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Architectural Blindspots

Common Failures of Architects

Architecture is an artistic profession and sometimes practical considerations can be lost in the enthusiasm of creative endeavour. Good architects can design buildings that are both beautiful and practical but many may miss practical considerations such as what happens when it rains or where will the air conditioners go. We need to oversee and manage our architect's work.

Architects Vary Considerably

Architects have their idiosyncrasies. There are some excellent architects around and if you want a new building or simply an extra room adding to an existing one it is amazing what a good architect can come up with and I have seen a number of projects where a simple refurbishment has become a work of shear genius.

However, architects are artists and, like most artists, they have their own style and their own preferences. Ask Turner to design a house and you'll probably get a very classical design while Picasso is likely to put the kitchen on its side halfway through the triangular shaped garage.

Architecture is a matter of taste and some are able to produce stunningly beautiful buildings while others can only be described as despoiling the landscapes they impose their creations upon.

There are, however, architects and "architects" and it is well to check their credentials. While some are fully qualified university graduates there are others who have the extensive skills learned running timeshare parties.

Blind Spots

Design is one thing but on a more practical level the requirement that an architect is a creative designer may mean a lack of practicality in their designs. With a greater concern on how the final building will appear is often more important than where th plumbing is going to go so some architects seem to have certain blind spots.

Over the years I have come across a series of these "blind spots" - aspects of building design that consistently architects seem to either overlook or get wrong. In some cases these mistakes are so widespread they have become adopted as standard practice.

Sadly you may not become aware of the blindspot until it is too late. You get your new palace in paradise built and then, 5 minutes after you move in, the faults become glaringly obvious. Trying to get the builder or developer to find solutions at this late stage may be just a tad more difficult than trying to persuade Her Majesty Queen Lizzie to wear a polkadot G string.

So let us look at some of these blind spots. We'll start with a fairly common one:

Badly planned roof drainage

Recently I was called to a brand new villa situated on a beach front. This expensive dwelling has a central open living room facing the sea with a bedroom on each side. There is a gap between the living room and each bedroom and all 3 rooms have alang alang roofs. Access to the bedrooms is through french doors facing the open living area but when it rains both the living room roof and the bedroom roofs on each side drain towards each other. The first time it rained it was discovered that a torrent of water fell from the roofs on each side, so much so that it fell as a curtain of water across the entry to each bedroom. When it rained hard it was impossible to get into the bedrooms without an aqualung.

This was not an easy problem to solve and in the end a flat glass roof was put under the roofs between the rooms. This of course interfered with the original design of the building. It was a pretty basic error and, considering an earlier building had been built to the exact same design, the problem should have previously been recognised and avoided.

In a very similar case another very expensive house had a separate master bedroom complex set about 3 metres away from the main building, when it rained a sheet of water fell from the roofs on both sides making it impossible to get across the gap in heavy rain. In this case a solid flat roof was built across the gap to solve the problem but this leaked and became an ongoing problem.

In both cases the house designers simply did not want to know about the errors. You may find that architects have a tendency for deaf spots regarding their blindspots.

These are by no means the worst I have seen. A good friend bought yet another very expensive house. It had an entrance lobby at the front, a two story building with 2 guest suites on one side, a master bedroom and ensuites on the other side and an open living area with a partial roof across in the centre.

All in all four wood shingle roofs were set around an open air portion of the living area. Rather like Noah and his Ark everything was fine until one day it started to rain. Suddenly it was realised that those four roofs collected rather a lot of water and sent it all directly into the living area. It was hard to understand how an architect could make such a basic but major mistake. An attempt was made by the builder to install a polycarbonate roof across the open gap. This failed. The final resolution required the installation of gutters on the lower edges of the four roofs and the addition of a glass roof across the open gap.

In this case the architect did take the responsibility of devising a solution but this was not the best. Shingle and thatched roofs are not designed to add gutters and trying to work out drainage for the gutters and the glass roofs after the fact was not easy.

There is of course no excuse for designing a building without considering what happens when it rains. This is the tropics after all, we have a wet season every year and when it rains it doesn't do it in half measures.

We should expect an architect to design a functional building

It is reasonable to assume that when we commission an architect to design a building we expect him to have sufficient skills and experience to consider all aspects of the functionality of the building and to produce a design that works. This is what we pay them for after all.

Managing your architect's work

As I have said it is a good idea to hire and architect but take care. Here are some steps you may wish to take to reduce the chances of you being disappointed.

  1. If you are building or renovating hire an architect, he or she can dramatically improve the outcome of the project.
  2. Carefully select your architect, find someone you can trust, make sure he is qualified (most Indonesian ones are), check his/her credentials and have a look at their previous work to see the style of their work and the type of designs they produce.
  3. Restrict the role of your architect to the work he is good at, the building design, and engage specialists for other tasks such as structural design, building and landscaping.
  4. Carefully inspect the architectural drawings to make sure that architectural blindspots are identified and rectified. If in doubt or you are not able to read the drawings find an independent person who can examine the design and make comments.
  5. Ask the architect for 3 dimensional views (you can get very good artistic impressions and even 3 dimensional walk through simulations these days) so you can imagine what it is like living in the building fully furnished before it is built. This can alert you to all kinds of factors you may not have thought about including what it is going to be like in wet weather.

Remember that taking the time and trouble to get the design work done properly at the start can pay huge dividends later on.

Copyright © Phil Wilson November 2010
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