What’s Under That Stuff?

I recently stayed at a historic hotel a few states away. It’s a very historic hotel – over 130 years old, and a designated historic landmark. The framing of the grand old building is all wood. I don’t know exactly what is under the finished floors in the guest rooms, but I do know that wood framing and wood subfloor are among the components in there.

Our bathroom had large-format natural stone tile – about 12 inches by 24 inches – probably not “period” – and also not very old. Based on a few facts that I know from staying there several times over the last half century, and a long-held interest in the building, my best guess is that the large-format stone tile on our bathroom floor had been installed just over 15 years ago.

The stuff is thick – 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch thick, if the base and wall tile are the same as the floor tile – and it appears to be natural marble.

And it’s cracked, in multiple places. And multiple bathrooms on the same floor also have cracked floor tile.

Cracked large-format marble floor tile, hotel bathroom. Photo by Liz O’Sullivan

The stuff under this tile is probably the reason for the cracking. I’m not exactly sure what’s under there besides the wood framing and the wood subfloor, but one thing I do know for sure is that there is barely a single level or flat hallway floor or guest room floor in the hotel. More importantly, some of the floors feel a bit… flexible.

Levelness isn’t a big issue – tile can be installed on ramps, after all. (Our bathroom floor was a bit like a ramp, by the way, noticeably sloping from the door to the back wall. Ah, the charm of an old hotel.)

But my perception of flatness… that is an issue for the substrate under large-format tile. And the flexing in the floor that I felt when I walked down the hall or across my guest room? That is definitely not good under tile. This flexing is probably at the root of the cracking issue. Deflection is an important thing to address for floors which are to receive tile.

Now, I bet that some measures had been taken with the preparation of the substrates for tile so that they weren’t as flexible or unlevel as they are elsewhere in the building. The tile floors certainly didn’t feel flexible or unflat. But… those tiles cracked, after installation. So my guess is that the measures weren’t quite enough.

Obviously humans have been walking on marble for ages – even on thin marble such as tile. The astonishing roof terraces of the Duomo in Milan, Italy, are paved in marble, and any ambulatory person who can get up there (via elevator or stairs) can walk around the roof terraces, on the marble pavers, and even on the sloped marble roof tiles.

I don’t know what’s under the Duomo rooftop pavers and tiles. (Wouldn’t that be a fabulous tour – the attic of the Duomo?) But I do know that a different substrate installation than what is existing might have helped prevent the cracking of the hotel bathroom floor tile. And my opinion is that if the existing conditions were such that not enough could have been done to create an appropriate substrate for large-format natural stone tile, perhaps a different finish should have been selected for those hotel bathroom floors.

The construction industry has installation guidelines for so many parts of buildings. Manufacturers of specific products and assemblies have their own published installation instructions, and proper installation is often tied to warranty validity. For example, in many cases, an EPDM roofing installation must be done under certain weather conditions, must use specific products approved but not necessarily made by the EPDM manufacturer, and must be inspected by the EPDM manufacturer’s technical representative in order to get the specified warranty.

Building codes incorporate some standards into their requirements – in order to meet code, certain building products and assemblies must be installed according to certain published standards. For example, some building codes require that suspended acoustical panel (“acoustical tile”) ceilings are installed in accordance with the provisions of ASTM C636, Standard Practice for Installation of Metal Ceiling Suspension Systems for Acoustical Tile and Lay-In Panels.

Other building materials, such as lumber, plywood, brick, glass, and natural stone tile, don’t necessarily come with manufacturers’ installation instructions, and since there are many different ways that these materials are used in construction, building codes don’t necessarily govern their installation, either. But industry organizations have developed guidelines for the installation of these materials and so many more. There are at least two separate industry organizations who have developed some guidelines for the installation of natural stone floor tile. The Natural Stone Institute (formerly the Marble Institute of America) has some important guidelines in its Dimension Stone Design Manual.1 A publication by the Tile Council of North America, the TCNA Handbook for Ceramic, Glass, and Stone Tile Installation2 is referenced by the Dimension Stone Design Manual, and is also a very important stand-alone document. The TCNA Handbook has tile installations called out by alphanumeric designations that many people are familiar with – many tile setting and grout manufacturers refer to specific TCNA installations in their product info, and many specifiers use the TCNA designations in Tile Installation Schedules in the Tiling spec sections. Some architects and interior designers carefully refer to the TCNA Handbook when they’re figuring out the designs of tile installations.

