How Long Is This Gonna Last?

When I was in architecture school, people often talked about “building for 500 years.” The architecture program at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, is a classical program, steeped in the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, so this timeframe is not a surprise. For the past 5 decades, all architecture students at Notre Dame have spent an entire school year in Rome, in the middle of their degree program, studying the city and its buildings. Rome is a fascinating city, with many ancient buildings, or at least parts of many ancient buildings, still intact, and in most cases still in use. Usually the buildings being reused have been adapted to be something other than what they were originally built for. A great example of this is the Theatre of Marcellus, built as an open air theatre similar to the Colosseum in ancient times, but then partly used for parts (stone) for other structures, then turned into a fort, then turned into a palazzo (a private palace), and then later turned into apartments. It continues to be used as apartments, and still includes parts of the ancient building. You can see parts of the building from different eras in the photo below (some ancient, some restoration of the ancient, and some of the newer apartments at the top).

Theatre of Marcellus, Rome, photo by Liz O’Sullivan

It’s mostly just an accident that buildings like this have lasted this long. I’m sure the builders of the original theatre didn’t envision it lasting over two millennia. But they used the construction materials, building methods, and knowledge they had – they didn’t have many choices. If they wanted something to last for more than a year, they pretty much had to build it in such a way that it might last thousands of years.


Here in the New World, up in the mountains in Colorado, we often see old miners’ cabins in various stages of deconstruction, decay, stabilization, or restoration.

Miner’s Cabin, Colorado, photo by Liz O’Sullivan

A silver miner probably built the cabin in the photo above – silver mines operated near this cabin starting in the 1870’s – but the actual age of the cabin is unclear. It’s obviously no longer in use. It long ago outlived its usefulness in this terribly harsh spot over 12,000 feet above sea level, above treeline, directly below several 14,000 foot high mountain peaks, whose flanks still have old abandoned mines all over the place – yet the cabin remains. How long was this cabin supposed to last? We don’t know, but in order to build a habitable shelter that would withstand the fierce winds coming down from the mountain peaks, and the tremendous wintertime snow loads, for as long as the miner’s luck or determination held, the builder had to use materials accessible in this remote area (primarily evergreen trees cut from the forest nearby), and the available knowledge at the time. So it stands today, probably accidentally.


Today in most of the U.S. we have many choices of building materials and methods. Usually, the more durable and resilient materials are more expensive, so building owners who are building to hold for less than a decade are going to choose less-expensive materials so that they end up with buildings that serve them well, with little repair or expensive maintenance, for only as long as they intend to hold them. What happens next to the buildings doesn’t matter much to the first short-term owners. But owners who intend to hold buildings for the foreseeable future (maybe a university, a hospital, a public school, or a government) usually carefully consider and weigh the desired lifespan of the building, desired or budgeted maintenance and repair costs, and construction costs. Almost no one has an unlimited budget for construction costs, but some owners do have enough so that they can build in ways that most owners no longer build. Most people don’t pay for double-wythe clay masonry exterior walls as a general rule for institutional buildings, but at least one university that I know of has made this a standard for their campus in recent decades. Some owners only have enough construction budget to build their exterior walls with studs and OSB sheathing, even if their plan counts on the building’s lasting for more than 25 years. They just have to hope that no catastrophic water damage event occurs. In rising floodwaters, a building with an exterior wall assembly with less-durable or less-resilient materials that get soaked will fare much worse than a building with double-wythe clay masonry exterior walls, and may even have to be demolished well before the end of its originally-planned life.


Some old buildings accidentally ended up being long-lasting; some new buildings accidentally end up being temporary. Older methods of construction are more durable and resilient by default, and are more expensive. Some of our newer methods, which can pencil out to make more financial sense for an owner’s intentions for the building, cannot withstand some disasters, or even minor water damage over a long term, and buildings can end up being a total loss before their planned ends. What a waste, in the big picture.

But some buildings are actually meant to be truly temporary.


