3 Relationships of Architecture to the Earth

Years ago, back in school, we attended a lecture by renowned architect Daniel Liebskind.  He showed a series of simple diagrams that categorized built-form into one of three categories relating to the Earth’s geometry.

A. Buildings that have a primary geometrical axis that is a tangent to the Earth’s geometry (thereby touching the Earth’s geometry at 1 point)
B. Buildings that have a primary geometrical axis that is a chord through the Earth’s geometry (thereby touching the Earth’s geometry at 2 points)
C. Buildings which have a primary geometrical axis that aligns with the Earth’s center (thereby touching the Earth’s geometry at 3 points).

Yeah we know… theoretical, heady, academic.  But it’s an interesting way to look at the built environment around us and it offers a different method to compare and contrast built-form.  We’ve rounded up five important examples of each category and an additional category of undecided projects.  To narrow down the possibilities we’ve added a few constraints: the examples had to be built and they had to be architecture (they had to keep the heat in and the rain out), and they had to be recent (realized within the last 15 years).  We’ve put on our black turtlenecks for this one so feel free to throw your theoretical tomatoes at us.  Or better yet – cast your vote for the undecided and post your favorite examples.

A. Tangent

Wilson House in Melbourne Australia by Denton Corker Marshall

[photo courtesy of Denton Corker Marshall]

Markia-Alderton House in Australia’s Northern Territory by Glen Murcutt

[photo courtesy of Glen Murcutt]

House in Bordeaux, France by OMA

[photo courtesy of OMA]

Algarve House in Portugal by Eduardo Souto Moura

[photo from Ten Houses by Rockport Publishing]

Casa Ponce in Buenos Aires by Mathias Klotz

[photo courtesy of Mathias Klotz]

B. Chord

Visiting Artists House by Jim Jennings

[photo courtesy of AIA Architect]

[photo by Joseph Readdy]

Seed bank on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway

Baiao House in Portugal by Eduardo Souto Moura

[photo from Ten Houses by Rockport Publishing]

Royal Netherlands Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Dick van Gameren

[photo courtesy of Dick van Gameren]

Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park by Weiss Manfredi

[photo by Alan Berner]

C. Axis

Helical symmetry: Twisting Torso building in Malmö, Sweden by Santiago Calatrava

[photo by Ipso]

Radial symmetry: Agbar Tower in Barcelona by Jean Nouvel

[photo by  Mike Pevsner]

Radial symmetry: 30 St Mary Axe in London by Lord Norman Foster

[photo by WallyG]

Bilateral symmetry: Burj Al Arab Hotel Dubai

[photo by  H.Andras_xms]

Bilaterial & Radial symmetry: The Petrona Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by César Pelli

[photo by Thomas Evan]

Undecided These projects threw us off axis (pun intended) – we couldn’t quite figure out which category they best fit into, or maybe they fit into multiple categories…

London City Hall by Lord Norman Foster

[photo by Purple Cloud]

Geodesic Dome, original deisign by Buckminster Fuller at Parc Parc La Villette by Bernard Tschumi

Nemo Museum in Amsterdam by Renzo Piano Building Workshop

[photo courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop]

Seattle Public Library by OMA

[photo courtesy of OMA]


The Process of Architecture
September 23, 2008, 9:15 am
Filed under: Architecture, BUILD LLC, Design, Diagrams

We’ve received some good questions lately about the process of architecture from the homeowners point of view.  What do the different design stages look like graphically?  When does the process go from diagram to actual architecture? Why do the graphics look the way they do?  How does the imagery evolve and become something you can actually build from and eventually live in?

All admirable questions and ones that should be better explained by us architects.  Given that it takes an average of 6 years to learn the architectural design process in school and another decade to really learn how to implement it in the practice of architecture – the process can be a bit esoteric.  This blog aims to communicate architecture in such a way that it’s more understandable and accessible to people.  So here goes… the quick and dirty guide to the architectural process.  Now take this with a grain of salt – this is just our process, it’s not the right way or the wrong way to design, it’s certainly not the only way.  Put ten architects in a room together and you’ll get ten different processes (in addition to a bunch of black turtle necks and acronyms you’ve never heard of).

Step 1: Interview and initial discussions
Often a couple of architects are interviewed, the homeowner(s) and the architect(s) figure out if there is a good fit with one another.  Sometimes a homeowner just knows who they want to partner with (based on a raving recommendation or a specific design philosophy, etc.) and they skip the interview step.  Typically the architects have a portfolio of past projects to review and possibly examples of their process.

