ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, August 31, 2017

retail churn

The overbuilding of retail space in the United States has caused more suffering than the rise of Amazon and other online shopping sites. This suffering, however, is not spread evenly. Good space in the right place will always command tenants. Bad space in the wrong place isn't immediately doomed, but it will resist improvements because of the difficulty of reassigning the space to other uses. The trend in retail has been towards scale--with the ultimate expression being the box store and the fulfillment center. The small shop will always have a place, even as a loss leader for a brand, but most buildings on Main Street don't have the scale or logistical capacity for the type of sales model that dominates current shopping habits.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

a world hidden

The impact of the damage caused by Harvey defies analysis. This blog made an insensitive series of remarks yesterday expressing optimism about recovery and rebuilding efforts. A formal retraction is being considered by the editorial committee, but in the meantime it's worth considering the relative vulnerability of significant urban areas. New York City had localized flooding as a result of Sandy, but the topography of the region protects critical areas from everything short of a Biblical event. New Orleans is always in the cross-hairs. Los Angeles and Chicago are probably at near zero risk. Miami and Boston deserve close scrutiny--the former is already coming to terms with sea-level rise, but Boston has no comprehensive pre-planning efforts. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

there's not much rain here

Towers of ilium predicts that Houston will recover much more quickly and with less drama than New Orleans did following Katrina. It's rare that floods reach biblical proportions, and although the media has some dramatic images, the extent of severe water intrusion is not citywide. The region has a robust construction economy, decent administration, and a certain degree of experience. Efforts to prevent the next flood--or to lessen its impact--will not be implemented of course.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

architecture and productivity

Photo Levittown by Jon Smith

An effective method of increasing productivity in construction is by reducing the role of the designer. A design is required, but if interaction between client and architect is minimized--or eliminated--then the construction delivery process becomes the primary objective of a project. Does the end product suffer? Aesthetically, the consequences are often banal instead of disastrous. Functionality can be impacted, but not necessarily to a greater degree than when intensive design efforts are wasted on trying to predict future needs. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

building architecture and productivity

The technical research department at towers of ilium has been asked to comment on a recent article in The Economist magazine about the failure of the building construction industry to match the productivity gains of other manufacturing industries. The research department (which has no research budget) will recycle the following arguments:

-Buildings are large--large things make precision difficult to achieve and transport costs high
-Buildings are frequently unique to program and site. Even subtle differences in topography require re-design
-Building systems are more complex than in the past. A concrete wall with some single-glazed steel windows doesn't meet code and doesn't satisfy client/user expectations
-Architects are still involved. This point will be developed in later posts. Please do not adjust your set until Tuesday. In fact, do not stop staring at your computers for the next 24 hours--you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish!

Friday, August 18, 2017

reality is a harder place

Architecture that comes to life in a sketch frequently dies in the details. Sometimes, a compromise can be reached, but if heroic efforts are required to massage a design idea into something that complies with code and construction methods, then the potential for error increases substantially.
A sketch is not a holy writ--it is tool that informs the goal of getting something built. The ability to produce and abandon sketches is the mark of a healthy design process.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

why castles?

A castle is the ultimate expression of secure domestic architecture. Although modern survivalists tend to favor lodges in the empty places of the American West, the European tradition retains the most evocative and prominent examples of the type. To live in a castle is to achieve fantasy. Those who built them were clearly engaged in a visual arms race. Practical features are subordinate to an obvious need for more turrets and towers. Disneyland has cemented the imagery so thoroughly that we cannot conceive of a princess living anywhere else.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

building science and the grenfell fire

As predicted, Joe Lstiburek wrote some good commentary on the Grenfell Fire. It can be found at this link here. He makes several interesting points about fire safety in the context of cladding systems with exterior insulation. Among these are a criticism of excessively large rainscreen gaps--3/8" is plenty-- and  the importance of fireblocking between window heads and combustible exterior insulation. He doesn't comment on the overall thickness of the poly-iso insulation used in the cladding retrofit. They could have used a little bit of the money saved by using only 4" of insulation to buy a non-combustible aluminum composite panel.

Monday, August 14, 2017

the value of the one-off

People who commission works of art should be aware that the artist draws a paycheck with the expectation of being able to work without interference for long periods of time. This isolation requirement is also implicit in arrangements made with tradespeople. It reaches an extreme when we deal with mass-produced items--which have been carefully designed with only filtered input from potential consumers. Acceptance of the design decisions is measured at the time of purchase.

Unique efforts, however, are as necessary as they are dangerous. The artist defines certain parameters in negotiation with a client or patron--or as is more often the case--such parameters are defined by the previous body of work. The client wants to be surprised. It's like buying a car without getting a chance to test drive it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

finishing things-part III

Continual maintenance is a philosophy in search of an application. To what degree? At what costs? For how long? By what methods? A general rule is that maintenance should be a small fraction of purchase cost--i.e. a tank of gas is worth less than the car. Accumulated tanks of gas can eventually cost more than the car, but that merely demonstrates how the car is not a source of value unless it is moving people and things around.

