The Powers of SuperArchitect!

Posted on Nov 26, 2014

Whenever I am figuring up a design fee or working on a construction cost estimate, I often recall some of the design problems assigned in architecture school. Of course, the purpose of these was to teach us about the basic principles of architectural design. My professors would often cite the three ideals of building design espoused by the Roman engineer Vetruvius, “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight.” In modern terms, these were translated respectively as “Function, Structure, and Aesthetics.” Every successful building, they said, must at a minimum succeed on these three levels. “For this assignment,” my professor might say, “you should concentrate on the effect that color has on an occupant’s perception of space.” And he would hand out the criteria for the problem. There were only a few times early on that I made the mistake of asking about a project budget. “Cost is no object!” he would proclaim.

It didn’t take very long after I started practicing out in the real world before I realized that cost is often the single most important criterium in determining the success of a building, and that well rounded architectural designs must succeed on many additional fronts than Function, Structure, and Aesthetics alone. In addition to those three, I would add the qualities of Comfort, Safety, Security, and Economy. For more on this topic, please see my essay, “Frozen Music”.

The ideal of architectural economy deserves a closer look. The entire Green Building movement has at its core the goal of economy. Our buildings must be economical in their siting, use of materials, and use of energy, or we will eventually run out of both. Economy is also fundamental to the practice of engineering: the engineer’s goal is to apply his or her formulas so that just enough materials or energy is used to accomplish a task. Too much is wasteful, while too little leads to failure.

Economy is also on the mind of every client. I have never heard a client echo my professors’ declaration. Instead, often one of the first questions a client asks me is, “How much will all this cost?” This is asked without selecting the builder who will be responsible for purchasing the materials and paying the craftsmen’s salaries, and before any design has been done. If I demur, the response may be, “Well, can’t you give me some idea, based on your experience?” At times like these I recall the standard stockbroker’s disclaimer: “Past is experience no guarantee of future performance.” Or, as my old boss used to say, “You will never know as much at the beginning of a project as you know at the end.” Every project is unique, with different topography, zoning, room sizes and relationships, and so on. The cost-per-square-foot rule of thumb that might work for one location and time may be completely wrong when applied to another.

This is one of the moments when I fantasize about the powers that SuperArchitect might have. Forget about super speed or strength, heat vision or invulnerability. Give me clairvoyance, so I could predict the final cost of a project. This would also come in handy when trying to avoid problems and mistakes, both in design and construction.

I would also like to have x-ray vision, so I could see beneath the surface to tell what latent problems might be concealed there. When designing renovations to existing buildings we must often make assumptions about framing, piping, and electrical features hidden within otherwise pristine finishes. And when there is surface evidence of problems, such as peeling paint, efflorescence or other staining, or cracks, we must make educated guesses as to the reason these are happening. This would also come in handy when searching for underground utilities.

There are many times when I wish for the ability to warp space, to fit more into the inside of a building than its exterior shell contains. This would have very practical benefits for clients, especially if their project costs were determined using the exterior measurements of their building. However, with super powers come super responsibility. I would need to exercise caution, lest I design a dimensionally unstable house like the one in Robert Heinlein’s story “–And He Built a Crooked House,” which folds in upon itself during an earthquake and becomes a four-dimensional tesseract.

Written by Dean R. Camlin, AIA, LEED AP BD+C.
© 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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