An architect needs to know the material.
We all know the rudiments of construction. There are boards with common nominal sizes of 2x4 up to 2x12 and sheets of plywood that are 4’x8’ and all of this can be thrown into an infinite number of possible configurations with nails, brads, or screws after cutting them to size with power tools. Usually this entire assembly then gets shrouded with a protective layer of gypsum board on the inside and siding or veneer on the exterior. The result is something that resembles a plaster wall on the inside and wood siding or solid brick structure from the exterior. We see these things in our homes and are satisfied that the appearance of an “authentic” home have been met, at least. This is how it is done. On the inside, the kitchen and bathrooms are equipped with cabinetry. The homeowner has many choices of door styles and drawer configurations to choose from. In custom work, the architect will design and detail the cabinetry for the owner. But what is the architect designing? Cabinetry is a box, or carcase to use a traditional term, with a door or lid. Traditionally the carcase was created by a joiner who assembled the box using dovetails, mortise and tenons, and other means of joinery. He would use materials supplied by a sawyer, who in turn gathered his stock from a woodcutter.
In the 20th century, woodcraft began to be industrialized and sawmills began to eliminate much of the labor required to process the materials needed to build. This led to standardization of the material and therefore unit sizes became more common. These increments are helpful, because it makes delivery easier and allows an individual worker to grab a board and carry it.
The built world is full of approximations of wood assemblies. Cabinetry is made of plywood or particleboard stapled into boxes matching standard dimensions, with widths usually in increments of 3” so that many of them can be made free of context so that they can be shipped to a site without customization. These boxes then may have a door fashioned from a single piece of mdf with a melamine finish baked on and with the use of a router a traditional rail and stile cabinet door may be imitated. The signature of expensive cabinetry is the drawer, which is detailed with dovetails created with a jig. A tongue and groove wainscot (which is a type of joint to allow for wood movement) is imitated with a sheet of thin plywood scored with a router to imitate its older brother. When we do encounter “real wood” in our built-world it is most likely to be preserved, amber like, beneath a thick coat of glossy polyurethane.
The result of this innovation is at the true reason behind why a joint is used and why a panel in a wainscot is of a certain proportion is lost to the architect. If a sheet of plywood is a stable material, then a wainscot can be detailed 4’-0” wide, rather than the width of the board cut from a tree. The look of “real” wainscot then can be approximated by applying factory made moldings to create a raised panel. In traditional English joinery, the wainscot is created with rails and stiles that are joined with mortise and tenon joints. The panel is inserted and held in place with a beaded rabbet on three sides and the bottom rail is planed to have a sloping top. This is to represent an ashlar stone detail, which the wood wall is meant to represent. The method of joinery used allows for movement in the wood without longterm damage to the paneling. There is a reason for each decision: the direction of the grain, the orientation of the rings to face in or out, the width and spacing of the panels – this list can go on.
By contrast, if what one has at hand are dimensional, manufactured materials and wishes to represent a traditional wall of paneling, then the result can begin to stray unintentionally from the original that is the inspiration become a distorted, distant approximation.
A sheet of plywood should not be the basis of good design.
With Know-how, to quote Louis Sullivan, “Form ever follows Function.”
Pleased to see CrossFit 513 United getting close to opening their new box at 327 West 4th Street in downtown Cincinnati. It was a pleasure helping them get their space in order with an architectural plan that met their budget and helped speed them along with a permit. It's going to be an awesome space to work out, so check it out!
Eric Puryear talks with Ted about the Kitchen plan. Ted wanted to remove a wall that was structural, so as the architectural adviser for the show Eric walked him through what needed to be done.
I was the architectural consultant for this new home-renovation reality program now showing on the fyi channel. Full episodes can be seen online here. Although I wasn't asked to provide any design ideas (that would be unfair!), I did get the chance to practice my construction and structural engineering expertise with home renovations. It was my responsibility to provide the contestants with a measured base plan of the houses and then make sure they didn't take out any structural walls.
It was interesting to see how the program is directed and how many people are involved behind the scenes. I'm currently working on the new Lachey's Bar in Over the Rhine which will also be featured on a reality TV program, so it's a lot easier to make the mental leap from what is being filmed onsite to what will ultimately be edited into a watchable episode.
I've been slowly working with some black walnut boards to make an endtable using hand tools. The wood has been joined with hand-sawn dovetails and is smoothed by hand planes. This project uses handtools exclusively. When I'm finished with the basic table I plan to finish it using a polissoir polishing technique with wax.
We are surrounded by architecture - just as our world is filled with art, commerce, culture, work, and infrastructure. At it's most basic level architecture needs to protect us from the elements and other outside forces, but beyond this there are many levels to our built environment. Why else do so many of us return to our childhood homes hoping to glimpse once again into the past? Our built environment can give off a powerful set of signals to each of us as individuals. New structures can be exciting and ripe with potential for this reason as well. They are about potential and change. We can be fickle creatures - loving at the same time a worn, comfortable tool or giddy with a new device. The architect that is sensitive to this nature of things can shape our new buildings, insert changes and additions to existing structures, and act as a navigator in this world of complimentary, reactionary, inclusive, suggestive, or revolutionary building.