August 09, 2017

Architects Have Become Victims of Their Own Profession

Michelle Addington, the new Dean of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, recently shared some keen insights into how technology is adopted in architecture. She mentioned to a group of architects at AIA Austin that she found it amazing to see how much technology moves forward, yet, at the same time, surprised to see how many things do not advance at all.

In architecture, many of our deep seeded beliefs about the way things should be go back a hundred years or more. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are not true and we fail to even remember why they became common knowledge in the first place. Dean Addington quipped that architects have, in many ways, become “victims of their own profession.”

Should Skylights Face North or South?

During the renovation of the Yale Center for British Art in the early 2000’s, the question of skylight orientation became the source of great debate. The building was designed by the highly-accomplished architect Louis I. Kahn in the 1970’s. In Mr. Kahn’s original design, the skylights on the roof of the building faced south. The design team responsible for the renovation was concerned about exposing the works of art in the building to sunlight and thought it more appropriate to face the skylights north due to the lower levels of light exposure in that direction.

At first glance, this made a lot of sense. It was commonly understood that, for buildings in the northern hemisphere, southerly facings had higher sunlight exposures than northerly facings due to path of the sun in the sky. However, what was not considered and certainly not immediately understood by the renovation team, was the fact that northerly exposures had higher intensities of blue and ultraviolet radiation. This is the most damaging type of light for artwork. Based on this insight, the skylights were not reoriented and they continue to face south to this day as originally designed.

The Danger of The Status Quo

Dean Addington shared several other great examples of technologies that got their start in the early twentieth century and are still with us today. Air handlers, fluorescent lighting, alternating current. These technologies have become so ingrained in the way we do things now in the 21st century, even though they are not always the most effective solution for our building needs. Worst of all, we forget the circumstances and the reasons they even came to be in the first place.

Deep seeded beliefs and conventional wisdom are powerful, but they are also difficult to escape. They become institutionalized, not because they are inherently good or true, but because they are familiar. They even get turned into cute little sayings such as “Dilution is the solution to pollution,” commonly heard in ventilation and HVAC circles. Cute rhyme, but not true.

The same can be said for traditional wall systems, most of which became popular and put into common use early in the last century. Light framing (both wood and steel) is ubiquitous across the United States, even though this technology is not high performing and is the source of many of the biggest building failures and problems. Despite the difficulty of building a high performing and durable framed wall, architects continue to specify them because that is what we know how to design and build.

Architects Must Be Agents of Innovation

Dean Addington’s comments on technology and the role of architects were quite thought provoking and very timely. Now is a good time to step back and question why we are doing things the way we are in order to see the big picture. It is time to revisit the process of designing and constructing a building. It is time to decouple technologies from power sources to better align function with the best available source of power. It is also time to rethink how we design and build walls.

It is not easy to leave the beaten path behind, but architects must be agents of innovation in order to move the profession forward. The first step to this future is to challenge conventional wisdom by asking “why?”

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