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?”