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.