"Thoughts and Observations on Architecture and You"

Topics of importance for people about to build or renovate

Reconfigured stairway in San Francisco

Details Matter

After selecting the most appealing design scheme from several that have been presented, some owners are inclined to ask their architects to limit the time they spend studying and adjusting the preferred scheme, and developing its key details. They may also request that information on the final construction drawings and specifications — the documents used to price and build the work — be limited to only that needed to obtain a building permit. When asked if they are inadvertently setting up conditions that will lead to a more arduous and adversarial building process, these owners often respond, “No.” I respectfully suggest to them that, in my experience, they are wrong.

As is the case with other creative endeavors, a good building design typically results from “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” The “10% inspiration” is the generation of interesting design concepts at the start of a project. The “90% perspiration” is the effort required to make one of them work well, i.e., function efficiently, be buildable, and look striking. For a creative person, generating conceptual ideas is relatively easy. Transforming the best idea into a sound building design that retains the appealing qualities of the original concept, and can be built within a reasonable budget, is much more difficult.

Initial Ideas Need to be Studied and Tested

Many architectural concepts appeal to us at first. However, design and construction limitations often surface only after studying the concepts in more detail. Ideas that seemed terrific may prove to be technically or financially unfeasible.

Those of us with considerable design and construction experience have our suspicions about whether a concept “will fly” when we first see or hear about it. We often use that experience as the basis to make hasty judgments about an idea’s building merit. But our intuition can be wrong. History is full of examples of good ideas that had been rejected before someone explored them fully and uncovered their potential — and the potential of a chain of related ideas that emerged while working with the original one.

Which Details Matter Most?

From An Aesthetic Viewpoint:

  • Details Needed to Make the Design Concept Work

    The viability of a design idea is often dependent on achieving particular visual and / or experiential effects using a building’s details. For example, we may want a building to have as little contact with the ground as possible to avoid interfering with a site’s natural drainage pattern. We may choose to reflect this environmental concern in the design by making the building appear to float over the ground, even though its structural system needs to be physically connected to the ground. To achieve this effect, the building’s support posts may need to be very slim and positioned well inside of the perimeter of the building so they can’t be seen easily. The building’s lower horizontal edge will then have no obvious means of support and the building will appear to float. If the support details can’t be designed to provide this effect, the design concept will not work.

  • Details That Strengthen the Design’s Character

    The great 20th century architect Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” He was referring to the importance they play in emphasizing and reinforcing the design character of a building. To do so, they need to be consistent with it. When I visit a building, after getting a general impression of its sculptural qualities and an understanding of how it functions, I look at its details. One can quickly spot those that are well thought out and complement the spirit of the overall building design, and those that seem foreign to it.

    For many people, a building’s details are what make it unique and desirable. They also hint at the level of thoroughness that went into the design. Follow the lines of trim in a building and you may find locations where the trim stops or jogs in an awkward manner because of a building condition that was not properly considered before construction. This may be indicative of the level of design care given to other areas of the building as well.

From a Construction Standpoint:

  • Uncommon Details of Common Construction Areas

    If a builder looks at a set of drawings that has no details, he does not know what the owner and the architect may have in mind for the specific construction of the building. He can guess what is desired or, more likely, he will make the assumption that his “normal” way of building and finishing a construction area, say, a door opening, is going to be acceptable to the owner and the architect. Without details, he will need to make that assumption dozens of times. This can be a problem if, in the doorway example, the owner and the architect have in mind a clean, contemporary look where the door frame and the adjacent drywall are separated by a subtle reveal (a small finished recess) rather than covering the gap between materials by a molding, as is typically done. The level of precision and the time required to build the reveal detail is greater than that for the molding detail, something a builder needs to know.

  • Details for Unique Building Features

    When an architect incorporates special features in a project for which the contractor has no useful building precedent to reference, the architect has an obligation to show the builder how he anticipates that the features can be built. Good architects think about the building process as they design these features, often seeking builder comments about construction methods they are considering. Failing to include construction details showing how unique features are to be built, and expecting a builder’s crew to “figure it out” while trying to move forward efficiently with the work, is, in my view, professionally irresponsible.

  • Details for Common Problem Areas

    Incorrect water-resistive design and installation is the most frequent cause of building performance failures. Problems occur because a) manufacturer guidelines and cautions have not been properly followed when designing wall and roof assemblies and the openings in them, b) the water-resistive system does not accommodate special building or site conditions like excessive ground movement or high wind exposure, c) the integrity of the system relies mainly on the excessive use of sealants (that eventually dry and crack) where materials meet rather than on proper overlapping design and channeling of water, and d) a lack of redundancy in the design that would have provided a secondary means of water resistance if the primary system failed in any one location. Only drawings of construction details show how (or whether) these issues have been addressed in the design.

Detailed drawing information provides a common basis for discussions among the owner, design consultants, manufacturers’ representatives, and contractors about how best to build a project to achieve the owner’s design goals. These discussions need to take place before, not after, construction begins, if an owner wants 1) the best design and construction quality for the budget, 2) the most accurate project cost estimates in advance of construction, and 3) a smoother and more efficient building process.

While design work is intangible relative to construction work, its importance in achieving a successful project outcome is clear to all of us who provide building services. Owners are well advised to devote more of their project budget to plan their work carefully, and less to make changes and corrections during construction that would have been unnecessary with a little more thought before the first nail was driven.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767