Category Archives: Better

Definition: sarking

Definition: sarking

sarking, n.

More fun with the old 2,300 page, unabridged dictionary

I’m going to disagree with my old 2,300 page unabridged Webster’s and say that sarking is properly the asphaltic felt used beneath roof shingles, derived from the shirt, or sark, defined just above. Here’s why…

Asphaltic felt is a great shirt for a house. Felt is simply matted wool, and asphalt would have been some bituminous coating (tar) that it was soaked in. Supposedly pre-industrial craftsman stocking undershirts were black so you can see how close the two definitions would be. (Although I haven’t discovered an authoritative source for this supposition yet.)

Architects used to specify this felt beneath exterior cladding systems. This layer would:

  1. prevent rain soaking and absorb incidental leakage for drying afterwards
  2. channel moisture behind the cladding down and out
  3. block air/wind blown through cladding cracks
  4. slow humidity drive
  5. add a little bit of insulation value, (R-2?) given the felt and intermediate layers of air space

Every proper building envelope system should manage:

  1. bulk water
  2. moisture
  3. air
  4. vapor
  5. thermal flow

So this undershirt really is a great idea for a house.

Historically, the paper was specified by weight, with 30 pound felt being 30 pounds for a roll, which equaled one roofing square, or 100 square feet. 15 pound felt was also used, sometimes in double layers to equal the 30 pound felt.

But unfortunately, you can’t get this kind of felt today. In my adult lifetime of working with buildings, the derived product has become a very lightly coated paper. The old symbol “#” which mean pounds no longer implies the weight. I distinguish #15 “number 15” paper from 15-lb “15 pound” felt as completely different products.

And of course, these changes mean the product has reduced performance in all five categories compared to the original material. So it has been replaced by more sophisticated products for vapor control, moisture barriers, rain screens, drainage mats, pressure relief, venting channels, furring, coatings, and flashings.

Still, despite well-performing new tech products, ye ol’ asphaltic felt is still one of the more viable building products in a modern envelope strategy.

Harrison Bergeron



Written in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Harrison Bergeron is a classic. The three-page short story can be found online here and elsewhere.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This story comes to my mind often in architectural practice. Many who know me have read it at my urging. Despite our best intentions, projects are utterly encumbered by codes, laws, and regulations in the attempt to create safety, opportunity, and equality.

Not that any of these are, in themselves, bad things. In fact, utopian vision has driven architecture for at least four millennia. I am actually a proponent for great design and good craftsmanship that is inclusive, accessible, and universal. Slightly larger spaces aren’t just for injured employees, aging residents, or disabled visitors. They also help encumbered firemen in smoke-filled air trying to rescue occupants. In that context, what’s a few more inches?

Still, our endeavor to create great is slowly being truncated by our compromise to create barely adequate. Great design takes great time, and the more factors there are to consider, the longer it is going to take and the more it is going to cost.

I suppose inflation is the natural course of civilization simply due to this ever-expanding growth of requirements. But is there a way to simplify? At what point can we no longer afford the growth of regulation? With U.S. federal government debt at $19,963,980,500,000 (trillion), haven’t we exceeded our capacity to pay for these demands?

Canopy Progress

I got a call to come take my first look today at the beginning fabrication of a canopy structure I designed. It’s always interesting when you see a project taking shape in the “real world” that had only existed until then in your mind, on paper and in virtual space.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

All along, this effort has been one of efficiency. As the requirements and parameters grew, so too did the structure. This is fully 50′ long and 25′ wide but supported on only two columns. If you drive around to various gas stations, take a look at how they are supported. Almost all of them these days are constructed with at least four columns since the two-column variety are easily blown over. (And central North Carolina does occasionally get 90+ mph winds when a hurricane blows in.) However, site restrictions meant this one simply could not touch the ground at four locations. So the narrow profile and trimmed corners grew out of these restrictions and make this narrow, wing-shaped teardrop with very little resistance to the wind.

For reference, below is my partial model of the project built months ago.

Canopy model

Canopy model

I always appreciate great craftsmenship. With the design parameters vigorously dictating the form, it took some careful, considerate detailing to even make the structure feasible. Skilled craftsmen ensure cleaner construction and the necessary coordination when everything has to work and fit like clockwork.

Canopy in progress

Canopy in progress

This type of complexity is a double-edged sword. It is difficult to design and difficult to construct. But it means less steel is used and a structure better suited for high winds. Stay tuned for updates…

Career Day

I was asked to speak to students at Mills Park Middle School in Cary a few weeks ago about a career as an architect. Whenever I speak about the profession, I try to show the larger view of what architecture really is because it in some ways, it is simpler than you’d think.