But sometimes design professionals just don’t realize that there are industry-standard ways to install things. And then there’s the special condition of an existing, historic building – historic buildings certainly can be tricky. And sometimes the approach that makes the most sense is to work with what you have, and not do any invasive explorations to verify suitability of substrates for new installations. One problem with a project that involves nothing but updating interior finishes is that sometimes the design team is made up completely of people who are considering nothing but the surfaces, and the person selecting the floor tile may not realize that one floor tile is not necessarily interchangeable with another floor tile. Natural stone isn’t as strong as most ceramic tile. So a proper installation of natural stone floor tile requires a stiffer substrate (a substrate with less deflection) than an installation of ceramic floor tile requires.

Both the TCNA and the Natural Stone Institute address stiffness of subfloor for natural stone tile in their publications. For stone tile on wood subfloor without room for a thick mortar bed, TCNA calls for the joists to be no more than 16 inches on center, supporting the plywood subfloor, over which should be installed a plywood underlayment, then a backer board such as a cementitious backer board, then the stone tile. The Natural Stone Institute and the TCNA both call for stone tile subfloor areas in frame construction to have a deflection not exceeding L/720 of the span. There may be some wiggle room with some of the TCNA guidelines (joist spacing, backer board) when using certain uncoupling mats which have specific manufacturers’ installation instructions for the mat and the tile, but the 2 layers of plywood (subfloor plus underlayment) seem to be the best practice in all natural stone floor tile installations.

I’m not an authority on tile, or on the Milan Duomo – the point I’m trying to make with this blog post is that there are ways to design, detail, and specify, in our construction documents, the proper installation of most building materials, and this is not where a design professional’s creativity should take the lead. This is where the design professional’s technical side needs to be guiding the documentation. There are manufacturer requirements in some cases, building code requirements in some cases, and industry best practices in so many cases, including the case of natural stone tile. The designer should become familiar with these. Not all of this technical stuff can be taken care of with the project specifications – some of it needs to be shown in the drawings. Not all finishes can be applied or installed the same way as other finishes, even in a remodel, even when replacing (what-was-probably-small-ceramic) tile with (large-format-natural-stone) tile. When materials are designed and detailed properly in the drawings and specs to explicitly describe a correct installation, they’ll look as good decades later as they did immediately upon completion. (Maybe they’ll even still look good centuries later.)

Duomo Roof Terraces, Milan, Italy, September 2019. Photo by Liz O’Sullivan

Marble roof paver on the left, marble roof tile on the right, Duomo Roof Terraces, Milan, Italy, September 2019. Photo by Liz O’Sullivan

Notes:

  1. The Natural Stone Institute’s Dimension Stone Design Manual is on their website for free. You access one chapter at a time.
  2. The TCNA Handbook for Ceramic, Glass, and Stone Tile Installation is updated every few years. It’s available for $50 on the TCNA website.

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

The Follow-Through

Yale University New Haven Connecticut July 2018 Liz OSullivanLearning isn’t always comfortable.

Some of the lessons we learn most thoroughly come from mistakes we’ve made, or from finding out the consequences of actions we never considered before acting. For a specifier, these lessons hit hardest any time after bid opening, through the first few years of occupancy. (Anytime after pricing is set, or worse, after the building is built.) Sure, we research the things we specify, during the construction documents phase, but unless we’ve been given specific direction, we do our best, trying to keep in mind a general sense of the owner’s need for durability balanced with budget, and go with industry standards that align with those goals.

