A building designer’s mind: Learn to build


This article is about the materials and methods of building construction. Throughout it, alternative ways of building are described: different structural systems, different methods of building enclosure, and different interior finishes. Each has characteristics that distinguish it from the alternatives. Sometimes a material is selected chiefly for its visual qualities, as in choosing one type of granite over another, selecting a particular color of paint, or specifying a special pattern of tile. Visual distinctions can extend beyond surface qualities. A designer may prefer the massive appearance of a masonry bearing wall building to that of a more slender exposed steel frame on one project, yet would choose the steel for another. Choices may be made for functional reasons, as in selecting a highly durable and water-resistant polished concrete instead of carpet or wood for a restaurant kitchen floor. Or, choices can be made on purely technical grounds, as, for example, in selecting a construction system that is noncombustible, so as to achieve a suitable level of building fire safety.

A building designer’s choices are frequently constrained by regulations intended to protect public safety and welfare. Choices may be influenced by considerations of environmental sustainability. And frequently, selections are made on economic grounds. Sometimes one system is chosen over another because its first cost is less. Other times the full life-cycle costs— including first cost, maintenance, energy consumption, useful lifetime, and replacement—of competing systems are compared.

In describing the major systems of building construction, this textbook presents concerns that fall into two broad categories: building performance and building construction. Performance concerns relate to the inescapable problems that must be confronted in every building: fire; the flow of heat, air, and water vapor through the building enclosure; the small, but nonetheless important, movements of the building and its parts; water leakage; acoustical performance; aging and deterioration of materials; cleanliness; building maintenance; and so on.

Construction concerns relate to the practical problems of getting a building built safely, on time, within budget, and to the required standards of quality: sequencing of construction operations for maximum productivity; optimum use of building trades; division of work between the shop and the building site; convenient and safe worker access to construction operations; effects of weather; making building components fit together; quality testing of materials and components during construction; and much more. To the novice, these matters may seem of minor consequence when compared to the larger and often more interesting themes of building form and function. To the experienced building professional, who has seen buildings fail both aesthetically and functionally for want of attention to one or more of these concerns, these are issues that must be resolved as a matter of course to ensure a successful project outcome.

To gain a thorough knowledge of building construction, it is incumbent upon the student to go beyond what can be presented here—to other books, product literature, trade publications, professional periodicals, and especially the design office, workshop, and building site. One must learn how materials feel in the hand; how they look in a building; how they are manufactured, worked, and put in place; how they perform in service; how they deteriorate with time. One must become familiar with the people and organizations that produce buildings—the architects, engineers, materials suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, workers, inspectors, managers, and building owners—and learn to understand their respective methods, problems, and points of view. There is no other way to gain the breadth of information and experience necessary than to get involved in the art and practice of building.

In the meantime, this long and hope fully enjoyable process of education in the materials and methods of build ing construction can begin with the information presented in this textbook.


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