When Denver restaurants reopened after closing in the early days of Covid, they were allowed to apply for permits to expand seating into the right-of-way and parking lots. Denver has a sunny, dry climate, and if they can get it, restaurants have outdoor patio or sidewalk tables for diners – used almost all year round, even in winter, even when there is no pandemic, at sunny noontimes. We love to be outdoors. But it can get very, very cold in Denver in the fall, winter and spring. When Covid-19 combined with chilly weather, Denver saw a proliferation of small temporary buildings, set up on sidewalks, parking lots, and even streets near restaurants.


None of these temporary buildings is great. Many are small greenhouses with doors, repurposed to be tiny dining rooms with one table inside, scattered around parking lots or restaurant patios. Some are large event tents, set up on sidewalks or streets, with two ends open, and a mess of hoses, cables, and propane tanks to bring electricity and heat for a dozen tables of mostly-outdoor diners. Some are wood shed-type structures, with individual booths in partitioned areas under the roof, and curtains making up one wall. Denverites have been stepping over power cords on sidewalks and avoiding flapping plastic “walls” for months. The restauranteurs were lucky to get these structures – they quickly became hard to procure.


Last month, I ate inside at a restaurant for the first time in over 13 months, to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Well, we were inside, but technically we weren’t in the restaurant. We were in a very thoughtfully designed and constructed temporary “outdoor private bungalow” located on a before-times parking lot, 2 doors down from the restaurant. Instead of the quick-we-need-something-that-we-can-make-do-with approach that most restaurants seemed to take, this restaurant actually had their outdoor bungalows designed and constructed to fit their specific needs. The structures have no floors, but they have rugs. Ours was big enough for a table for 4, but didn’t feel too big for the 2 of us. Each structure has electric heating, nice lighting, a glass door on a closer, and a slider window next to the door. Interior wiring is concealed and thoughtfully routed, outdoor wiring and lighting were carefully installed. The bottoms of the walls are opaque, possibly fiber cement panels, the top parts of the walls are translucent polycarbonate. The roof, a white corrugated shed roof, drains thoughtfully. There are about 18 of these, most in rows of up to 6, with shared walls, in this parking lot.

Covid-Era Outdoor Dining Bungalows, Denver, photo by Liz O’Sullivan


How did one restaurant have such an ideal designed-to-order solution while others scrambled to make do with flimsy greenhouses or tents? Planning. If I recall correctly, this restaurant appeared to me to be late to the game of outdoor dining shelters – but now I know that was probably because they were planning and constructing, while others were popping ready-made things into place. In late September of 2020, the City of Denver announced that restaurants could apply to continue to operate in the public right-of-way or in parking lots through October 2021. So, that announcement set a lifespan of about a year for a temporary outdoor dining structure, one important known thing in a sea of unknowns. This restaurant has had a large following of loyal patrons for almost 3 decades. They kept up a curbside pickup program during the Covid-shutdown days. It’s located in a neighborhood where many people eat out many nights of the week and walk to their favorite restaurants. Employee turnover is low – servers work at the restaurant for years. So although no one could guarantee anything at any time during the early days of Covid, this restaurant is more stable than many, and was sure to have continued patronage at some minimum level.


The restaurant set some requirements for use of the “private bungalows” – reservations in advance, reservation deposits, fixed price 4-course menu only, and a strict 2-hour maximum use time limit, due to a neighborhood requirement that they close the outdoor dining at 10 pm on weekdays and 11 pm on weekends. This restaurant was able to determine some knowns on their own. But my guess is that the biggest piece of this puzzle had to be the permission to keep the outdoor dining bungalows erected through October 2021 – setting a lifespan. Presumably the restaurant could budget based on these things. (Knowing how much diners would spend, knowing the maximum amount of time they’d stay, knowing how long the private dining bungalows could stay in place.) The structures only have to be weathertight for a year. The windows and doors only have to operate smoothly and look good for a year. The thin solid walls only have to resist weathering and look okay for a year. In these very uncertain times, this restaurant was able to take the knowns set by the City, create some of their own knowns, and work with those to come up with a budget for their temporary structures.


