Does current Architectural Technology limit creativity?

  • Building Design Expert
  • 10 years ago

Let me first qualify the title to this blog as not a direct reference to Architectural Technology as a profession, but more as an adjectival reference to an ‘ology’ relating to architectural design.

With that in mind, I don’t know of any building design professional who would not want to squeeze the last drop technical efficiency from any building design. There is, after all, a huge pressure on architectural designers today to meet regulatory requirements by the clever use of technology. Of course some designers are more clever than others. But does the complexity of of today’s regualtion serve to limit creativity? Are we more engaged in finding technical solutions to meet legislation. Even if we like to think not, is it often inevitable that we make some awkward compromise? It may not be something that the client is even aware of. But it’s there and we know it!

Technology can provide us with a raft of answers, but it can also pose a new file of questions. The usual one being : Of all the different solutions technology can provide, which is the one best suited to this particular problem? One mantra that may be adopted is to have your best eye very firmly fixed on that word “efficiency”:

Spatial efficiency – To be spatially efficient is a means of improving control of the overall project cost. There are still some buildings that warrant an odyssey in design. A turret, or perhaps a balcony leading nowhere. But for those that report back that for every additional square foot (sorry, square metre. We did go metric in the 70’s didn’t we?) there is another £x to pay, regardless of what it does, or does not support in the way of accommodation, we must take careful note and cut our cloth accordingly.

The larger we make our building floor plates the more the building will cost – fact. Extend an elevation that is 20m long by 100mm, and you might just add £2,500 to the project cost. Of course if that allows the project brief to be met more fully then we look to save that £2.5K in another way. This, of course, is all part of the artistry of the profession.

Technology has provided options for thinner, more robust and flexible solutions. But with them come potential compromises on appearance and performance. We can’t go back to ‘tried and tested’ because it no longer ticks all the boxes, so we have to try and test something new and use that for a while, and keep reworking it to suit each new design challenge.

Thermal efficiency – Never before has technology provided us with so many solutions to such a huge problem. But never before has this problem been quite so large as it is today. The ability to insulate, and insulate well, has always been around. But the legal requirement to do so is pulling that particular string tighter and tighter. The Building Regulations set a minimum standard today that was unthinkable when I started 30 years ago. Unthinkable because the technology that has created today’s insulation materials did not exist on a viable basis back then. It may have been thought about by the likes of NASA scientists, but freely available, No.

Energy efficiency – To a large extent this goes hand in glove with its ‘thermal’ cousin above. When we were not so reliant on technology, we were also basking in a cheap abundance of oil and natural gas. In fact, arguably it was more expensive to try and retain heat than supply it. Now the building regulations positively demand we use boilers and other heat producing appliances of a minimum ‘efficiency’ (there’s that word again) ratings.

Now we can even use appliances to give us more energy out than we apparently put in. I say apparently, clearly the top up energy comes embodied in the air or ground, because we know from school boy physics that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It simply changes form.

We have solar collectors to produce heat and electricity. We have heat pumps that extract tiny amounts of heat from the air or the ground, and present it to us in useful amounts, and we have mind boggling controllability over all of this with digital electronic sensing technology that, thanks to super insulation can keep our buildings at what ever temperature we require. Good eh?

Material efficiency –  30 years ago we had brick, block, stone and timber and wriggly tin and asbestos; wreaking untold damage on the environment in their production and use. Now we have engineered timber, bricks and blocks made of sewage, terracotta tiles, aluminium cladding and composite – multi-coloured, multi surfaced rain-screen panels. All produced from sustainable sources, and all environmentally friendly. Because if they were not they would be rejected by we building design professionals.

It’s almost like smoking in public and drinking and driving were quite normal 30 – 40 years ago. Not now though. Same thing with sustainable materials. 15 – 20 years ago it became almost trendy for architectural designers to specify materials from a ‘sustainable source’. Now it’s just about mandatory. We use materials efficiently. We don’t want waste, because that’s bad for the environment. It’s the accepted norm by today’s designers of our built environment.

One question all this raises is: Do we have too much choice? Answer: Hopefully not. We can never have too much choice. What we do have as designers is a wonderfully increased palette from which to pick and choose the constituent parts of our buildings. This age of progressive technology is an incredibly exciting time in which to design our buildings, but it does have it’s pressures. We need to be seen to be making the right decisions in putting together the constituent parts.

With so many to choose from there is scope to get it wrong, or should I say not 100% right. Arguably there is no ‘right’ answer to a building problem. The right answer for one building occupier may not necessarily suit the next one. Technology is changing all the time, every day, and so are client expectations and budgets. What would suit our building occupier today is not necessarily the same as would suit tomorrow. Keeping tabs on those changes and making the correct design decisions are just some of the pressures created by Architectural Technology.

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