Step 2: Information gathering + documentation

Homeowner goals, needs and requirements are discussed.  The architects visit the site, review the existing conditions and take as-built measurements of what is there (existing home/property).  A set of as-built plans are created and a copy is given to the homeowner for their records.  These are simple floor plans and exterior elevations – a minimal set showing what currently exists on site and nothing more.  A surveyor is typically contacted at this stage and scheduled to produce a site survey – this survey is eventually incorporated into the as-built documents.  The architects visit the city/county building department to review applicable records which may include as-built drawings of an existing home; previous surveys; public records such as previous liens on the property.  The architects gather information from state and city agencies regarding specific land use and building code requirements as well as pre-submittal and pre-permit procedures.  The architects also create a work plan to outline what will be done and by when.

Gathering information with the homeowner(s):


As-built drawings of an existing home:

Step 3: Schematic Design and Feasibility
The architects generate 2-3 preliminary designs incorporating the information from step two.  At this stage the architects are also bringing design concepts to the table (the stuff architects learned in school).  Maybe there was a specific site feature that could be enhanced with the new architecture or opportunities within the project not previously discussed.  The architects explore the sequence of how you approach the house and move through the house.  How the home is experienced is a focus of this stage.  The general locations of the functions within the house are considered and graphically represented in diagram form.  The graphics, illustrations and sketches are just diagrams at this stage – it’s not architecture yet.  Features like windows may be added schematically or not at all.  Simple plans and elevations are produced to represent relationships among spaces and the basic envelope shape (think about it like carving a simple, dumb model out of a block of clay).  Material options start to become part of the discussion and a target budget is established/confirmed for the overall project.  There are typically 2-4 homeowner meetings involved with this step.  The homeowner makes decisions with help from the architects regarding the various schematic options.  An overall design strategy is chosen.

Code analysis and envelope possibilities:

Relationship of functions, site considerations, massing studies:

Relationship of functions, massing studies:

Circulation studies, light studies:

Step 4: Design Development + Permit Documents
As decisions continue to be made, the architects develop the schematic drawings into permit documents.  The graphics evolve from diagrams to actual architecture at this step.  The drawings are refined in regards to details and methods.  Materials are decided on and the architects figure out how everything fits together (how does the floor meet the wall: base trim, flush trim, no trim).  Window openings are further defined with mullions and opening locations.  Information from other consultants, like the structural engineer, is developed and coordinated with the design drawings. Specifications for materials, fixtures/ appliances, assembly details, and relevant code information are incorporated into the project.  Recommendations from trades, suppliers, and manufacturers are added to the drawing set.  The homeowner continues to make decisions at a more specific level of detail (four or six burner gas range, which direction do the windows open?)

Material studies and furniture layouts:

Comparative material options:

Building assembly and material breakout:

Elevation and material studies:

Step 5: Construction Documents + Permit Acquisition
A set of permit drawings is a simplified construction set.  The permit documents are used to submit, coordinate, and obtain the building permit from the city or county.  The city/county doesn’t typically care to review each and every detail of a home – they just want to make sure you’re meeting state, city and local codes.  It is typically an effective use of time to turn in a permit set early, covering the requirements, to get the ball rolling with the city while the architects continue to work on a more thorough drawing set required for construction.  The drawings continue to develop down to the very last details (how the handrail bracket connects to the wall, how the tile floor in the shower is sloped to drain…)

Construction documents:

Step 6: Selection of a General Contractor
General contractors are interviewed and a good fit is established. Sometimes a homeowner just knows who they want to partner with (based on a raving recommendation or a specific building philosophy, etc.) and they skip the interview step.

