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?”