The Decision Many Architects Consider Too Late

When does building design really begin? Does it start when the architect meets with the project owner for the first time? How about when the first schematic sketches are drawn? When an AutoCAD file is created? An argument can be made for each of these steps being the starting point of building design, but the decisions with the greatest impact on a project are made far earlier than many would suspect.

Consider when the struc­tur­al system and wall design of a building get selected. It can be argued that it is often directly dictated by the archi­tec­tur­al form, design details and owner require­ments. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the wall design is usually chosen extremely early without thought for how this decision impacts the overall per­for­mance and capa­bil­i­ties of the project. Regard­less of when the design starts, the archi­tec­tur­al and engi­neer­ing decisions made early in a project largely determine the design and material choices that will be made weeks and months down the road.

When wall systems are chosen, the rest of the design and the per­for­mance potential of a building is set in place. When a designer chooses to design a building using wood, they are committed to designing against wood rot, mold, and termite problems. If the designer chooses metal framing, they have to design against rust, thermal bridging, and struc­tur­al steel con­nec­tions limiting design flex­i­bil­i­ty. Most impor­tant­ly, once a light-framed wall is chosen, all other options that would improve the overall per­for­mance of the building are no longer available. From that point on, the design team is playing defense, fighting all the issues that could damage or dete­ri­o­rate the structure as well as limit their design ability.

It’s difficult, if not impos­si­ble, to go backwards once walls are chosen. Once a design has started and man-hours have been committed to a project, the ability to change the wall system becomes improb­a­ble. There are cost impli­ca­tions. No archi­tec­tur­al or engi­neer­ing firm wants to pay its employees to redo work they have already completed. There are sched­ul­ing impli­ca­tions. When schedules are measured by days and hours, no one wants to delay the project by redesign­ing the wall system. There are design impli­ca­tions. Once the walls have been decided, window details and depths have been set, finish system options have been narrowed, and opening spans and building heights have been defined. When all of these other design details have been decided upon or limited by the type of struc­tur­al wall system chosen, dollars and com­plex­i­ties dictate that no other wall system can be chosen.

If you are set on con­struct­ing a better building, inno­v­a­tive materials must be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion at the very beginning of the design process. Otherwise, a superior building quickly becomes further out of reach.


With recent hur­ri­canes, floods, and fires, the design community and building owners have become more focused on the resilien­cy of buildings. When light-framed buildings are designed and con­struct­ed, there is no way to make them more resilient. In fact, light-framed buildings only get weaker over time. A light-framed building will be its strongest and most durable on the day it is built. The struc­tur­al com­po­nents rot and rust, con­nec­tions loosen and weaken, and the overall resilien­cy of the building declines as time increases. A more robust, resilient wall system must be con­sid­ered at the beginning of any project to ensure a long lasting and safe building.


No global politics or gov­ern­ment policies will keep energy prices from increas­ing over time. Will the owners and tenants of buildings being designed and built today be able afford the energy costs of the future? When designing buildings today, the long term operating costs must be con­sid­ered, and not just at today’s energy prices. The insu­lat­ing systems of light framed walls are simply not robust and generally prone to degra­da­tion. Cavity wall insu­la­tion will not perform the same as it does in lab testing once exposed to typical building life cycles. For one, any cavity wall insu­la­tion is des­ig­nat­ed with an R‑value that is lab tested and does not reflect real word con­di­tions where stud framing inter­rupts the insu­la­tion, creating thermal bridging. Plus, it is difficult to fully insulate cavity spaces without com­press­ing insu­la­tion or creating un-insulated voids. In addition, cavity wall insu­la­tion is sus­cep­ti­ble to sagging over time and extreme per­for­mance degra­da­tion with any moisture damage. In order to design an efficient building that will perform the same through­out its lifetime, designers must evaluate the wall assembly before pro­ceed­ing any further with their design.

Indoor Environmental Quality

Indoor envi­ron­men­tal quality (IEQ) has risen to the forefront of many designers’ and owners’ project require­ments. Study after study has found that worker pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, occupants comfort, and even learning envi­ron­ments all expe­ri­ence improve­ment when the indoor envi­ron­ment is well-designed and high per­form­ing. Whether it be thermal comfort, air quality or sound atten­u­a­tion, the light framed buildings we continue to build have trouble achieving the IEQ goals many owners demand. Thermal bridging and incon­sis­tent insu­la­tion in framed buildings lead to uncom­fort­able tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions, thermal hot, and cold zones in buildings. These buildings also tend to have moisture problems that lead to mold, mildew, and other air pol­lu­tants bom­bard­ing the structure’s occupants. Without building com­pli­cat­ed multi-layered wall assem­blies, light framing struggles to keep outside noise pollution from leaking into the building. Building designers must look to mitigate these issues and design for IEQ at the beginning of the project as they are selecting wall systems.

How to start with better walls.

Inte­grat­ed Project Delivery (IPD) is the first step in designing better buildings with better walls. When the entire project team and owner decide on the goals of the project before any design starts, the walls of the building can be evaluated and chosen based on the goals. This elim­i­nates having to change the building in the middle of the design to try to meet an unfore­seen need.

Reaching out to man­u­fac­tur­ers for con­sul­ta­tive design rec­om­men­da­tions is a great first step in getting started on a project design. Man­u­fac­tur­ers have the testing data, past project history, and design para­me­ters at their fin­ger­tips to assist the designer early in a project. Take advantage of their con­sul­ta­tive approach to determine the best wall system for the project.

Setting building per­for­mance metrics prior to design will help define the wall assembly needed to meet the goals. Whether it’s air change per hour (ACH), monthly utility costs, sound trans­mis­sion class rating (STC), safety criteria (fire or windstorm rating) or any other metric, it should be defined prior to design. Many times the goals will direct the team to the type of wall system needed.

The Bautex Wall System should be con­sid­ered early on by designers and owners. Unlike light framed walls, the Bautex wall is a resilient, con­tin­u­ous­ly insulated mass wall system. It’s created with the Bautex Block and provides buildings robust, rot, rust, and mold proof walls. Head­quar­tered and man­u­fac­tured in central Texas, Bautex should be your first con­sid­er­a­tion when beginning the design of 1 – 3 story buildings. For more infor­ma­tion, visit bau​texsys​tems​.com.