Step 7: Construction Administration

The documents and drawings for the project are now complete and construction begins.  Typically with a project of any complexity the architect is retained to answer questions, deal with clarifications and administer revisions if necessary.  The architect also protects the interests of the homeowner and the integrity of the design.  The architect reviews the invoices, overall costs and scheduling. There is also the option for a homeowner to go the design-build route – but that’s another post…

[all skteches, diagrams, drawings and photos by BUILD llc]

The Poetics of Project Tracking
September 5, 2008, 11:22 am
Filed under: Architecture, Diagrams, Suburban Architecture, Urban Architecture

As architects and builders, tracking construction projects is day-to-day business.  Everything from the finances to the kitchen faucet revisions are tracked, documented and distributed.  And while the housekeeping and accuracy of project tracking are important to the success of a built work – the spreadsheets, binders and rolls of drawings lack a sense of poetics.  The process is full of poetry – it’s just that the business of project management extracts a different information set.  Recently we’ve been introduced to a handful of home & business owners who have taken it upon themselves to document their design and construction projects.  They’ve created blogs, photomontages and chronological accounts of their experiences for the world to see and comment on.  These individuals are creating catalysts for transparency and dialogue in the design and construction industries.  In documenting the process from the owner’s viewpoint they are, in effect, extracting a different information set, an information set that is poetic and speaks to a greater cross section of society.

Jeremy and his wife are homeowners in Toronto – or we should say they were homeowners until they knocked their house down to begin the adventure of construction.  In Jeremy’s words: was created to document every step of our adventure. From start to finish, I want to share our experience with complete transparency; finding a contractor, choosing an architect, defining our green strategies, and balancing the budget. In the end, I hope the site will stand as a guide for other would-be home builders. Something that will help eliminate the unknown and make a project of this scale more approachable”

Everything is covered, from a very thorough demolition photo montage to what they learned last weekend about heat recovery systems.  The site is particularly good in discussing and documenting environmentally smart design, energy audits and government rebates.  Heck, there’s even an onsite webcam updated every 30 minutes.  So go check it out and let these hard workers know what you think.

Mike is a homeowner in Seattle and pro blogger.  He recently bought a beautiful piece of property, started a blog to document the entire process and hired BUILD llc to design a new modern home.  From Mike’s blog:

“In beginning the process of building a house, I’ve found no singular source of information online which describes the start-to-finish process of creating a new custom home. There are a ton of “Building A Home For Dummies”-style books on Amazon, as well as disparate blog posts and photo galleries about new construction, but nowhere have I found a coherent, first-hand journal of the entire process from the standpoint of someone like me: a guy building his first house with no clue what to do besides putting one foot before the other.

A House By The Park will attempt to be that guide for others looking to do exactly what I’m trying to do: build a great, affordable custom home with no prior experience. If something like this existed before I began my project, I know I’d be a lot more equipped than I currently am.”

Mike is covering important, useful topics for homeowners, future homeowners, home-remodelers and future home-remodelers.  Starting with the search for property, the real-estate industry and home financing, Mike hasn’t missed a beat.  Keep ‘A House By The Park’ on your radar and stay tuned-in with your friends at BUILD.

You’ve most likely seen Chase’s work at some point or another.  He heads up Chase Jarvis Photography here in Seattle, he’s an action photographer, renaissance man and a big ideas guy.  One of his big ideas was to create a truly inspirational photography studio and office which was completed a year ago.  He photo-documented the entire construction sequence from A-Z, all with a sharp shooters eye.

Hats off to these individuals for diving in full force to the adventure of design and construction and spending their personal time documenting the process.  In each situation the authors mention an effort to help eliminate the mystery of design and construction.  We architects need to take note – the design and construction industries are becoming cryptic to a dangerous degree.

For those of you interested in doing some poetic tracking of your own (whether it be about your construction project or not) check out Many-Eyes.  The website allows users to create, visualize and share data based graphics.  The tools allow you to display data in a variety of graphic forms and filters allowing the discovery of different patterns.  Here are two quick and simple examples from the site comparing the percentage of world skyscrapers per country.

Board & Batten Siding
July 8, 2008, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Diagrams

Board and batten siding is the underdog of siding systems, but we like it for the following reasons:
It has the potential to be visually clean and crisp
It has a timeless look and weathers nicely if implemented correctly
The system takes the natural expansion and contraction of materials into consideration
It’s been around for a long time, carpenters and siders are familiar with it
It’s durable

So why isn’t board and batten siding more prominent in modern architecture? A quick Google-image search suggests that most board & batten siding systems are associated with traditional architectures – country cottages and old leaning barns. The word “rustic” comes up often when researching board and batten systems. But technically the system has everything necessary to be a serious, modern strategy for siding. So the BUILD research and development team has put together a guide to board and batten siding systems. These diagrams are just departure points – coordinate with your structural engineer for unusual situations and the use of panel products.

