Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Ornament is indeed crime.

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Mon, November 14, 2011 17:08:25

I think ornament is crime. I'll tell you why in a minute. This post is on the architecture of systems building, so I would like to warn sensitive engineers about the architectural lingo you are about to encounter. OK. Here goes my case for today. It’s kind of important, so let’s give it our best shot.

Let’s agree that the industrial logic of systems building must not involve clients accepting inferior housing. Consequently, we need to show that we are capable of creating buildings through systems building on par with those we create through traditional construction.

No. Loud, obnoxious buzzer noise goes here. But thank you for playing.

Compared to the traditional, project-based construction, systems building is a whole new ball game. It has different tools from project-based construction, different logic. Its business is different. Why should it produce the same buildings? A product is a product, with all the traits of a product. It has its own name and brand. It builds on a basic platform, customizable with alternative designs. It is improved from version to version. And for housing that falls within the same brief, it is noticeable cheaper than the traditional house. And here’s the key. That last building? The one that falls within the same brief as a traditional house?

It. Is. Better.

That’s tonight’s big revelation folks. Because the industrial logic provides us with opportunities for new architectural expression. I even co-wrote a book on this subject (which incidentally I wish the publisher would get published already).

I think traditional building has too many incentives for errors built in. The image above is just one example of the regular "OK, so I had to improvise a bit, they'll never notive"-approach. Yes, that is the final design, to be paid dearly for by the inhabitant of this luxury apartment in Göteborg.

See if you agree with my logic. Let’s take precision as our focal point. Systems building uses prefabrication as an important tool. If we are to do this, we have to keep a close eye on assembly and the tolerances of the connectors. That means we need to keep tolerances on components close too, and the precision of the joints and interfaces will increase. More interfaces will be machined than in traditional building, simply because preparations off-site mean savings in costs. But this all also means that the joints between different materials and components will be distinct and readable. And installations will be kept under guard so that they are collected into as few locations as possible. By working with industrial logic, we have inadvertently stumbled across traits often discussed by architects as important architectural value-bearers. God is in the details, remember?

So “Ornament is crime” suddenly has contemporary, conceptual meaning. Do not add decoration – build on the precision inherent in the technology instead. Systems building invites to the tectonic approach to housing design, to working with the poetics of structure and materials. I like the detail below for example. Nothing out of the ordinary, but nice precision and very few nails and screws visible. The level of arcticulation in the joints and handles will change the expression should one so wish. Do you see my point here?

From the client’s point of view, there are plenty of perspectives from which systems building is superior to project-based construction. Like don’t get me started on the opportunity we suddenly have to provide the client will a decision schedule – what needs to be decided when. Or the transparency of processes. Or the predictability. The key here is for us to help the client judge systems buildings tenders without thinking that they are based on project-based logic. They are not (NOT), so lower costs for example do not immediately imply an inferior end-product. But lacking the right information, clients tend to judge innovations with the old rules of thumb. So we need to give them enough information with enough richness to learn the rules of the systems building game. I learned that last bit from reading the draft of Susanne Engström’s PhD thesis that she is writing right now. You should check that out when it’s defended in March.

So we’re not home and dry. Consider us being home and looking for the towel. If we allow our end-products to be judged as were they traditional construction, we're even voluntarily going back into the shower. But from the architectural viewpoint, the challenge is still fundamental. The challenge is to overcome the (imagined?) conflict between the systematic logic and site-based logic. The one builds on the similarities between projects, with solutions developed before there is a site for each project. The other is what traditionally is considered required for architectural quality, where we consider each site to be unique and to require unique designs.

There are methods available to us to mitigate this conflict. One: develop products that are flexible so as to allow for clients to customize them for a number of different site characteristics. Two: develop a plethora of different products (albeit an option available mainly for large suppliers). Three: develop products only halfway, into platforms, so as to be able to finalize designs for each site. The only thing we cannot do is Four: develop each project uniquely from each site.

This brings us into the realm of flexibility is a driver for costs, which is a different blog post. Just let me say this. Systems building needs to rely on repetition in one form or another, and the greater the flexibility the lower the yield from systems building logic. In plain English: buildings designed to be unique will be more expensive. Buildings designed to be repeated in one form or another will have their point of origin not on a site but in a market analysis.

Images: Top: Ornament and crime, Flickr Creative Commons, by Menti. Upper middle: Modern site-build, copyright Ola Nylander. Lower middle: Modern systems building, copyright NCC. Bottom: Towel, Flickr Creative Commons, by Kevin Steinhardt.