Architects and building designers are at liberty to persuade their clients (the building owner) to have the building designed in any way they choose.

This is a big responsibility because these buildings are hugely expensive both financially and environmentally, and they will serve the community for a long time. It is kind of a crime to design poor quality buildings.

Building design involves the resolution of many things, including cost, climate control, layout planning, appropriate materials selections, durability, environmental resourcefulness, aesthetics and much more. If the designer is not careful, they can fall prey to something that can degrade all of these good outcomes. That is design folly.

The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture defines folly as “a costly but useless structure built to satisfy the whim of some eccentric.” To this, you could also add “based on aesthetics to the detriment of all other design factors.” The cost of folly is hard to measure, but it must be huge because it is common.

Think of all those add-ons and weird shapes in buildings that do nothing more than create a certain look. Some designers claim it is necessary to avoid boring buildings, but many beautiful buildings exist without folly. In reality there is no practical reason to use folly. It exists only to try to make a building look better and is generally not necessary if the designer has crafted the beauty from the outset using the fundamental elements of the building.

The negative impact of folly on buildings can be divided into two parts: fashion and decoration, and complex arrangements.

Fashion and decoration

Fashion can gives newness and variety but it eventually makes the unique common. This may be acceptable for disposable items such as clothing or cars. For buildings, which can stand for many decades, fashion quickly can become boring.

Fashion is superficial, transient, and over-relies on add-on decoration. It can often be used to cover up bland design, and it can force premature refurbishment due to its temporary nature. This can all be very uneconomical as the extra decorative materials are first acquired and then later have to be refurbished prematurely.

Complex building aesthetics (sometimes called art) is another form on fashion and decoration, and can quickly create problems.

Complex aesthetics

Use of complex aesthetics (including curves and irregular shapes) is usually another form of fashion, with no planning, technical, construction, environmental, or cost benefit. Buildings with this aesthetic shout loudly and demand attention and have had expensive resources dedicated to that purpose.

Claims that complex aesthetics are needed to create interest and curves are needed to soften building lines are simply incorrect and short-sighted. Many iconic and not so iconic but beautiful buildings around the world use straight lines and right-angles.

You need to ask of any design decision, “what is the point?” If aesthetics (which is only one design factor) is the only answer, then that will dominate at the expense of other factors such as cost, buildability, functionality and planning. Buildings are so expensive, every component should have a practical function in addition to looking good. Responsible design is the use of practical science ordered artistically, not the opposite. Architecture has to be more than visual entertainment.

Architecture involves creating an exciting and beautiful design, optimizing site potential, being resourceful with materials, and satisfying the owners needs in a well-planned, efficient way, and not relying on complexity and decoration for visual attraction.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of complex building aesthetics (including curves and irregular shapes). The advantages are possibly that it provides beauty and interest, but this is a subjective thing depending on taste, so that makes it a big “maybe.” No other advantages seem to be evident.

The disadvantages of complex aesthetics (including curves and irregular shapes) include:

  1. Radical and risky aesthetics may be less accepted by the community and may lead to poor resale value.
  2. Complexity has higher environmental cost, with increased energy and material use required for construction.
  3. Straight line form and 90 degree jointing is basic to most manufacturing processes. To alter this manufacturing basic, extra design, documentation, labour, energy and costs are required.
  4. When the standard manufacturing practice of straight line form and square jointing is altered, off-cuts result which need to be discarded or recycled, increasing energy, material consumption, and wastage.
  5. Complexity creates higher project costs, by increasing design and construction duration, and labour.  Also, longer design, documentation, and construction duration increases building finance interest costs and lost revenue from an uncompleted project.
  6. Complexity can cause the need for a premature expensive facelift when the novelty wears off, while simple practical shapes (often seen in historic buildings) are still very relevant today.
  7. Complexity can increase the chance of design or construction error.
  8. Complexity can involve doing things which are not often done, so inherent problems may only be evident after construction is complete.
  9. Complexity can create an excessive tender pricing mentality to cover higher risk. When building demand is high, this excess can be exacerbated when other less risky projects are available.
  10. Building planning suffers with unnecessary complexity. For example, in plan view, angled and curved external walls can cause secondary walls to converge into unusable, inaccessible sharp corners, needing cross-walls to permanently close the sharp corner, resulting in loss of floor space.
  11. In plan view, non-square walls are expensive and time consuming to build and inefficient in planning and use.
  12. Building members (such as “I”, “C” or “L” shapes) are hard to curve. Fold a long piece of cardboard into an “L” and bend it. The side that deforms or tears, in a building situation, either has to a) be multiple-cut along the length and re-joined after curving,  b) have material thickness increased to enable heated rework,  c) be cut from flat material, then joined to the other leg (for instance, by welding). All these options are very expensive and wasteful of energy and materials.
  13. Complex and intricate facades may be easily damaged by wind blown debris, and can produce unacceptable wind noise.
  14. Curves in fabrication need extra work to set out, hold temporarily, set the curve, and handle. It can also be difficult to get consistency on multiple to-be-identical curved elements.
  15. Curved and irregular shapes consume more space and need extra support during transport, adding to transport costs.
  16. Curved and irregular shapes are difficult to join to, as evidenced by the extra planning, measuring, set-out, and cutting required to join a material neatly to a simple round pipe.
  17. Curved shapes don’t fit with other straight elements, such as furniture, doors and windows.
  18. Curved roof apex (roof top with falls either side) may retain dirt/debris (it is less likely to be washed off by rain), potentially causing corrosion, and spring curved roofs (flat metal sheets pushed down over a curved frame) may induce more uplift force at fixings and exacerbate wind uplift force.
  19. Sloping walls create wasted floor space, as people or furniture cannot be stood against them.
  20. Sloping columns or posts can create a head or shoulder impact hazard, require extra set-out work and temporarily support, and require bigger members to handle the eccentric gravity loadings.
  21. Glass sloping inwards can create a head impact hazard, as a person walking toward the sloping glass may see the sill as the stop point, not the invisible, much closer glass at head height.
  22. Glass sloping outwards can create a trip hazard, as a person walking toward the sloping glass may see the higher framed glass further out than the bottom of the wall.
  23. Sloping glass and irregular shaped windows are difficult fit with curtains, blinds and operable sashes. Sloping glass also becomes dirty very quickly.
  24. A complex aesthetic may not be noticed or valued by anyone other than the owner and designer.

It is evident that fashion, decoration and complex aesthetics create problems. The more they are used, the poorer the quality of the building becomes.

If complex aesthetics just can’t be avoided, consider only using aesthetically complex off-the-shelf fixtures and fittings. This way, the aesthetic is achieved but reduced to an appropriate level of importance, without the extra costs and extended construction times, and can more readily change with fashion.

Beautiful, unique, completely functional and simply constructed buildings can be made without folly, giving owners value for money in construction and in operation. It just requires more creativity. Using everyday construction methods, memorable and beautiful buildings can be made which will aesthetically, physically and emotionally stand the test of time.