Denver became full of temporary structures due to Covid. We have drive through tents and sheds for Covid testing set up in parking lots. There are hundreds of camping tents and tarps set up on unoccupied properties and the strip between sidewalk and street where increased numbers of people experiencing homelessness are living all over the city. Restaurants have the aforementioned strange little greenhouses for private outdoor dining. Our friends’ backyards began to include makeshift roofless enclosures around firepits for socially-distanced dead-of-winter small gatherings. As these things cropped up, I became interested in temporary structures in a way I never imagined I would. Mostly, I have wondered what will happen to the temporary structures when they are no longer needed, or when they start to fall apart. I’m always going to prefer that cities be filled with resilient long-lasting structures, but temporary buildings might continue to have their places in cities too – and these are better when they’re thoughtfully conceived and executed.

Water lapping at the first step of an entry, Doge’s Palace, Venice. This happens all the time, yet the centuries-old building, made of solid stone masonry, is still standing.
Photo by Liz O’Sullivan

Now You See ‘Em, Now You Don’t: Green Roofs

Some of the projects I work on experience many design changes between initial concept and completion of construction. On healthy projects, the most dramatic changes that I see occur after the schematic design phase, before the beginning of the construction documents phase. A few of these projects of mine have included “green roofs” (vegetated roofs) at the outset of the project. But those were gone before the construction documents phase started. I’m not sure who’s talking whom down from the roof, but it’s outta there, over and over again. Who brought the idea to the project? Was it just something that added a splash of color to the architect’s renderings? Had the owner always wanted to be able to walk in a garden while simultaneously enjoying a great view from a rooftop? Was everyone on board with a green roof until the contractor’s preliminary pricing came in?

Denver voters just passed the Green Roof Initiative last month, mandating vegetated roofs for certain buildings within the City limits. I wrote a commentary about this for the newsletter of our Denver Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute. It includes a link to the text of the ordinance, and touches on the specifics of the initiative, some green roof risks for owners, and the loopholes in the ordinance. Here’s part of that:

“Denver voters faced Initiated Ordinance 300, the Denver Green Roof Initiative, in our recent election, and voted it in, by a small margin. What does this mean for building owners, developers, architects, engineers, contractors, roofing distributors and product representatives?” Continue reading…

Green roofs have benefits, mostly for the people who get to look out windows and see plants instead of roofing materials, but they can also mitigate urban heat island impacts, and help to improve the quality of stormwater before it hits municipal systems. Perhaps the most idealistic of the selling points made by the supporters of the Green Roof Initiative is the dream of rooftop urban farming. From the mission of the supporters: “Buildings are permitted to use the rooftop space for urban agriculture. This allows for the building to rent out their rooftop space to urban farmers who can then supply their goods around the city.” However, crops need a roof that meets more than just the minimum mandated by the ordinance. Here’s a basic overview of the 3 main types of green roofs. Some require beefier supporting structure, and more complex irrigation systems, than others.

Most owners who are merely looking to build a commercial building in the Denver area will do the minimum green roof, use a loophole to get out of building a green roof altogether, or build outside the City limits.

As I wrote in my commentary, “Building owners will have costs for their green roofs beyond the design and construction phases. They will have risks that owners without green roofs don’t have. Green roof plantings need to be maintained, cared for, and watered, forever. Insurance riders for green roofs will increase the costs of building insurance, but regular insurance policies usually exclude problems stemming from green roofs, so these will be necessary costs. Problems with the waterproofing components of green roof assemblies, discoverable only after moisture intrusion into buildings, are more difficult to diagnose and repair than problems with non-green-roof assemblies. Moisture intrusion is the most common cause of damage to buildings, and roofs are the parts of buildings that are most prone to moisture intrusion…”

Aesthetically, a green roofscape is a lovely goal for Denver, but building owners should not contribute to this blindly. They need to know what risks they are taking on. Sometimes people start projects without knowing a lot, then learn more as design goes on. (And then the green roofs on my projects aren’t there anymore.) In my work as a construction specifications consultant to architects, I expect to see a little bit more of the same pattern I’ve been seeing for my projects – green roofs that are there at schematic design, and gone before construction. Now you see ’em, now you don’t.

green grass

(Not a green roof. Just green.)

