Simply Stated Architecture, P.C.

Taking Care of the Little Things

When people think of "architecture" their thoughts often jump straight to the large projects - entire buildings, major additions, or major alterations to an existing building. In a way, this is like only considering doctors for the major surgeries and ignoring them for the minor injuries, colds, and assorted issues that we face in daily life. Often, involving an architect and his expertise in even a small project can be beneficial in the same way that visiting the doctor for a checkup or minor issue can be beneficial - both in that it can prevent the larger problems as well as in that it can improve your daily life by resolving those minor issues. Let’s take a quick look at architects through history and what an architect can do for you.

Architects are trained in the design of the built environment. Our daily lives are in constant contact with this built environment. The houses we live in; the offices and other buildings we work in; the stores that we shop in; the theatres, stadiums, and museums we go to for recreation.

Architects have descended from the master builders and royal architects of old. Some look back roughly 4600 years to Imhotep who was the first recorded architect and engineer in early history for his design of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt. He was also one of the few non-royalty to be accorded divine status after his death - perhaps this is even the precedent for explaining some of the over-inflated sense of importance attributed to some architects...

Not only is Imhotep’s name still remembered nearly 5000 years later and his design is still standing, the pyramid complex is known for such things as being the first known use of columns in architecture.

Djoser Step Pyramid
The Step Pyramid of Djoser

Saqqara Colonnade
Roofed Colonnade at Saqqara

Throughout history, there is a long line of architects whose names are known for the buildings, temples, cathedrals, and monuments they designed as well as a surprising number of other objects around us. One of the most commonly known twentieth century architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, is known not only for his buildings but also for the furniture inside of them. At Fallingwater outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there is a collection of both built-in and freestanding furniture designed by Wright for the house as well as light fittings and other decorative elements.

Fallingwater, the Kaufmann Residence, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater Furniture
The interior at Fallingwater

If you want to go further afield to see the influences of architecture on our lives, creative people in other fields such as James “Jimmy” Stewart, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Courtney Cox (unfinished degree) all pursued architectural degrees.

However, around the time of the middle of the last century, there was an increasing shift away from this master builder culture as part of the overall shift in society towards specialization driven by the assembly line mentality of business. Everyone has their own special task in the overall scheme of things. People came to concentrate on knowing everything about one thing rather than a little bit about everything.

Architects have come to specialize as well. Some firms are known for designing for the health care industry, education, or performing arts. There are many benefits to this specialization in certain fields. However, at the core of architecture there still remain these vestiges of emphasis on overall knowledge. Comparing the disciplines of architecture and engineering, there are no specialties for the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) whereas the Principles and Practices of Engineering exam (PE) is offered in over a dozen different specialties. I do not offer this as a criticism. There is quite a bit of difference between being a nuclear engineer, chemical engineer, or structural engineer and I would prefer to have a specialist designing these systems just as I’d prefer to have a heart surgeon or a brain surgeon or an orthopedic surgeon operating on me for my particular ailment. There are good reasons to know everything about one thing! However, there are equally advantages to knowing a bit about a lot of things.

In building construction, there are a lot of individual systems that have to all come together and work in unison. The structural systems have to hold the building up; mechanical systems have to supply heating, cooling, and ventilation to the spaces; electrical systems have to provide power, light, and controls to spaces and other systems; and a host of other systems are woven into the mix - fire protection, security, interior and exterior finishes, and so forth.

Each of these systems is designed by a specialist. But it comes down to the architect to coordinate all of these different systems and bring them together into one package that can be built. As such, the architect has to have a general knowledge of each discipline in order to talk with the specialists and work out any conflicts that arise between the different systems.

There is a saying that if the only tool you own is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail to you. Given an issue such as increasing the energy efficiency of a building, you can run into the situation where the specialists will only concentrate on their specialty. A window company could recommend that new windows are the best answer. An insulation company could recommend adding insulation. An HVAC company could recommend a new furnace and air conditioner. Being familiar with all of these systems, an architect can look at the whole picture and suggest a holistic approach to the issue, analyzing the complete system rather than only one system at a time.

Further, architects joke that if you send out a plan of a square room to the various engineers, they will each return their respective design with their system prominently centered in the room. The electrical engineer will have a light squarely centered in the room. The fire protection engineer will have a sprinkler squarely centered in the room. The HVAC engineer will have a supply diffuser squarely centered in the room. And so forth with each represented discipline. From their calculations, this makes perfect sense as the optimum placement for an even distribution is to center it. A light off center is going to light up one side of the room more than the other. An offset sprinkler is going to put more water to one side of the room than the other. It is up to the architect to work out the conflicts. Two lights would over illuminate the space, so one centered light makes sense. Two sprinklers may over saturate a space but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and perhaps the extra sprinkler is a minor additional cost compared to a second light fixture. Supply of heating or cooling will dissipate within the room and an off center supply may not be noticeable. These are the decisions an architect balances.

This attention to detail and overall knowledge of a wide range of subjects when it comes to the built environment is where involving an architect in smaller projects can come in handy. The expertise of working out all the details on larger projects can translate well into coming up with ideas and alternatives that go beyond the typical small project to make a space more useful. There is also a wealth of information available from your local architect on materials, methods, and supplies that go far beyond what you find in your average home improvement stores. Finally, the tools that an architect uses to visualize how an entire building is going to fit on a project site and what it will look like can just as easily apply to visualizing a smaller project.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to illustrate some of these smaller projects and hopefully spark some interest in what Simply Stated Architecture can do for you!