Discomfort sets in when we realize we need to research something further during construction, or after occupancy, because of a question from the architect. It means our work wasn’t quite right, or wasn’t written clearly enough. We need to follow through, follow up on the work we did, and make sure it was right, so the architect can defend it, or figure out what needs to change in order to make it right. Knowing exactly where and how something is being installed or used (once we’re in the construction phase) sure can illuminate the picture brightly, and let us know in which areas to focus our research. We often end up digging more deeply, because of the specific, now-more-clearly-defined, and now-critical, situation, and we end up learning stuff we’ll never forget.

In the last week I’ve had some good questions from some architect-clients: two questions about submittals. Nothing was wrong with the specified products, nothing was wrong with the specs, but there were some complicating factors that could have led to incorrect products being installed. These issues didn’t show up until the submittals came in during construction.

The most recent question came from the architect because the substrate indicated on the submittal for a type of coating was incorrectly listed. This raised some flags, so I looked into it deeply and realized that the manufacturer’s submittal sheet includes 2 different types of coatings, with very similar names, for various different types of substrates, on the same data sheet. The info I got from the architect indicated that the submittal didn’t use the full name of the product – just the words that were common to both of the different products on the datasheet! The incorrect product would have ended up on the building, if the contractor supplied the product most appropriate for the incorrectly-listed substrate. Lesson learned – I plan to always specify using the full name of a product to reduce the chances of a mistake such as could have happened on this project. The name of this product came from the owner and I didn’t change the way it was written. It was clear, but it could have been spelled out, to make it even more clear.

Another recent submittal question came about the specified thickness of sheet metal for a parapet coping. When I wrote the spec, I selected the default in the specification software I use. It turns out that the color of sheet metal we need isn’t available as standard in the thickness specified for the coping, although it is available as standard in all the other thicknesses of sheet metal specified for other uses. The architect asked why this sheet metal for coping was thicker. I wasn’t exactly sure… dug deep… and am now pretty sure that if this wide coping on this very visible sloped parapet were to be made of a thinner metal than specified, we’d see waviness, oil canning, sagging ugliness. Phew – a good lesson to learn, and just in time. Again, there was nothing wrong with the spec, but if I hadn’t been able to give the architect a good reason to ensure that the spec was complied with, it would have been much easier for the architect to allow thinner metal for the coping, and then we would have had a problem.

The chill that goes through me when I realize that I can’t answer a question about my work product immediately upon being asked is humbling. But no one, no one, could ever know enough about specs to know it all perfectly and thoroughly before ever starting out on the path of writing specs. And yes, the follow-through takes time. Following up on something that is brought to our attention well after we issued our documents requires shifting gears, jumping back to something we thought we were finished with, but we belatedly realize we weren’t. Specifiers must be lifelong learners, no matter how uncomfortable that is. 

Venice Italy September 2019 Liz OSullivan

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.)

 

 

 

 

Exterior Decorating

board formed concreteAre you designing for the function and performance of the building, or just doing some exterior decorating?

Funny things can happen early in design on a project, when an architect or interior designer makes color boards for the owner to make selections from, or to present to a municipality, or some other entity with authority, for approval.

It’s natural for interior construction products to be selected on the basis of color and appearance – color may be the driver that leads a designer to select the product, manufacturer, finish, and size. Performance is often not a big factor in the choice of interior finishes. For example, a specific color is desired for a conference room wet bar backsplash, to coordinate with a company’s logo colors. The material could be natural stone or metal or ceramic tile or epoxy paint… and then the perfect color is found in a ceramic tile. So that tile gets specified.

However, the performance and function of exterior materials is much more important than their colors. Appearance is important, of course, but the primary function of the walls and roof of a building is to keep water, snow, hot air, and cold air out of the building. Performance should be a primary factor in the choice of exterior materials. But sometimes the exterior components of a building get selected based nearly solely on color, too. Once in a while, by mistake, early in a project, exterior material design decisions are made without even an understanding of the way these materials will be attached to, or constructed as part of, the building. Then they get presented to the owner or authorities having jurisdiction, and it’s not until later that the team realizes the selected exterior materials won’t work.