Career Day

Career Day

Like many from my generation, thoughts of becoming an architect started early in life. Most of my friends in design school shared similar interests in drawing and making models. Today’s kids play Minecraft and many already know free design software packages readily available on the web like SketchUp. I don’t think they realize how close they are to the profession.

I like to explain that art is where ideas form, but architecture is where they come together. Intuitively we know that impressive renderings of buildings in the news may not accurately represent the finished result. It’s true, the bridge from inspiration to completed building is as important as the initial “genius.” Fantasy images of ideas unable to be accomplished for technical, financial, or political reasons is a failure of the designer. However, the training to build this bridge is actually pretty simple and can start young.

So what skills development of school children will translate into a successful architectural profession?

Topography Model

Site topography model of simple chipboard and white glue.

For centuries, models have been used for design. A very high level of design thinking can proceed from simple paper and cardboard. Paper mache is about as basic and safe a medium as any for very young children to adults. For the average middle schooler, a cutting matte, hobby knife, steel ruler with non-slip cork on one side, and some white glue are all that is needed to build sophisticated architectural models. In fact, even professionals frequently use them, as the photo above of one of my own models in progress testifies. Advanced techniques add basswood and plastics, all available from local hobby or art stores for very little expense.

Today, architects sometimes build virtual models in the computer. These can be very realistic, such as my own example of the Reset House, still only a virtual project and physically un-built as of this date. When I was in middle school, my contractor neighbor suggested to me that architecture might not be a good career due to the rise of computers. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

The exploration of physical materials and the meanings and beauty that results is critical to being a complete designer. Being able to express ideas with models directly constructed by hand is as useful and appreciated today as it ever has been. To the uninitiated, this may seem short of the glamorous renderings in the news, but it is a more valuable skill and easy to do.

Thoughts about teaching kids to be an architect? Share your ideas below, on Twitter or Instagram.

10 Similarities in Soccer and Architecture

Pickup Soccer Game

Pickup Soccer Game

It isn’t often we celebrate a World Cup final! As a lifelong soccer and architecture fan, today is a great opportunity for me to draw some interesting comparisons between the two.

  1. Coordination is difficult but effective – Helping a team work together takes considerable effort. The communication, logistics, planning, and information behind the scenes look invisible on the big day, but many years go in to a winning conclusion.
  2. Training takes years – Great soccer players begin when they can walk to maximize the 20 years following for training. Likewise, most architects have at least 10 years of training before they are licensed, but many of us have been hammering things together since grade school.
  3. Team effort is more potent than any one team member – It takes a strong group of players working together to produce a victory just as a strong project team produces a winning building. Although one star or starchitect may get the credit, pros know that the supporting roles make it possible. No weaknesses can exist for a truly successful project.
  4. Roles are diverse but necessary – Futbol has a manager, trainers, strikers, attacking and holding mids, a center “D,” flanking wings and backs, and goalkeepers. Design teams need architects, engineers, authorities, reviewers, interior designers, landscape architects, contractors, and subcontractors. In either case, if not all roles are strong or represented, the others have to pick up the slack!
  5. Expertise must be expansive – Kicking the ball is just the beginning of the game. It is knowing subtleties that carries teams to success. From looking off defenders and dropping a long through ball, to identifying potential site hazards on first walk through and noticing a non-conforming detail—seeing what’s missing is just as important as what is wrong.
  6. Planning for the site can’t be ignored – Understanding the impact of field or site conditions can be the difference between a win or a blowout. It’s a great place to start, and good design teams do a site analysis the same way a good manager plans for a potentially wet field that changes the speed and ball handling of the game.
  7. Effective tools make hard work productive – Players adopt all sorts of equipment to assist their playing styles, from shinguard height, cleat distribution, and boot cover texture. Although architects can potentially use all sorts of tools to assist, many, like an experienced pro player, rely on just a few effective ones to apply their seasoned experience.
  8. Preparation and planning leads to success – Getting the tactics and detailed plan right at the beginning reduces a lot of headaches later on. But…
  9. Big changes can happen in the middle – Good managers and architects are flexible when conditions and plans change due to injury or design change. In fact, spotting these possibilities early might just be the tactic that wins the game.
  10. Sometimes the outcome hinges on just one decision – Despite 90 minutes of play, a lone goal can win a game in a single instance of creativity or skill. Effective architects, like great strikers, are those that find a rare opportunity to turn a limitation into a winner!

What did I miss? Please share below!

You can also share your World Cup and Architecture ideas with me on Twitter or Instagram!