Long-lived Buildings

A-P and Al Hurd’s “Built to Last” chapter in their book The Carbon Efficient City has prompted me, an architecture and landscape architecture student, to consider the designer’s role in promoting reuse in the built environment.

My experience in school has been that, for the most part, the design process in an architecture studio will grow out of building program. The question is often how, precisely, a building can support a specifically defined program. Sometimes one of the initial steps is even to design program. A library, for example, must house circulation areas, a check-out station, computer stations, meeting rooms, etc., each with an explicit square footage. It has been my experience that floor plans lacking programmatic labels are deemed incomplete.

But the reality is that buildings ought to “live long and prosper” (Apologies. A former Trekkie, I couldn’t help myself. RIP Leonard Nemoy.). Long-lived buildings will often outlive the programs they were originally designed to accommodate. But in lieu of program-based design, what is there? Tectonic-based design? Experience-based design?

Program is certainly not the only guide that can inform design. Physical context and environment first come to mind. Programs change, and so do environmental conditions, but the latter usually at a much slower scale. In Seattle, the south side of a building will be its sunniest side, no matter the program it houses. That said, the construction of a building in the neighboring lot could change all that. Program is not all that will change throughout a building’s lifespan. And sections of cities built on fill over what were once salty mudflats won’t always sit above sea level…

An excellent example of architecture designed to embrace a changing program is Pritzker Prize Winner Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, completed in 2001.

Sendai_Mediatheque1
Image source: http://www.archdaily.com/118627/ad-classics-sendai-mediatheque-toyo-ito/

Sendai_Mediatheque2
Image source: http://www.archdaily.com/118627/ad-classics-sendai-mediatheque-toyo-ito/

As technology increasingly becomes a formal element of society, it will no doubt be more frequently incorporated into building designs. Technology is variable and flexible. Perhaps buildings should be too. In a November 2012 interview with Designboom, Ito said, “Even after the physical building is completed, its architectural programs may continue to undergo modifications as new media evolve . . . Design in architecture will refer not only to traditional hardware design but also to a more flexible software design that includes programs. We will be designing the time just as we design the space.” In the case of Sendai Mediatheque, this means open floor plates that accommodate changing program. Perhaps looseness of program will become the norm as technology replaces rigidity’s role in architecture.

But a flexible design is not all that reuse entails. In order for building components to be efficiently replaced and reused, standardization is essential, a concept that Hurd and Hurd address in their chapter. How can inventiveness and modularity exist in tandem? Hurd and Hurd argue that it, in fact, “takes more design ingenuity” to use existing building products than to create new components with every design. I agree. Architecture that is built without acknowledging the multifaceted constraints (or opportunities) implicit in site, building components, weather, etc., become constraints themselves. This modularity or “kit-of-parts” architecture provides constraints for architects, but also opportunities for amplified creativity. Thomas Phifer and Partners’ design for the Clemson University College of Architecture building addition, “Lee III,” is a great example of the use of modular, standard materials to engender expressive structure and a winning design.

Lee_III
Image source: http://www.archdaily.com/349080/clemson-university-college-of-architecture-thomas-phifer-and-partners/

The American Institute of Steel Construction wrote about Lee III, a 2013 Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel (IDEAS2) merit award winner, “. . . perhaps what is arguably most remarkable about its use of structural steel is that the highly and expressive character was achieved without any expensive or unconventional fabrication techniques, special finishes, exotic connections, nor the higher tolerance “AESS” designation typical of this type of construction. Instead, the team worked closely to refine conventional simple connections and fabrication techniques that could be built by any steel fabricator without undo expense.” Phifer’s Lee III makes a stark contrast with other buildings of its generation. Let’s consider the complex and unusual geometry of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera Center, for example, a design which is probably not based on standard steel components or connections, and which experienced leaking not long after its opening due to the formation of large ceiling and wall cracks as well as falling glass panels.

Guangzhou_Opera_Center
Image source: http://www.archdaily.com/115949/guangzhou-opera-house-zaha-hadid-architects/

An article by WebUrbanist places the blame less on Hadid’s design and more on “shoddy materials and construction techniques of the contractors that built it.” Regardless of blame, the article states that in China many buildings are constructed to last around 25 years. The advice of Jim Nicholls, who, among other classes, teaches the UW Arch. Construction Materials and Assemblies course, seems especially appropriate here: design something the contractor will be proud to build.

You can’t beat quality.

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