I know this happens, because as a specifier, I’ve had some interesting experiences writing specifications based on the information I’ve been given by the architect for different exterior construction products, including fiber cement cladding, aluminum composite material panels, and aluminum windows. Sometimes, for these and other building envelope products, I’ve just been given the manufacturer’s name and the color – but not a product name. I’ve worked backwards from the color finish, and have narrowed my options down to the only product by that manufacturer that comes in that finish, and, viola, I have the product. Usually this is fine, but several times, I’ve ended up specifying a product that is nothing like what the architect thought it was. What happened was the architect selected the finish from the manufacturer’s available finishes, but didn’t check to make sure that the selected finish was available on a product that would work for the application. Then the team figured out later, after more detailed drawings had been developed, that that was not at all what was envisioned.

Few people pick a car to buy based solely on the colors available from a particular dealer or maker. Most people pick the general type of car model they want, maybe compare some different makes and models for performance, safety, and price, and then look at available colors last. Most buildings are meant to last longer than most cars – they certainly shouldn’t be designed with color foremost in mind. Performance and function of exterior materials need to be foremost in the mind of the designer of a building. Color selection should come after that.

There was probably little room for design-team-confusion during the design and specification of the board-formed concrete wall in the photo above. However, most of our exterior construction products do not include their own structure, air/vapor/water barrier, and finish, all in one material, the way this concrete wall does. All of these functions need to be considered when selecting exterior materials. If the exterior finish can’t stand up without backup structure or substrate, but you’re just thinking about finish, you’re just decorating.

If you, the architect, are not designing for the function and performance of the building’s exterior materials, who do you think will do that, and when? This design work should be done by someone on the architect’s team, and should be done in conjunction with, if not before, exterior finish material selection.


I should mention that I did not coin the phrase “exterior decorating” myself. It’s a good one that I like to borrow.

When Things Fall Apart

The best way to learn how buildings get put together may be to build them, or to watch them be built. But another pretty good way to learn how things go together is to see them falling apart.

You may not ever notice the piece of clay tile that plugs up the bottom of a curved tile at the edge of the roof – but here, in the center of the photo below, it’s sliding out, so you see it, and this may make you curious.

birdstop

Some people call these eave closure pieces “birdstops.” Some manufacturers provide such accessory pieces in metal. These, on an old house in Denver, are clay to match the roof tiles. Their purpose is to keep out weather, birds, and little four-legged critters.

Falling apart has an upside – we can learn how things are supposed to be put together.

What, Exactly, Are We Communicating?

Respect Private Property

What’s a hiker to think? You can see the summit from here, the hiking trail guidebook says the trailhead is up here somewhere, but the street signs don’t match the road names on the maps or in the guidebook, and now you see these conflicting signs on what you’re pretty sure is the right road. The green sign at the beginning of the road says “Private Property Beyond This Point, No Trespassing,” which usually means that one should not proceed. End of story, right?

Well, there’s another sign, farther away, up this same road. That brown sign says “Respect Private Land, Stay on Main Road,” which implies that it’s actually ok to proceed up this “No Trespassing” road, but only if you don’t veer off the road. Then, of course, there’s that little tacked-on “No Parking” sign, which implies that it’s ok to drive up this road, but only if you don’t park on it.

I’m a rule follower, so these conflicting signs confound and paralyze me. Surely we’d never create anything as confusing as this in the construction industry, would we?

I did a whole bunch of invoicing last month, because I had a ridiculous amount of work in April. I took a good, hard, look at my time on one of those projects, and confirmed my suspicions that I’d gone waayyy over my budgeted hours on this lump-sum-fee project. Wow, what a deal my client got, right? All those extra hours spent making the specs perfect? Well, not exactly.

Every few days while I was working on the project, I was sent a digital pile of information by my architect-client, who received stuff from the owner team. Many of these documents conflicted with each other, sometimes giving as many as 3 different conflicting instructions for one thing. I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile all the different directives – time that I actually needed for other things, like product research for the project, coordination for the project, work on other projects, family time, and sleep.

