Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Visual Inspiration: Materials and Methods Fail

Every architect takes at least one class in college on Materials and Methods, which is essentially about how the contractor goes about building stuff in the field and therefore how we architects should go about drawing the stuff we want him/her to build. M&M, as we sometimes call this class and its teachings, can be prosaic, but it's the most important thing you can learn. Your awesome design ideas are crap if you can't turn them into reality in a safe, weather-resistant, and affordable manner. When I'm out on my weekend walks, I see some amazing homes and commercial work in the Capitol Hill/Cherry Creek area--slate roofs, copper gutters, vine-covered trellises, perfectly-laid stone patios...just marvelous. However, I also see some not-so-awesome stuff get built.

See that white stuff on the front of this brick wall? It's called efflorescence. When water gets into a unit masonry (brick or concrete block/CMU) wall and it can't drain out the bottom, it has to evaporate out through the block, and it pushes the salts in the block out to the front. To get rid of it, people will use a high-pressure power washer to blast it off...which forces a bunch of water back into the wall, causing the efflorescence to happen all over again. Water gets into these wall one of two ways: one, the wall wasn't capped fast enough before a good rain or snow happened; or two, water has gotten into the wall through the grout lines between the stone cap panels on top of the wall. (I know, I know, they look pretty, but every joint in a wall cap is a place for water to get in. Just say no.) The water stays in there because there's no weep holes at the bottom to get the water out of the wall. Sometimes, people think they don't need weep holes if it's not an actual exterior wall of a house, but they've been taking hits off the Fail Bong.

What? You didn't plan your window trim placement so that it would miss the fake roof brackets on your Victorian Revival house? I shutter to think.

Oh, you're not even trying! Just as the shutters in the above picture, these shutters don't even have hinges on the back side, and they're not even wide enough to cover the window if they actually could fold over it, so you can tell they're not even usable. Shutters were invented before everyone had glass in their windows--they could keep out weather, prying eyes, and large critters, and they're still used occasionally in hurricane-prone areas. So when you put shutters you can't use on your windows, you're wasting money and materials. Stop that! [whacks lame-ass designer on nose with rolled-up newspaper] Bad architect! No merlot!

As if the no-hinges wasn't enough of a giveaway, there's a little security camera poking through the left shutter to look at the basement apartment door below this window. Puh. Leeze.

Now this particular flavor of Fail is a little more subtle. It rolls gently off the palate and into the throat, as if you were sampling some saffron and truffle oil infusion on a morsel of artisan-baked ciabatta bread, and you suddenly tasted Cheez Whiz aioli--there's something funky, but it's so well disguised that you can't immediately place it. Here's a bit of architectural history to explain this Fail: A hallmark of Renaissance architecture--and indeed, much of the architecture of the 1500s-early 1900s--is that the ground floor of a building is made of larger, sturdier materials and has smaller windows, and then the materials get lighter and windows get larger as each floor gets further from the ground. Makes sense, given physics and all that. This brand new condo building in Cherry Creek is using brick below a balcony railing made out of...large blocks. I can buy the "stone" trim below the blocks, but come on. Them "stones" belong below the brick. Someone buy this guy a book of palazzo architecture.

Here's another take on that same flavor. This is a stone-looking planter on a stucco wall near a condo's pool deck. Again, I ask: really? We can all tell that the stone is decorative. And if the stone is decorative, then it's probably not even stone. And if it's not even stone, why don't you just leave the stucco and get some punk to tag it with, "I'm cheap"? Because all architects are taught in history as well as the M&M class that honesty in materials is paramount.


cathryn said...

Oh I am so with you on the fake shutters thing! That has always been a huge pet peeve of mine! Fun post :)

Little Girl Big Glasses said...

So...what's the best way to get rid of the icky white stuff?

BTW, love your blog...I live in the same neighborhood as you and love to walk around either admiring or pshaw-ing people's hideous choices.

Miss Kitty said...

Period Details FAIL. [sigh]

Anonymous said...

I agree, fun post. However, I disagree with some of it; function shouldn't necessarily dictate form. Only a handful of houses have real shutters, but if every architect who designed a house didn't put shutters on because they aren't real shutters, there would be a lot more ugly out there than there is right now, because frankly there are a lot more bad architects than good ones. In my opinion, imitation of traditional housing styles is just a "bad" that saves us from the "worse." Rennaisance architecture, baroque architecture, etc. all have an aesthetic that only sometimes relies on function, but is influenced heavily by art and painting, treating facades as compositions to be filled with elements. Now, it's not necessarily good all the time, but I think it's quite unfair to cast away a facade element just because it has no physical function other than as part of a visual design.

As to the stone balcony over brick, it's hard to say for sure if this is a fail without seeing the rest of the facade. Many renaissance palazzos, since we're referencing those, display a visually heavy cornice. Is this perhaps the function of the balcony piece across the building as a whole, with the top penthouse set back from the facade? I would generally agree with your comment, though.

Gotta say, I love this blog.

Mile High Pixie said...

Thanks to all! Anon, I see what you mean about copying a traditional style saving us from a worse fate of really grody-looking buildings. And you make a point in favor of the at-least-a-hundred year old argument of applied vs. integrated ornament. I'm of the opinion that not all applied ornament is bad, to be sure, but it does give me the willies when I see it done poorly. At least make the shutters a little wider so I can't quite tell that they aren't as wide as the window.

And LGBG, I'm looking into your question on how to get rid of the efflorescence. I actually have a brick and CMU rep coming in today to do a presentation for our office, so I'll ask him.

Anonymous said...

What I hate to see is a massive EISF/stucco entrance held up by spindly little columns...just because you CAN build it doesn't meant that you should. It should look like it could be built from the materials you are trying to relicate.