A Building in Order of its Permanence

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand made a diagram that holds pretty true, at least as far as most modern and contemporary buildings are concerned.

A building in order of its permanence, from: Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn.

In terms of teaching comprehensive design, I have found this diagram to be quite useful in breaking down the huge number of tasks required into a series of manageable chunks. I don’t always use these – in fact I have conceived my own series. I start with site/siting/scenario. How do we deal with the site? I break this up into an analysis that deals with the two primary classes of site factors: physical and cultural. In the studio this amounts to the massing and orientations of the building. But it begins to extend into internal logic as well, and how that internal logic interacts with the forces of the site. Needless to say, this sets the frame for the rest of the work. It also, given the general limit of a semester to accomplish a great deal of work, gets cut off prematurely. This is regrettable. In an ideal world, we would continue to the next task when the appropriate level of completion has been reached. On the other hand, if we waited for all schematic issues to be resolved, students might never get the opportunity to engage with the full range of integration.

Following site comes structure. I ask them to resolve this as a three-dimensional model, typically in the computer. Too often I see column grids thrown down, but on further inspection they do not have a relation to the section. Structure is generally quite straightforward. I talk about coherent systems. Occasionally I get a student who really pushes the envelope, and that is fun.

Skin in contemporary buildings is usually divorced from structure. We look at materials from a performance viewpoint, and a cultural/aesthetic viewpoint. The skin in a contemporary building is a complicated system of enclosure, most importantly acting as a conservative and selective mediator of the environment, but at times also a regenerative (as per Banham). It is the single most important building system for reducing energy consumption and maintaining comfort. It is also the cultural face of the construction, and as such it is the conveyor of meaning. Negotiating between those factors of performance and aesthetics is a sweet agony.

The aspect that gets the least amount of play is services. That is because they are so little known, but also because they are still and ignoble art. Even though they gobble-up vast chunks of the architect’s budget, they are still largely considered an afterthought. Especially in schools students are rarely asked to consider these systems outside of their building systems classes. Here we are, 33 years following Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, and the great divorce between building aesthetics and building systems continues, at least in the schools. That gulf is diminishing in the profession, due to climate change and the rigors of high-performance buildings. But this can be fun. How does water drain from a roof? Through some piece of pipe? Or could it channel into a stream that jets off of the building into a fountain below? How does the sun enter the building? What does cooling look like? How can we engage those things that provide for our physical comfort in an inventive architectural manner?

Brand’s penultimate category is space plan. To me, that is the least interesting. Students can get wrapped up into massaging this forever. I typically call this stage (Public) Space or Circulation (I know it is a “C,” but it is an “S” sound). Rather than get entangled into the intricacies of space planning, I focus instead on those areas most accessed by the public, and try to give them quality and resolution. This stage engages the students with how the user accesses and moves through the building, how interior relates to exterior, and what the form and function of the landscape is.

The final category in my taxonomy is synthesis. This is the time for reassessment and the tying-up of loose ends. This is also the production phase, in which the student is to figure out how best to tell her/his story.

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