 

 

 

 

Another Case for Licensure and Regulation

Last week I had an experience that makes another good case for the licensure of architects and the regulation of use of the word “architect” and its derivatives.

I was chatting with a parent outside our kids’ after-school activity. She asked what I do for work and I gave my standard brief initial answer, “I’m an architect.”

She immediately told me her story. Her family is building an addition on to the house they recently bought. But they’re months behind with getting going on construction because of the first architect they hired.

After 3 months of working with the first architect, the drawings that they received for bidding to contractors couldn’t be built from – one bidder after another said he couldn’t build from those and needed other drawings. The night before the architect was planning to submit for permit, she checked the code, and found that the addition she’d been designing extended 5 feet into the setback. They’d have to redesign. My acquaintance went back to her with what the contractors said, she replied defensively that she “could do this,” she could submit the drawings and get a permit, this is what she does.

They fired her, and began looking for another architect.

Do the services provided sound like the services of someone who has worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect?

Not to me. But imagine the confusion of someone who has never hired an architect before.

Many single-family residential architects and designers draw more-constructible details, and are more familiar with building codes than many commercial architects (who have much more to learn about, and often, much bigger buildings to work on). They learn from working with experienced residential architects or designers, and from time spent on the jobsite. Less documentation is required for residential builders – contractors who do houses are used to building from pretty sparse documents. If they couldn’t build from what my acquaintance had given them, then those documents were pretty bad “construction documents.”

The services provided to my acquaintance sound to me like those of an unlicensed designer who hasn’t done any building envelope work, only interiors, and had no idea that she wasn’t competent enough to design an addition. She probably hadn’t worked under a licensed architect for very long, if at all.

(Only if you’ve worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, and have passed your licensing exams, can you legally call yourself an architect.)

Knowing that my new acquaintance had moved to Colorado recently, I figured she didn’t know that in Colorado, you don’t actually need an architect for single-family residential work. Many Colorado home designers are not architects. Unfortunately, some of them imply to the public and to their clients that they are architects. Many of them did go to architecture school, and have degrees in architecture. However, a degree in architecture means only that you learned a lot of design and theory, and not much of the stuff you need to know in order to get buildings actually built. That’s why you have to work for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect (and pass your exams) before you can go out and offer architectural services to the public on your own. It’s actually possible that the designer my acquaintance hired is an architect, but just a really incompetent one. In my opinion, it’s much more likely that she’s not licensed.

I feel bad about the money and time lost by my acquaintance. But even more than that, I’m embarrassed to be associated with this “architect” in the mind of my new acquaintance, and in the mind of all consumers who have similar experiences. I’m embarrassed for all architects. People who are not competent at architectural services, and who call themselves architects, bring down all architects in the eyes of the public. Incompetent practitioners in all professions create a bad name for those professionals, of course. But in Colorado, we have a lot of people who are not competent at architectural services simply because of the fact that they do not have enough experience working under someone competent to actually take their exams – but they go ahead and call themselves architects anyway.

Why does this matter, beyond my personal embarrassment? I believe that consumers should be protected, and so do the people of Colorado. That’s why the profession of architecture in Colorado is regulated by the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That’s why the Colorado Revised Statutes (our laws) require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to be able to use the titles “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect.” In addition, our laws require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to use the words “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect” in any offer to the public to perform architectural services (this includes marketing materials and websites). (A person who is working under the supervision of an architect and is in the process of completing required practice hours in preparation for the architect licensing examination is explicitly allowed to use the term “architectural intern.”)

Residential designers are perfectly within their legal rights to design houses and additions to houses. Many of them are very good at what they do. But unless they’re licensed architects they’re not allowed to imply to their clients that they are architects. Licensure does not guarantee competence, but it sure can weed out the least competent.