As most of the info was related almost solely to the specifications, and it came from the owner team, who should have known what they wanted since this wasn’t their first one of these buildings, the architect didn’t spend too much time reviewing it before forwarding it on. So my questions about this info were confusing to them, and, for some reason, some were unanswerable by the owner.

I’ve never been on the contractor team for a project, but I think I know how estimators feel when the architectural drawings say one thing, the structural drawings say something different, and the specs say a third different thing. An estimator may want to just take the risk of pricing what makes the most sense, and hoping it’s right. Asking questions during the bid period is sometimes an inefficient use of time, and experience may show that some answers aren’t worth the time spent. Perhaps this is why the design team sees surprises when submittals come in.

Back to that hike. As it turns out, if you can get to a place where you can receive a strong enough cellular signal, and you can look at a satellite view of the area with the conflicting signage, you can figure out whether or not you were on the right road to the trailhead.

Or maybe you skip that research, you just take that risk of trespassing, and you drive up that road. It’s a rutted 4-wheel-drive road, so you are hoping it’s the right road because it’s going to be a rough ride.

Turns out the trailhead and parking area are a half mile up that road! Apparently, you just have to ignore that first sign.

What a terribly inefficient standard operating procedure for communications of any type. Issuing conflicting instructions to a group requires multiple parties to either all risk making the wrong guess (and risk losing time or money), or all spend time doing the same research to figure out which of the conflicting instructions is the intended one. Whether the group you’re trying to communicate with is hikers, bidders, or your design team, isn’t it best to just issue clear, concise, correct, and complete information the first time?

Or maybe we could just shoot for non-conflicting.

 Black Diamond

Cramming It All In

IMG_2877Mid-January is unquestionably wintertime. No matter where we are in the northern hemisphere, the long hours of darkness tell our bodies to slow down and hibernate. The cold weather and the piles of snow here in Denver magnify that desire for dormancy.

We have as little daylight now as we had in early December, but every year, all through that crazy month of December, no matter what our bodies tell us to do, our calendars tell us there’s a holiday lunch for work, holiday parties with friends, a holiday program at the kids’ school, we should bring a holiday dish for our December board meeting… everyone wants to celebrate. There are gifts to send, cards to mail, cookies to bake, and get-togethers with family to travel to.

All of this activity is on top of our already full schedules – work and school and laundry and kids’ basketball practices don’t stop to make room for the holiday season, or for extra sleep during the darkness.

I know our world has been this way for a long time – we cram a lot into December, without taking anything out of our already busy lives to make it all fit neatly. Some of the benefits of the holiday season are lost to exhaustion. We can’t actually get to all the parties without physically wearing ourselves out. If we try to fit everything in, the celebrating becomes more work than fun, which certainly defeats its purpose.

Wouldn’t it be nice if work stopped to make room for this extra activity? I think it used to at least slow down for everyone, long, long ago, at the end of the year. Maybe that’s just me, looking back, through rose-colored glasses, at my family’s life when I was an elementary school student.

At the start of this past holiday season, I heard a young emerging professional, an intern architect, talk about not being a very good project manager. She was actually doing a great job of managing her project – always keeping team members in the loop, always following up on things, asking and answering all the right questions. In my eyes, she was just overwhelmed because she was doing everything – she was her firm’s contact person for the owner, contractor, and consultants, she was doing all the production on the drawings for the project, and she was making design and technical decisions, but she doesn’t yet know a whole lot about how a building gets put together. She didn’t realize that she’s actually really good at project management, but there is other architecture stuff that she’s still learning.

All architects should be lifelong learners, but at her firm, and at many small firms these past couple of decades, emerging professionals get thrust into project management positions before knowing much about how buildings get built and how to draw them so someone can build them. Baptism by fire is one way to learn, but it’s best to just focus on one thing at a time while in the fray. Figuring out how to draw construction documents without much input from a supervisor, and being a project manager for the first time at the same time, while also doing all the production on a project, is cramming too much into the job. Some of the benefits of learning fast by taking on a lot of responsibility early are lost… because there’s no time for some important things to be learned at all. But the project goes on anyway, whether or not the project manager ever learns enough about building technology to draw details that are weatherproof.

