“If architects did their job, there wouldn’t be any need for building science.”

The Esplanade ApartmentsDr. Joe Lstiburek (pronounced “stee-bur-ek”) of Building Science Corporation gave an interview to Inhabitat earlier this summer. In his interview, Dr. Lstiburek said, “If architects did their job, there wouldn’t be any need for building science.” We agree and that’s why we’re sharing the interview and some comments.

Wikipedia defines building science as “the analysis and control of the physical phenomena affecting buildings”. If you’re looking for a non-technical definition, that’s about as close as you’ll get without finding industry speak like “built environment” and other terms that don’t mean anything to the average person. (For the purposes of this blog post, don’t forget that a house is a building.)

The “control of physical phenomena affecting buildings” means considering how the building materials and systems are affected by the elements of their environment. Keeping water out of the building, preventing energy loss through the exterior of the building and controlling indoor humidity are examples of the issues a building scientist might address.

The image included in this blog post is the exterior wall of the Esplanade Apartments at 900 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, IL. They were designed by famous architect Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1951. As you can see, the exterior of the building is clad in steel and glass – both materials are absolutely terrible insulators. They’re a poor choice for a building that needs significant heating in the winter and cooling in the summer because they lose energy faster than most other materials through conduction.

This is one of Dr. Lstiburek’s complaints – the architect chose the materials for their appearance rather than for their efficiency. At the time the buildings were designed, few people cared about efficiency as America emerged from rationing and huge national sacrifices during the second world war. Even though America has different priorities than when this building was designed, we’re still paying for the legacy of the International and Bauhaus styles.

The International Style emerged in the 1920’s and the modern buildings that followed relied on cheap energy and engineering to overwhelm any problems. So, if you wanted to build a very inefficient building on the lake shore in Chicago, you just engineered the building to use enough energy to keep the people inside comfortable regardless of the exterior conditions and amount of energy consumed.

This sense that architects and engineers could just design their way out of any issues caused us to lose generations of building knowledge that was passed down from architect to intern before the rise of modern architecture. That knowledge included how to build for specific climates – modern buildings all look the same no matter where they’re located. Before modern architecture, buildings had adapted to an area over hundreds of years so the buildings in the southWESTern United States looked noticeably different from buildings in the southEASTern United States because the climate of those two areas are very different.

As a profession, the architecture community is recovering from seventy years (1920 – 1990) of relatively inefficient architecture. The point Dr. Lstiburek makes is that there are still many architects designing exterior walls of glass and other inefficient materials. The happy circumstance of the last two decades (1990 – 2010) is the number of “voluntary green building programs” that have been developed to address building science issues. Owners and developers are beginning to see the savings in operational costs and we’re getting better about making decisions based on health issues and life cycle costs rather than initial costs.

We agree with Dr. Lstiburek when he said, “… I have faith that the architectural profession will fix itself. Architects need to get in charge of the process again.. and for that they need the education and experience to do that.” Dr. Lstiburek, members of the architecture community and the others who are working to collect the institutional knowledge we discarded are all allies in that effort.

The other allies are the members of a typical project team: the owner, contractor, engineers, etc. The owner (the person or company that develops the project) is really the key to the process. You can see from the statement on our website: we believe better owners make better architecture. It’s our responsibility as a profession to make better owners so we can all benefit from better architecture.

We try to deliver a higher level of service to our owners though it’s a challenge to explain why that level of design and integration is important when the owner has bids from other architects that don’t include engineering, building systems coordination and other services that we think are critical. We have owners, who have never gone through a construction project tell us that they “don’t need so many drawings” or “the contractor will figure that out”.

It’s difficult to hear those things because we know the typical result though we’re tremendously thankful for the opportunities that we’ve been given. We’re also thankful that you’ve taken the time to read such a long blog post. We hope you’ll leave a comment or send us your response through this website. Thanks!

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