 

Shoegnome Hit the Nail on the Head

Jared Banks (you might think of him as Shoegnome, as I do) hit the proverbial nail on the head in his blog post yesterday. His post “You graduated from Architecture School and want to be called Architect” illustrated for me the main reason that I am so displeased by the formal use1 of the word “architect” to describe people who are not licensed architects.

Jared points out in his post that the question in the profession about who gets to use the term “architect” may be “just the symptom, not the illness,” and that “Perhaps the real problem isn’t who should be allowed to be called an architect. It’s actually that the value of architects has eroded.” Building owners are finding architects to be less valuable than they used to find them. I hate to be reminded of this.

When “architect” doesn’t mean much anymore, because architects provide less value than they used to, there are fewer objections to broadening the field of people who are eligible to call themselves architects.

Compounding yesterday’s displeasure, that morning I had read the text of the National Design Services Act, which was written by the AIA and the AIAS “to try to help alleviate this massive accumulation of debts for architecture students.”  It’s being sponsored in the House by Ed Perlmutter, a Congressperson from my state, Colorado.

The bill currently defines an eligible participant in the loan relief program as an “eligible architect” and defines “eligible architect” as an individual who “has completed an accredited masters program in architecture; or is an intern architect who has completed an accredited masters program in architecture and is enrolled in the Intern Development Program of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.” Here’s the text of that bill.

In other words, the bill defines “architect” as a person with a masters degree in architecture. Even the AIA, this country’s primary professional organization for architects, misuses the word “architect.”

The AIA is writing legislation that misleads our legislators and the public by ignoring the fact that under state laws, a person can’t be called “architect” without a state-issued license to practice architecture. (Oddly, the AIA also doesn’t seem to believe that a person with a 5-year professional degree, a BArch, should be eligible for loan forgiveness – the bill currently only addresses masters degrees.)

How is THIS advocating for architects?

This doesn’t help with the perception of the value of an architect. If everyone who finishes school gets called “architect” by the AIA and our federal lawmaking bodies, while under state law only those of us who have licenses can call ourselves architects, mixed messages are being sent. “You just have to get through school!” “You have to get through school, actually get some experience, pass some tests, and be willing to take on some professional responsibility!” Which is it? State law is clear. I believe federal law is silent on the matter, but will no longer be if this bill passes.

As I wrote to my senators and representative, the profession has problems, and one problem is that many grads have huge debt, but this bill is a bad idea that may further the problems of the profession by allowing schools to continue to charge more tuition every year, and deliver less of value to architecture students every year. Schools turn out architecture graduates who are nowhere near equipped to produce construction documents that buildings can be built from, but schools seem to be telling their grads that they’re ready to practice as full-blown architects upon graduation. That’s simply not true, and it’s not how our profession is set up.

Internship, the years between graduation and licensure, is an essential part of our training in this profession. Schools teach lots of design and theory, and a tiny bit of building technology and construction documentation. We are supposed to learn these practical things on the job. Producing construction documents is absolutely essential to the job, to the profession, as described in state licensing laws. But schools gloss over that, and some lead students to believe that they can just hire someone to do technical things like construction documents for them.

This National Design Services Act bill indicates that people straight out of architecture school can do a number of things, including “Assessment of the safety of structures that are in disrepair or have been damaged as the result of natural or manmade disasters.” I don’t want people right out of school doing this type of assessment in MY community. They are simply not qualified. (I may not be qualified. I’m an architect [licensed for over a decade], not an engineer.)

It’s not too late to find ways to return value to our profession. And I know where to start. Architects need to get more technical, and architecture firms need to keep technical expertise in-house or under their umbrella. By “get more technical,” I mean that architects need more building code expertise, an understanding of building technology, comprehension of building science, and expertise in effective construction contract administration. These things are no longer emphasized in many practices, and are rarely addressed in schools, but this knowledge and these skills are where the value lies for owners, for communities.

This knowledge, these skills, and the responsibility and liability that come with a license are what separate competent licensed architects from designers, architectural graduates, and kids with software programs. And we shouldn’t all be called by the same name.

 

Notes:

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1. By formal use, I mean use by newspapers, professional organizations, local government candidates, and architecture firms. I do not mean use during cocktail party conversation, or use by 19-year-olds explaining their college majors.

