The renewed leadership of architects, with their design integrity and experience, can be used to regain control of the current building industry crisis of non-compliance. 

Often in a crisis, people look to government for a solution, but this is usually a clumsy, inefficient and torturous path.  It is better to put into the position of leadership, those people that have the innate ability and natural desire to make the positive changes necessary.

However, architects have a not so great reputation in some ways, mainly with poor cost control management and also wanting adventurous-looking buildings.  Building owners avoid these problems by simply going straight to a builder, and now we have a crisis.  Architects need to get around these two reputational flaws if they want to regain leadership.

The problem of costs is fairly straightforward to fix, requiring input from builders, quantity surveyors and use of disciplined processes.  Shifting away from the want to design adventurous-looking buildings is less straightforward and for many architects, requires a personal paradigm shift in how they assess architectural aesthetics.

Everyone wants good looking buildings but they need to be well designed.  Good design can be seen as the balance of the four “P’s”; picture (aesthetics), planning, performance and price.  When any one of these get out of balance with the others, problems occur.

When the “P” of ‘picture’ gets out of balance to the adventurous side, the result is architectural folly.  The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture defines folly as “a costly but useless structure built to satisfy the whim of some eccentric”.  The cost of folly is hard to measure but it must be huge because it is common.

People can claim adventurous-looking design is necessary to avoid boring looking buildings but many beautiful buildings exist without folly.  In reality there is no practical reason to use folly.  Beautiful buildings can be built using the fundamental building elements and shapes.

The negative impact of folly on buildings can be divided into two parts; 1) fashion and decoration and, 2) complex arrangements:

1. Fashion and decoration

Fashion can give newness and variety but it eventually becomes common.  This may be acceptable for disposable items such as clothing or cars.  For buildings, which can stand for many decades, fashion becomes an expensive, redundant bore.

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 costly refurbishment due to its temporary nature. 

Complex building aesthetics often is another form of fashion and decoration.

2. Complex Aesthetics

Use of complex aesthetics (including curves and irregular shapes) usually has no planning, technical, construction, environmental, or cost benefit.  In fact, its main purpose often seems to be to shout “Look at me!”.

Ask of any design decision, “what is the point?”  If aesthetics (which is only one design factor) is the prominent answer, then that will dominate at the expense of the other three “P’s” (planning, performance, price).  Buildings are so expensive, every component should have a practical function plus it should look good.  Responsible design is the use of practical science ordered artistically, not the opposite.

Architecture has to be more than short-term visual entertainment.  It involves creating an exciting and beautiful design efficiently and resourcefully.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of complex building aesthetics (including curves and irregular shapes).

Advantages of Complex Building Aesthetics

The advantage is that maybe it provides beauty and interest but this is a “maybe” because it is an emotional reason dependent on individual taste.  No other advantages seem to exist.

Disadvantages of Complex Building Aesthetics

The disadvantages of complex aesthetics include:

  • Radical and risky aesthetics may be less accepted by the community and may lead to poor resale value.
  • Complexity has higher environmental cost, with increased energy and material use required for construction.
  • Straight line form and 90 degree jointing is a manufacturing basic. Altering this means extra design, documentation, labour, energy and costs.
  • When the manufacturing basic of straight line form and square jointing is altered, excessive off-cuts result in excessive waste.
  • Complexity creates higher project costs, by increasing design and construction duration, labour, building finance interest costs, and lost revenue from an incomplete building due to longer construction times.
  • Complexity can cause the need for a premature expensive facelift when the novelty wears off, while simple practical shapes (often seen in historic buildings) remain relevant.
  • Complexity increases the chance of design or construction error.
  • Complexity can involve doing things which are not often done, so inherent problems may only be evident after completion.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In plan view, non-square walls are expensive and time consuming to build and inefficient in planning and use.
  • Building members (eg “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 be  a) multiple-cut along the length and re-joined after curving,  b) have material thickness increased to enable heated rework,  c) cut from flat material, then joined to the other leg (eg by welding).  All these options are very expensive and wasteful.
  • Complex and intricate facades may be easily damaged by wind blown debris, and can produce unacceptable wind noise.
  • Fabrication of curves need extra Work to; set-out, hold temporarily, set the curve, handle, and get consistency on multiple identical elements.
  • Curved and irregular shapes consume more space and need extra support during transport, adding to transport costs.
  • 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.
  • Curved shapes don’t fit with other straight elements, such as furniture, doors and windows.
  • Curved roof apex (roof top with falls either side) may retain dirt/debris (it is less likely to be rain washed off) maybe 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.
  • Sloping walls create wasted floor space, as people or furniture need to be stood away from them.
  • 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.
  • Glass sloping inwards can create head impact hazard, as a person walking towards the sloping glass may see the sill as the stop point, not the invisible, much closer glass at head height.
  • Glass sloping outwards can create a trip hazard, as a person walking towards the sloping glass may see the higher framed glass further out than the bottom of the wall.
  • Sloping glass and irregular shaped windows are difficult fit with curtains, blinds and operable sashes. Sloping glass also becomes dirty very quickly.
  • A complex aesthetic may not be noticed or valued by anyone other than the owner and designer.

Fashion, decoration and complex aesthetics does create problems, lowers building quality, and gives architects a bad name.  No wonder building owners just go straight to a builder.

Beautiful, unique, functional and simply constructed buildings can be made without folly, giving owners great value for money.  It just requires a slightly altered sense of creativity and design approach.

Architects adopting a balanced approach to the four “P’s” of building design (picture, planning, performance and price) can help regain their leadership and put an end to this current building non-compliance crisis.