What is “Building Technology”?

I often mention “building technology” in my blog posts.  I’ve realized that I’m using a term that many people aren’t familiar with.

When I use the term “building technology,” I am not talking about information technology within a building.  I am not talking about the software technologies used to design buildings.  I’m not talking about only high-performance buildings.  I am not talking about only new technologies in building systems.

I am talking about “technology” in terms of its most basic, stripped-down definition: “1. The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. 2. A manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.”  (Definition is from Merriam Webster.)

And I am talking about “building” as defined by Webster, too: “The art or business of assembling materials into a structure.”

When I use the term “building technology,” I mean knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings.  Drawing proper construction details requires understanding building technology.  Identifying conflicts between the construction documents and the way things are being built on the job site requires understanding building technology.

Knowledge of building technology is an important part of the practice of architecture, but it’s an area in which many of today’s young architects are weak.  This is an area in which I was weak, until I started writing specs and suddenly had starting points for researching my questions (or rather, I suddenly realized what questions I ought to be asking).1

We hear a lot about high-performance new technologies in buildings, but somehow, we seem to have lost the basics of knowledge about detailing foundation, roof, and exterior wall assemblies that meet the minimum of the applicable code requirements.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot properly prepare construction documents for submittal to the authorities having jurisdiction for the purposes of obtaining a building permit.

From the 2009 International Building Code (which has been adopted by many municipalities), Chapter 1, 107.2.4 “Exterior Wall Envelope”:

“Construction documents for all buildings shall describe the exterior wall envelope in sufficient detail to determine compliance with this code. The construction documents shall provide details of the exterior wall envelope as required, including flashing, intersections with dissimilar materials, corners, end details, control joints, intersections at roof, eaves or parapets, means of drainage, water-resistive membrane and details around openings.” 

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot demonstrate (to an owner, to a contractor, or to the building department) the constructability of a design.  A building is not made up of bits and pieces erected next to each other; a building is composed of interrelated systems and assemblies that work together to contribute to the building’s proper functioning.  If these components are not carefully selected, specified, and detailed, with the designer taking into account these components’ effects on all the other parts of the building, the completed building may not be able to protect its occupants from drafts, moisture intrusion, mold, condensation, cold, outside noise, or excessive heat.

When I worked as a project architect, I often put off the detailing of tricky conditions until the last possible time.  I know that some other architects do, too.  Drawing construction details is hard work.  There are other, more fun, more easily achieved, tasks that also must be accomplished before a set of construction documents is finished.  But waiting to detail the tough transitions is a problem – when we finally get into the meat of these things, sometimes we realize that the assumptions we’d carried all along were incorrect, and we need a taller parapet, or we need more rigid insulation in the cavity, or we need a building expansion joint.

This detailing work can be less tedious, less torturous, and less time-consuming when we have more knowledge and more understanding of these things.  We produce better construction documents, and help to get better buildings built, when we know more about building technology.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to high-performance building initiatives, such as those by the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program, the U.S. Green Building Council, and many cities and states.  Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), high-performance building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

But… who’s teaching architects about basic building technology today?

Architecture school curricula have gotten heavier on design; architecture graduates are supposed to learn almost everything else they need to know during their internships.  But as more and more knowledgeable gray-haired architects retire, many of the mentors for interns and young architects know less about basic building technology than the mentors of the past.

CSI (the Construction Specifications Institute) recognizes this problem, and is currently exploring the concept of a Building Technology Education Program.  The task team for this program has been charged with formulating “the concept of a building technology education program for participants in the design/construction industry that will benefit the industry by raising the technical knowledge of the participants.”  I don’t think a program like this exists today, and I don’t think that any other organization is working on anything comprehensive like this proposed education program.2

This program is envisioned as being for everyone in the construction industry – not just for intern architects and emerging professionals.  (Architects, remember: we’re part of the construction industry.)  The more that everyone in the industry can understand the concept that all parts of a building are interrelated, and that a modification to one assembly may require modifications to other assemblies, the more effective all of us in the construction industry can be.

Notes:________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Here are some links to past blog posts of mine that discuss technical weakness in architects – including my own past technical weakness.  I have greatly increased my understanding of building technology – anyone can.
    1. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/architects-take-back-the-reins/
    2. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-one/
    3. https://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-two/
  2. Here’s the roster of the Building Technology Education Program Task Team on the CSI website http://new.csinet.org/csi_services/committees.aspx.  (Scroll down to “FY 2013 Building Technology Education Task Team.”)  If you have suggestions for the team, please contact one of the members.

8 thoughts on “What is “Building Technology”?

  1. Excellent post, Liz! There is a school in Brooklyn that attempts to teach technology to building industry professionals called the Institute of Design and Construction. Vinnie Battista is the Executive Director http://www.idc.edu/about/about.php I was on their faculty until I moved to Alaska. He’s actually hurting right now…low registration, so there’s no room for me to return yet…hopefully that will change. I liked teaching there. I taught the advanced spec writing course there for six years. They don’t even offer the course anymore due to lack of interest.

  2. Well worth reading. I had the advantage of studying at the University of Cincinnati, where we alternated school quarters with work in architectural firms, thus balancing theory with practical applications.

  3. See January 2013 issue of Architect Magazine – http://mydigimag.rrd.com/publication/?i=142502

    See editorial on page 20.
    See article “Seven Is Enough” on page 118.

    The ideal tracks show internship during the school summers, none for typical path. I believe many schools currently require summer work internship. I believe University of Cincinnati is unique with its alternating quarters program – sounds like a very good way to gain experience and fund the current very high costs of education at the same time.

    In Typical Path Diagram it takes over 6 years to achieve 5,600 hours of IDP – that’s 933 hours per year in comparison to a full year of 2,000 work hours. That would indicate to me that something is wrong with the IDP currently being provided by offices.

    I would be interested if Ralph and/or Louis have any comments comparing the internship experience they received in their day to that they observe current interns in Cincinnati are experiencing.

    Note nothing is said in the article about improving the current architecture education programs except adding another degree (MS in Research Practices). I would be in agreement with Liz’s comment in response to a similar posting below that the last thing we need in relation to improving the licensing process is another additional degree program.

  4. I like your post. I completely agree that the design of each detail where two or more systems come together is essential for buildings to meet the high performance required today. The challenge is to get the designers involved with the construction so they see the issues that they create and have a hand in developing a solution.

  5. Pingback: Illogical (part two) | Comments From a Spec Writer

  6. I thought it was interesting when you mentioned that a designer needs to take into account the different components and parts of a building, especially when it comes to protecting those inside it. Definitely sounds like they would need to learn and research more about these components and how they can affect the overall project. That being said, I’m kind of interested to learn more about the different components you mentioned and how that knowledge can affect an architect’s decision.

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