 

Inconvenient Assemblies

I’ve dealt with some inconvenient exterior wall assemblies lately.

Although two recent projects had to comply with the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, the nature of their exterior wall assemblies made achieving continuous insulation difficult in both projects, and made achieving a continuous air barrier difficult in one project. Energy calculations indicated that we did need continuous insulation on both; there was no getting around it.

In these projects, the insulation and air barriers were afterthoughts.

So the construction documents for both projects show some unusual applications of rigid insulation, and for one project, show an unusual application of an air barrier coating. It can all work, it can all meet the code requirements, but these situations may not be ideal for construction.

How did we get here? I believe that the exterior wall assemblies were dictated by the owner in one case and by the design-build contractor in the other case.

Owners and contractors aren’t required to be familiar with building codes. The person responsible for interpreting the building code and making sure that the construction documents comply with the code is the architect.

Whether the architect or someone else initially selects wall assemblies, the architect needs to verify code compliance, early in the project. And don’t forget that IECC! The earlier in the project that you take all code requirements into account, the more convenient for everyone, from architect to cost estimator to insulation installer.

 

 

 

Continuous Insulation & Masonry Veneer Anchors

There’s something that architects need to be aware of as we use increasingly thicker continuous insulation behind masonry veneer cladding.

If the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry veneer cladding exceeds 4-1/2 inches, the masonry veneer anchor spacing must be designed by a structural engineer.1

Masonry veneer anchor spacing is not usually designed by a structural engineer; the code provides prescriptive requirements that we typically follow, and this spacing is most often indicated in the specifications by the architect or the structural engineer.2

Manufacturers of some types of masonry veneer anchors indicate that the legs of the anchors can accommodate up to 4 inches of insulation. But even these can’t be used without having calculations run by an engineer, unless you keep the distance between the structural steel backup and the back of the masonry to 4-1/2 inches. (This would leave very little air space. You need at least 1 inch of air space, per the code, and an air space of 2 inches is recommended by the Brick Industry Association.3)

By the way, these things aren’t spelled out in the text of the International Building Code. They’re in a separate document that is incorporated into the IBC by reference, the TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5. This document is called “Building Code Requirements for Masonry Structures,” and is developed by the Masonry Standards Joint Committee (MSJC). Since it’s referenced in the IBC, it becomes part of the requirements of the IBC.4

So, architects, either stick with 4-1/2 inches or less between the structural steel backup and the back of the veneer masonry, or let your structural engineer know, as soon as possible, that you are exceeding 4-1/2 inches. If it’s too late for your project, sometimes the masonry veneer anchor manufacturer who gets the project will hire a structural engineer to check (or design) the anchor spacing. The cost of this service would get passed on to the general contractor and then to the owner (as an extra cost). Avoid a construction change order – deal with this on the design side, before construction starts.

Notes:

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  1. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.7.4 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 indicates that “A 4-1/2 inch maximum distance between the inside face of the veneer and the steel framing shall be specified. A 1 inch minimum air space shall be specified.” There are alternative procedures allowed by the code that can be used instead of these prescriptive requirements, but the alternative procedures are what require a structural engineer to design the anchor spacing.
  2. Chapter 12, section 12.2.2.5.6 of the latest version of TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5 tells us the prescriptive requirements for anchor spacing: “For adjustable two-piece anchors, anchors of wire size W1.7, and 22 gage corrugated sheet-metal anchors, provide at least one anchor for each 2.67 ft2 of wall area.
    “Space anchors at a maximum of 32 inches horizontally and 25 inches vertically…”
  3. The Brick Industry Association publishes online Technical Notes on Brick Construction. Here’s a link to their Technical Note on “Brick Veneer/ Steel Stud Walls.” http://www.gobrick.com/portals/25/docs/technical%20notes/tn28b.pdf
  4. Section 2101 of the 2012 IBC indicates that “Masonry veneer shall comply with the provisions of… TMS 402/ACI 530/ASCE 5.”