Eventually, the most useful thing becomes an artifact. At that point, it may have achieved artistic value, but at what cost? Is it in the way of something better? Portable objects can retain value for as long as they exist. Architecture and infrastructure need to be assessed frequently. Much is found wanting.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

finishing things-part II

Should architects become more specialized? In practical terms, this has already happened. Large firms will have various studios that can function as distinct offices. A sole practitioner will tend to find a niche--usually in house design.

What is the end point for all this? Specialized licensing requirements? The dangerous thing here is that no matter how specialized an architect becomes, he or she will always maintain the posture that design skills can be transferred to any type of project or client. This attitude makes lawyers happy.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

finishing things-part I

Architects would do well to adopt Facebook's motto: Nothing is ever finished. A general contractor can occasionally feel finished, but service calls can persist for the lifetime of a building. Replacement planning should start at the schematic design stage. An effective method in large building planning is to divide the structure into self-sufficient zones that can be isolated for renovation. Having an elevator with a depth equal to ceiling height is a good idea. And, for life safety it is wise to have redundant egress systems. These functional aspects pale in comparison to the attitude adopted by the client. If a renovation target is established for 10 years after initial opening then it will have a profound effect on finish selection. Durability will be weighed against ease of replacement and lifecycle costs will be tempered by the expectation that better products will be available sooner than expected.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

charm and efficiency

The small house craze in America is probably winding down--mostly because it never wound up.
While the building code defines minimum sizes for room areas, conventional design wisdom favors a considerably more generous set of proportions. There will always be something alluring about the very small house, however. It evokes a childlike joy that can overcome various inconveniences.

Monday, August 7, 2017

process vs product

Should architects seek to educate clients or feed and nurture the most irrational impulses? Most great buildings have resulted from the latter collaboration. Most ordinary buildings-which constitute the vast majority of architecture,  have resulted from a process of mutual education. The client presents a program and budget, the architect oversteps, the client and architect work on a suitable approach, and so on.

But, even the most hard-nosed, function oriented client excepts to be surprised by the designer at some point in the process. Without the ability to surprise, why would design even exist?

Friday, August 4, 2017

more on circulation

A previous post about hallways failed to address a critical issue in all architecture: any space not occupied by furniture or equipment is circulation. The circulation experience can never be minimal even if people spend most of their time occupying furniture. Architects can create delight by concealing the purpose of some circulation elements. They can also create disappointment with circulation that leads to uninspired places--like a hallway that leads to an elevator.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

what dreams have passed

It is useful to remind ourselves that Boston' bid for the Olympic Games had little association with reality. The deficiencies of the city when it comes hosting such an extreme event can be easily described:

-Lack of good transportation infrastructure
-Lack of sporting venues--and land suitable for building new venues
-Lack of popular support for the scale of the undertaking (and hence, lack of money)
-Lack of good weather

Hosting an Olympic games is an expression of ego. For the  democratic city of Boston, the collective ego already has a focus--Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins--and despite the international character of many local institutions there was no incentive to pay for a large party.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

circulation ponderings

Here's a brief observation about residential design--for the major living spaces rooms act as circulation, but for private spaces you need hallways. A problem with low cost residential design is inevitability of minimal circulation space for the private zones. Going to a bedroom or a bathroom is a purely functional event. A window in a hallway is a good idea, but the argument will always be made for putting that window in a bedroom instead.


This is from the famous Calculated Risk blog, and it is not good news. Although construction spending is healthy in the U.S. the growth rate is slowing. Most noteworthy is the slump in public spending, which speaks to the ideology of austerity in state and federal governments. Although Ayn Rand might be pleased by that trend it demonstrates a misunderstanding of what value should be placed on civic buildings. Many municipal structures are very old, poorly maintained, and miserable for users and staff. A more robust replacement and repair rate would improve efficiency and experience. We can hope that the next recession might see a surge in public spending, but if recent experience is a guide, that's a thin hope.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

catching up

A question to ponder is this: How will London't financial markets survive Brexit?  So far, there hasn't been a mass exit of firms and the real estate market in the city hasn't collapsed. The "just you wait" crowd could be disappointed by the general inertia that accompanies such events, as well the possibility that Theresa May won't be the person negotiating the Brexit terms.

London will still be a haven for rich foreigners to park wealth in the form of real estate. A smart kleptocrat would spread some purchases of residential and commercial real estate around between Vancouver, London, New York, and Miami.

Renzo Piano knows how to design a nice skyscraper.