I may be looking through rose-colored glasses again, but from the stories I’ve heard about the olden days, it seems to me that architecture firms used to have interns just drawing and learning – working under licensed architects who were also working on the drawings regularly. Those architects who were managing the interns were not managing the project – someone else was managing the project (handling communication with consultants and the owner.) So there are three different jobs – the manager managing the overall project, an architect in charge of the drawings but not doing all the drawings single-handedly, and the interns learning and helping out a licensed architect with the drawings.

I suspect that things changed with the introduction of CAD, when the older architects no longer understood exactly how the interns were producing the drawings. A production team disconnect began at the same time that production could be carried out more quickly on computers. More production work could be done by fewer people, smaller production teams were required, so less-experienced people were being promoted to project manager. This disconnect pattern has been continued, perhaps magnified, with BIM, as more information gets input into the model by less-experienced people. The person reviewing and stamping the drawings may not quite like how they look, but accepts the explanation “That’s how the program generates the drawings.”

I think that in the distant past (before CAD, and before my own internship), intern architects were better prepared before being thrust into project management. They knew more about how a building gets built before they had to go walk the site with the owner as the only representative of their firm, or answer the contractor’s question about something on the drawings on the spot while standing in the trailer, or communicate with the structural engineer about the building department’s latest amendments to the International Building Code. In the quest for staffing efficiency, firms give recent grads more responsibility, and emerging professionals take it, and cram it all into the job, in the quest for experience, more autonomy, and higher pay. At the same time, for new grads overall, the time period between graduation from architecture school and achievement of licensure has lengthened.

During the holiday season every December, we juggle our already-full daily lives, plus the seasonal urge to slow down, plus holiday celebrations and traditions. The price we pay for this juggling is that a few of these balls get dropped every year. But that probably just means losing a bit of sleep, showing up at the meeting late and with baked goods from a store instead of from your own oven, and skipping a few parties.

What price does the architecture profession pay for having its emerging professionals try to learn too much on the job, in too short a time period, with too little guidance? What balls get dropped when we try to cram too much into the internship all at once?

 

What Do You Design First?

I used to dream about floor plans. I know, I know, this is not an uncommon occurrence for people who grow up to be architects. But what’s odd is that I don’t think much about floor plans anymore – I spend more time wondering about what’s inside the walls that comprise those plans.

I remember being a kid and drawing dream home floor plans. The homes were mansions, of course, with ballrooms, indoor pools, morning rooms, lounges, probably a dozen bedrooms, and… I don’t remember what else. My floor plans were made up of single, thick, dull, pencil lines which divided the rooms from each other, and the interior from the exterior. I was little; I didn’t know what was in the walls.

Even when I was older, in architecture school, and when I was already an architect, the plans – how the spaces work – are what I thought about first. Then I thought about the elevations – how the building looks – and then I developed those plans and elevations in tandem so they’d work together without too much design backtracking. This is pretty typical. I didn’t think much about what was in those walls until after plans and elevations were somewhat far along, and some external force (the schedule, my boss, or a work plan) required that I draw details.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a good spec writer – I became a better architect than I’d been before.

Now when I think about unbuilt buildings, I think about wall and roof assemblies first, before I think much about plans and appearances. I even think about the tricky transitions. (I don’t design in my work anymore, but I have sometimes thought about designing a home addition, and a house in the mountains.) When I see interesting buildings, I wonder about their wall assemblies, and how those influenced the building’s appearance.

The building blocks for real buildings aren’t those single thick lines I scratched out as a kid; they never were. Today’s building blocks are complicated assemblies. Before getting too far along with plans and elevations (the fun stuff), determine all the wall assemblies, roof assemblies, and foundation and slab components (the hard stuff). You can design these assemblies nearly independently of the plans and elevations – so nail them all down early! Then use these assemblies, these building blocks, as you design the plans and elevations.

