Enclosure Detailing

This contribution to Architectural Science Forum marks the end of an inaugural series of articles that was initiated nearly one year ago. The idea was to provide a framework that integrated issues of sustainability and the design of enclosures to foster an appreciation and understanding of the role of architectural science within professional practice and education. It is hoped future contributions will go beyond to consider the various technical aspects of architectural design that impact the performance of buildings intended to achieve social, cultural and ecological sustainability.

Enclosure detailing represents the knots that bind the threads of design intent. These knots involve many aspects of design and consider factors such as beauty, strength, function and durability. Some knots are simple, others complex, sometimes extremely tight, and at other times deliberately loose and flexible to accommodate future adaptability.

If we accept this metaphor then it is possible to understand enclosure detailing as being more than simply the conventional definition of details applied to working drawings. Extending this metaphor, it may be argued there is only one detail and it is the universe of architectural possibilities from which the designer extracts, combines, mutates and adapts to a particular context–aesthetic, functional, cultural and technological.

Details are different from other forms of graphic representation in architecture because they always imply a relationship between materials and methods that is not apparent from delineation. When we look at artistic renderings of buildings it is possible to imagine a number of means of achieving the spatial and visual effect being conveyed. But this is simply not so when we examine detailing. In professional practice, this creates a dilemma for designers.

Detailing Dilemma

In traditional building forms, the relationship between the architect and the various crafts and trades that translated the design intent into the built artefact was as formal as the styles themselves. The architect represented what was to be built and there was no need to instruct the contractor as to how this would be carried out. With modernism came the great dilemma of having to convey both what and how to build using a set of drawing conventions that were based on shorthand prescriptions for traditional methods and materials.

To further complicate matters, the commodification of architecture that arose during the Industrial Revolution strained relations between architects, their clients and builders. Today, many architects are reluctant to specify methods that may expose them to liability and tend to have contractors plan the sequence of construction and elect their own methods for connecting a patchwork of schematic drawings that are now referred to as details. This situation may then be seriously exacerbated by a sporadic process of material substitutions.

The detailing dilemma faced by today’s practitioners goes beyond attempting to create innovative architecture with an outdated instructional medium for the builder. The conventions of contract documents aside, it is becoming difficult to determine where the detailing should end–first for reasons of liability and second for reasons of economic survival. Because the detail is inextricably connected to the whole, going beyond current conventions implies detailing most, if not all, of the building. Assuming the use of a digital or analog three-dimensional solid modelling tool, the only means of developing a complete and accurate representation is to consider materials in the context of their sequence of assembly. Today’s fee structures cannot support the virtual master builder.

Detailing DNA

If it is true that all details share a common ancestry then what is their genetic basis, and do details differ by pedigree? Most architects maintain that details are the fundamental building blocks of the architectural corpus. The scale and complexity of the artefact conceived by the parti evolves detail by detail until the artefact is whole and mature. Connection between what is the mind and spirit of the design and its materiality is nurtured through detailing. Style is simply the outcome of this evolutionary process, hence most would agree that stylistic decoration is not architectural detailing.

Returning to the notion of pedigree, it is interesting to consider the difference between what are commonly referred to as technical versus architectural details. Is there really a difference? This depends very much on whether architectural aesthetics are viewed as being primarily visual, or they involve a broader spectrum of sensibility. Watertight seams in metal roofing, however banal, are essential. Architecturally expressive roofing seams that leak are inexcusable. Architectural detailing is often about the making of a mongrel or hybrid from the gene pool of the arts, crafts and sciences.

Fitness for intended purpose is a necessary but insufficient condition of architectural detailing. It must also obey the grammar and semantics of the building language. And the language must tell a story, at many levels. To the builder it is about how the artefact is to be fashioned. To the client and public, it is about their historical time and cultural place, and the relationship of the building to its community and the landscape. To fellow practitioners, scholars and students, it is about how the detail and the parti have uniquely become one.

Architectural detailing is more than simply a set of instructions about how a building goes together in the same way that DNA is more than simply a blueprint for the development of living organisms.