1. Horizontal spacers can be placed behind the board & battens for better air circulation, the spacers also provide a uniform nailer backing to the system.
2. The fasteners and pattern will depend on the size of the batten.
3. A variety of products can be used in lieu of building paper including VaproShield products.
4. 1/2″ sheathing can be used if blocking is installed behind at fastener locations. We recommend just bumping up the sheathing to 3/4″.
5. The fastener pattern for panels depends entirely on the panel product used and the overall geometry.

With wood boards the fasteners should be centered on the board so that the board can expand and contract in both directions. Using fasteners at the edges will cause the boards to crack over time.

We’ve also tracked down several modern applications. Let us know of any sharp B&B applications you know of out there.

Dogtrot House in Poplarville, MS by Waggonner & Ball Architects

[photo by Kerri McCaffety, Mac Ball, Catherine Smith]

Donald Barbour House in Kentfield, CA by John Marsh Davis
The batten geometry integrates with the structural columns… nice.

[photo by Alan Weintraub]

House for an art collector in Therwill Switzerland by Herzog & de Meuron, 1986
Precast concrete panels and pine slats

[photo by Hisao Suzuki]

Wood Residence on Vashon Island, WA by James Cutler Architects
Cedar board and battens

Irby House at Sea Ranch, CA by Obie G. Bowman, 2001
Redwood board and battens

[photo by Tom Rider]

Girvin Cabin on Decatur Island, WA by Miller Hull

[photo from Miller Hull Architects of the Pacific Northwest by Sheri Olson]

City Hall on Bainbridge Island, WA by Miller Hull, 2000

[photo from Miller Hull Architects of the Pacific Northwest by Sheri Olson]

Nickerson House in Seattle, WA
Painted Hardi-board and wood battens, anybody know the architect of this one?

[photo by BUILD llc]

Shack at hinkle farm by Jeffery S. Broadhurst


“Barn Doors Open” in Falmouth, Maine by Kaplan Thompson Architects
The added volume uses a reverse board & batten system.

NYC Diagrams
April 23, 2008, 10:19 am
Filed under: Diagrams

In spirit of heading to Manhattan, today’s blog features some sexy diagramming, mapping and visual measures from New York City. These diagrams are stimulating and effective because every graphic move on the paper (or screen) has a meaning; the color, dimension, position, and position relative to other graphics are all important. In addition to all the data, they are composed with craft and intentionality.  Let us know what you’ve found out there…

New York Times: In the Shadow of Foreclosures
Both color and height indicate a different measure of foreclosures and the perspective view makes it all the more dramatic.  The sharp visual makes a complicated collection of statistics comprehensible and allows for quick visual comparisons.

Time Out New York: McDonalds vs. Starbucks
The location of each McDonalds and each Starbucks is mapped in mid-town. The choice of symbols (French fries and coffee cups) effectively adds to the visual of over-propagation.

New York Times: A Year in Iraq
The diagram indicates the classification of each individual and how they died, organized as a timeline. The diagram is powerful for the simple fact that each person is represented as a figure in the display.

New York Times: Face-Lift for an Aging Museum
A mapping of cracks and movement in the Guggenheim’s concrete shell. While engineering firms commonly make mappings such as this, the artistic enhancements of color and composition allow the technical data to be more interesting and comprehensible.

New York Times: Subway Population
…and what would a NYC diagram blog post be without a token subway diagram. This particular diagram tracks the hourly population of the 1/9 subway line over the course of a single work day. The use of ordinary objects, like the clock, make the diagram more tangible and easier on the eyes. Once again representing each individual with an object, or dot in this case, creates a population and drives the idea home more powerfully.

The Works: Anatomy of A City by Kate Ascher
The visual compares the measure of snowfall to the city’s response. As more snow accumulates an increasing amount of garbage trucks are converted to snow plows. This book is filled with great diagrams explaining everything from stoplight calibration for ideal traffic patterns to the city’s storm sewer overflow tactics to the garbage removal sequence. Get a copy here.

New York Times: Inventory of Low Altitude Satellites
The satellites are organized by height above the earth’s surface, color coded by type (military, communication, science) and labeled to the country of ownership. The pixilated nature of the diagram lends to a tangible sense for the number of satellites in space.