That way you can work through the tricky details as you further develop your elevations and plans, rather than trying to resolve a terribly messy detail that you are stuck with because you took the aesthetic design too far before doing much technical detailing.

Once in a while, I prepare 100% Construction Documents specifications based on a pretty good drawing progress set that happens to include a couple of excessively unresolved areas, which haven’t changed much between Design Development and 90% Construction Documents. Then, when I review the Bid Set drawings, I find unexpected new things, that are not coordinated with the specs, because a challenging assembly or transition finally got designed as the inevitable deadline approached. This happens even on projects designed in Revit, even on projects with COMcheck requirements, and even on projects which have “wall types” for all assemblies (interior and exterior) figured out, but in plan detail only, from the beginning.

Waiting to resolve tough details can result in uncoordinated documents, or worse, conditions that get resolved awkwardly (and look bad), or need to be drastically changed at the last minute.

Understanding what’s represented by the lines we design with is what separates the grown-up architects from the kids.

Are Your Specification Concerns Reaching the Right Person?

Owners, contractors: I’m talking to you. The person who writes the specifications for a project is often not the project architect. Why is this important to keep in mind? A story from real life:

Last night as I sat at dinner with my family, we discussed plans for an upcoming weekend away with friends. My husband has employees, and is good at delegating tasks to his associates and assistants. I work for myself and am used to doing everything at the office. Sometimes my husband employs his well-developed delegation skills at home. (Sometimes I’m halfway through doing something before I realize that he has delegated to me a task that he really ought to be doing himself.)

Last night, the delegation was about our travel plans – he was asking me to email something to our friends that he was having trouble communicating clearly to me. I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make, yet he was asking me to reach out to our friends and “let them know.”

I wasn’t going to pass on some unclear nonsense in an email with my signature. After I suggested that he send the email himself, he managed to verbally articulate his concerns clearly to me, and I later sent the email. It would have been better if my husband had sent the email himself, but he doesn’t like typing (and I love him).

Sometimes while my husband is driving, he’ll call me and ask me to contact someone about coordinating the kids’ soccer practice pickups that he and someone else have already communicated about. I know nothing about their plans, the two of them have previous knowledge, I’m supposed to be the middleman, but I don’t have all the information they have. I do my best, I ask questions to make sure that I’m passing on the right info. I really prefer that my husband contact people directly, but sometimes he doesn’t have contact info at hand while he’s driving.

Not everyone who fulfills delegated middleman tasks is as conscientious as I am. Not everyone understands the things they listen to, transcribe, and send on to someone else, yet they send them on, because they know it’s part of their job. Double-checking that you’ve properly understood the meaning of something before you pass it on to someone else is a good practice, whether it’s for work or fun, but not everyone does this.

The owner, the end users, the construction manager, the general contractor, and the subcontractors on a construction project usually communicate with the project architect or the architecture firm’s construction contract administration person. This person may or may not have prepared the project specifications; usually someone else wrote the specs. If a sub has a question about something in the specifications, and has an old-fashioned talking conversation about it with the project architect, important items have the potential to be lost before they get passed on to the specifier. The project architect or contract administrator, the middleman in this case, may not have the deep knowledge about specifications that the subcontractor and specifier have, and might only pass on what was understood, or might even take a guess at what was meant.

Owners, users, construction managers, general contractors, subcontractors: Never assume that your contact at the architecture firm actually wrote the specs. Keep in mind that it’s possible that this person isn’t actually very familiar with the contents of the project manual. If the specifier is not at your project meeting, and items come up that affect the specs, I suggest that you communicate your concerns in writing to the project architect, so that the project architect can send on your concerns to the author of the specifications verbatim, and not risk having the original meaning of your question or comment get lost in translation. Better yet, copy the specifier on your email to the project architect… or maybe even save the specifier a seat at the table for your project meetings.