and garden renovation need to be used for a lawn wedding? Will a home owner build in his spare time? All of these answers may dictate stringent schedule parameters. Depending on the responses, any of these may impact the design and labor costs of a project significantly.

BUDGET   =   Funds allotted to the project

Unfortunately, the design, construction, and real estate industries wildly swag irresponsible $/SF numbers around like water balloons. But an accurate project budget considers quality, schedule, and numerous factors beyond simple labor and materials. To be complete, a budget should also include contractor's overhead and profit, general conditions,* building permits, printing, furnishings, many items usually outside of the contract purchased by the owner like appliances and mailboxes, surveying, architectural and engineering services, municipal charges, utility costs, cleaning, and even move costs.

PROJECT DEFINITION   =   Scope   ×   Schedule   ×   Budget

The final project definition is the goal to begin design. However...

DESIGN   =   Resolution of the project definition

We want design to discover opportunities. Exploration is the purpose of planning. (Otherwise, we would always charge on to a job site hammering a bunch of lumber together hoping for the best. Ever see that happen?) Drawing and modeling is much cheaper than making construction mistakes, but the bigger benefit is that design finds opportunity.

So we begin with the project definition and make iterative design passes to progressively refine the terms and results. This may be more linear or more explorative depending on the project and the client. But these basic definitions must always equate at any point in the process.

Summary

Space Names   +   Space Sizes   =   Program

Program   ×   Efficiency Factor   =   Scale

Scale   ×   Quality   =   Scope

Scope   ×   Budget   ×   Schedule   =   Project Definition

Project Definition   ×   Resolution   =   Design

If you are starting a project, try defining each of these terms. And feel free to contact me to discuss and maybe sit down together and start sketching solutions.

* General Conditions:  Numerous contract conditions that stipulate the execution of the construction contract. These are very broad and depend on many project particular specifics. Examples include insurance, length of time to complete, product submittals for selection and approval, payments, review of the work, trash and dumpsters, protection and cleanup, bathroom facilities, access to the site, parking, drawing conventions and conflict resolution, and potentially many others, even to inappropriate or illegal behavior on the job site.

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