Material evidence

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During my time at the Auckland School of Architecture in the 1960s, three of the key study topics were Building Materials, Building Construction and Building Techniques.

As I recall, each required three years of study. The Building Materials course required students to develop and display a detailed understanding of materials science, with a particular focus on materials in use, including their relationship with other materials in the context of New Zealand climatic and geotechnical conditions.
Building Construction involved the physical process of building on and off site. Building Techniques covered the often complex process of site management, delivery of materials and elements to the site, and their installation into a construction project.

Having no direct knowledge of current university courses, I am loathe to be too precise. However, I note that the Auckland School of Architecture course in Year 1 allocates only 10 points of a required 360 total points for a Degree to:
Structural concepts and construction principles relating to light timber, steel, concrete and other typical construction materials for domestic scale buildings. In depth investigations of structural systems, building envelopes and detailing. Application of principles to design studio projects.

Assuming the other two years of the initial Bachelor of Architecture degree offer similar topics, that is still only 30 points out of a total of 360, or 8% — and nothing at all, it seems, about materials science.
Even so, university training is only a small part of the whole. I wonder how much mentoring our young designers receive once they leave university and take on their first job in a design office?How much interaction is there on site with, hopefully, experienced tradespeople and building contractors?
How much interaction is, in fact, possible within the current atmosphere of distrust and apportioning of blame which seems to be occurring at the construction coalface?

And with many design firms now having little or nothing to do with the on-site construction process, this avenue of shared knowledge and experience is slowly being cut off completely.
Of similar concern is a reduction in the amount of technical expertise within product manufacturing and supply organisations.
Once you could contact any of the larger material supply companies and speak, if not to a materials scientist, then at least to someone having in-depth knowledge and understanding of their company’s products.

Adding to this concern is a growing reliance on a range of simplistic MBIE acceptable solutions, containing what might at best be described as barely adequate details and specifications, and lacking little connection to the real world of branded products and systems.
The result is a one size fits all solution to what should be a carefully considered and craft-like approach to the proper use of materials.
It can also lead to a pick and mix approach to detailing — picking and mixing what seems to fit without any real depth of thought.
And could anyone today design and construct a house without using sealants? It’s what used to be called “positive detailing”, forcing you to think about and understand how materials and climate interact.

It seems we have learned little, if anything, from the recent weathertightness debacle. And if one more commentator uses as an excuse that well-worn phrase “a systemic failure”, I’ll be forced to use an even older Anglo-Saxon phrase in response.
There is nothing “systemic” about an increasing lack of knowledge of, and appreciation for, the application of even the most basic of building materials — timber, concrete, metals and glass — let alone knowledge of some of the more recent “super products”.

Yes, many new building materials are offering designers and builders new ways of designing and building, but it does concern me that most may have little knowledge or understanding of what these new wonder products are made of, and how they will respond to climate and use over the next 50-plus years.
Not only are we in danger of losing sight of the original art and science of keeping moisture out of our buildings, but those responsible — designers, legislators, approving authorities, contractors and sub-trades — now know less and less about the materials being employed.

Then there is the increasing reliance on technology. Of real concern is that today’s technology is in danger of becoming more intelligent than those using it.
This is not a new phenomenon. Even back in the days of the first calculators, you needed to have your brain in gear to cross check the result those little calculators magically produced, at least to make sure that the decimal point was in the right place.

However, today we are heading full speed towards a future where a building information model will contain all data necessary to design and construct a building project.
Impressive looking details will be spat out at the press of a mouse button with no need for human intervention.

I am certain there are those within the industry who have a real knowledge and understanding of material use, and there are many buildings being created that will stand the test of time.
But even with the natural desire of our media to highlight the negative — as the old saying goes, “if it bleeds it leads” — the problems of the 1990s are showing no signs of going away.