A new visual language for architecture

Each generation of architects seems to establish their own language of visual presentation. The crisp graphite lines and dramatic perspective drawings characterize the 50’s and 60’s. Bold water colors and loose geometries are reminiscent of the 70’s, the occasional clip-art guy with mustache and sports jacket thrown in for good measure. While these examples seem humorous and dated today they were the Hotty McHottersons of the time. Today’s blog entry is in pursuit of the current zeitgeist of visual language. You know us well enough by now to know that we’re not going to exhibit high-end presentations from the starchitects and mega-shops out there. We don’t think that it will be these enterprises that set the curve with their armies of lowly paid interns and exclusive modeling software. If you ask us, it will be the small shops in the trenches of practice and academia that will be most infectious with the new language because they have the same common denominators as the majority of us in terms of resources, staff & software; it’s just that they’re using these resources more intelligently and doing more with them. We’ve selected several groups that we’ve come across over the years and, in our opinion, they are forming the new visual protocol. The new language seems to be moving away from fashion, is taking on more analysis and is communicating more technical data. More important than the sexy imagery, it is the thinking behind these presentations that is generating the new language. Let us know who’s setting the curve for you…

KBAS Studio
Portland Thru-House

Cutting sections within a perspective drawing is a very intelligent use of modeling programs. The section cut is clearly indicated with the orange highlight and the interiors elevations have definition. This single image is communicating information traditionally accomplished with a perspective, a section cut and interior elevations.

The image shows the efficiency of building a model once and getting multiple levels of information and imagery by turning on and off layers.  Subtle shadows give the simple models a level of sophistication.

Palisades Glacier Mountain Hut

The drawing includes a dynamic element and explains the circulation.

John Szot
Coney Island Pavilion

Using actual photos of graffiti as “decals” within the modeling program, the image achieves a gritty, urban feel. The series takes into account an aspect of urban weathering. Subtle lighting and ordinary weather conditions create a powerful presentation. The abstract people give a sense of scale and population without detracting from the rendering.

Saddle Creek

Living Smart Project

The imagery breaks the house apart like a piece of machinery.

Levin Residence

Tangible representations are created by embedding photographs into the model.
They have an excellent collection of graffiti and tags on their website.

Portland Ariel Tram

The element of scale exists with the figures but the transparent shadow technique keeps the focus off the figures and on the architecture.

Lorcan O’Herlihy
Calarts Dormitory

The landscaping is suggested but does not overwhelm the image. Site circulation and dynamics are added as a layer to the presentation.


Subtlety of light and shadow give a tangible impression of how the space may feel.

166 Perry Street

Using digital software to do what it does best – figuring out all of the intricacies and reflections of varying environmental conditions.

Penang Global City Center

The display and comprehension of extremely complex geometries.

Jones Partners
Yucca Valley House

The use of extreme detail (even the lights have been precisely modeled) allows the rendering to serve as a form of quality control and troubleshooting for the finished work.

Preston Scott Cohen

Communicating the process of design and allowing an observer (or more importantly a client) to understand the geometrical evolution of a design.

Public Arcade

Presenting, comparing and contrasting variations/mutations of form.

Wu House

Clarifying and simplifying the complexities of hybrid geometries.

Neil M. Denari
Massey House

Merging renderings with construction documents the renderings start to become technical data which could be used as reference in the field.

The Year in Ideas: Diagrams
December 10, 2007, 11:22 pm
Filed under: Design, Diagrams

Each year the New York Times magazine releases their “Year in Ideas” issue. This catalog of 70 important ideas from the last year is a highly recommended read – not only for the ideas themselves but also because of the clever diagrams accompanying some of the ideas each year. Today’s blog entry highlights 7 ideas which have been paired with clever, beautiful, informative diagrams. Get yourself a copy or visit the website and catch up on ideas from 2007.

Ambiguity Promotes Liking
A comparison of what online daters think of their blind dates before and after the face to face date.

Ambiguity Promotes Liking

Community Urinalysis
A community urinalysis results from testing the town’s sewer water.

Community Urinalysis

Fish-Flavored Fish
Mapping different fish according to taste.

Fish-Flavored Fish

The God Effect
A comparison of individual’s generosity with and without the idea of God subliminally on the mind.

The God Effect

Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness
A comparison of individual’s general happiness with and without hope in a specific life crisis.

Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness

Mindful Exercise
A measure of individuals general health based on how much exercise they’re told they’re getting.

Mindful Exercise

Quitting Can Be Good for You
A measure of goal setting as compared with bodily stress

Quitting Can Be Good for You

The Alibi
A visual tracking device for an individual’s life

The Alibi