Detailing Basics

As most students of architecture soon learn, “If you don’t know how it goes together, then you can’t very well detail it.” In practice, poor detailing is often reinterpreted by the builder in ways that may not adhere to the original design intent. By contrast, designers in the aerospace and automotive industries learned long ago there is no negotiating with robots. Materials, methods and the sequence of fabrication must be rigorously and explicitly defined. Nowadays, enclosure details often remain far too open to interpretation by the builder. Aesthetically and technically inferior architecture comes from bad detailing DNA.

The basic elements of proper detailing are fairly straightforward. First, the detail must be congruent with the design intent, functionally and aesthetically. Imagining the detail in its completed form is only possible by properly considering the construction sequence. Sequence is implicit to enclosure details. They must be construed in the order in which their constituent elements are to be constructed.

Next, an appropriate viewpoint and representation must be selected for explicating the detail. Two-dimensional, orthogonal projections are seldom as effective as three-dimensional representations. The scale of the detail is especially important when critical tolerances must be maintained. Dimensions and notes should provide essential instructions without causing confusion. Finally, the details need to be appropriately related to the other working drawings and specifications to promote a coherent and consistent means of representing the building production process.

For those who are not convinced there is plenty of room for improvement in detailing practices, consider the fragmentary and implicit nature of most contemporary details. What becomes of the many sketches and models that cloak every architect’s office? How intuitive can our contemporary conventions really be when they remain arcane to the vast majority of graduating architecture students? Can it be that the discipline of detailing has been displaced by seductive imaging exercises that are unrelated to building process?

Future Details

Is Canadian architecture lagging behind other parts of the world? The answer lies in the details. Ongoing developments in computing, animation, holographic projection and a host of modelling and representation technologies are media in
search of content. The venues for this mating of inspiration and materiality will remain in the realm of materials fabrication, component manufacturing and whole system assembly. Architecture must re-assert its role in these building production arenas.

As a minimum, traditional two-dimensional design conventions must be enhanced by adopting parametric digital design tools. Moving to three-dimensional solid modelling imposes detailing discipline and forces the designer to explicitly deal with materials, tolerances and assembly sequences. It also opens the possibility to interact directly with numerically-controlled machinery, altogether by-passing negotiations with an unwilling and/or unable workforce.

Architecture’s quest for sustainability involves numerous and often conflicting alternatives. As discussed in previous contributions to Architectural Science Forum, our scientific understanding of building performance, coupled to emerging building technologies, offers countless opportunities for architectural expression that can be integrated at many levels.

Despite amazing developments in computing and digital media, the challenge of enclosure detailing has not diminished; in many ways it has become overwhelming. Client and societal expectations continue to spiral upward. The legal, labour and management structures of building production have further distanced the architect from the construction process. Innovation has become an arm’s length proposition architects painfully negotiate with the client, the builder and the supplier. From an historical perspective, detailing has never been so critical, and yet so difficult.

But the gene pool of detailing DNA has also never been richer and more diverse. The exchange of detailing ideas and techniques has become a global phenomenon, due largely to the Internet, and there is now broad access to innovative precedents. New materials are enabling new details that leverage recombinant possibilities in ways that traditional architectural practice would have found inconceivable. Detailing is peculiar to the disciplines of design and enclosure detailing remains at the core of architectural practice. It deserves to be more than a handful of inconvenient exercises in education and an appended booklet of monochrome, two-dimensional drawings in practice.

Ted Kesik is associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. The unabridged version of this article is available on the Web at www.canadianarchitect.com under Architectural Science Forum. This forum is intended to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and information pertaining to architectural science, among practitioners, researchers, academics and students of architecture and its allied disciplines. For further information on submissions to Architectural Science Forum, contact the editors.

To detail is not only to specify, but to privilege one portion of a project over another. Although all architects detail, what they choose to detail is what distinguishes one practice from another. The drawn detail represents a particular interest of the designer–a condition too significant or ambiguous to be configured within the accepted standards of the tradesman-builder. Architects usually detail non-standard methods of assembly or fabrication; the connection of gypsum board to metal studs is rarely drawn because the exact means by which the connection is achieved is simply not significant enough to warrant a detail. If the usual construction standards are acceptable, or if the detail is sufficiently unambiguous, the resolution is left to the trade or to the oxymoronic “standard details.” However, the very definition of detail prevents its standardization–in its individuality, its specificity, its distinction.

Ashley Schafer and Amanda Reeser, Praxis, Issue One, Volume One, 2000.