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Learning Curve

September 13, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been working for about 3 months now, and as seemingly everyone discovers upon entering the workforce, I now realize I know nothing.  Not to discredit my five year (forever) education – I learned design and not necessarily specific material assemblies.  I was taught to research the newest and most cutting edge technologies – technologies that can’t really even be used in architecture yet.  The purpose was to expand my (‘our’ in the case of the entire student body) horizons – to think of everything as a component of architecture.  Who says nanotech and shape memory polymers can’t be structural and design components of architecture?  If it isn’t yet, it’s only a matter of time, and the fact that we look at these materials as such will put us on the cutting edge of architecture when it comes time for these materials to become a part of our repetoire.

On the other hand, I didn’t really know how to structure the hanging facade from a cantilevered room that I designed for the project I’m working on, and I really had no clue how to specify the glazing hardware or connections or to look up the codes for the butt-glazed window wall that I also designed into this room.  I designed it, it looked beautiful, but where do I go from there?  I was given free reign to pursue this, it became my mini-project, but I felt pretty overwhelmed to actually specify materials.  After creating a material assembly from scratch our of locally reclaimed wood, threaded rods, 2×4’s, metal studs, and sound insulation, a new coworker told me about a product that did the exact same thing.  She thought, in fact, that I had specified that product since my assembly was nearly identical.   So I moved over to using this ready made assembly, speaking w/ the architect and sales rep at the company to make sure a few things could be customized for our project, and it will work wonderfully.

Next up was the glazing. All of the glazing details in this building involved steel plates and steel bars.  We pretty much reinvented the wheel because it was so beautifully minimal.  Glazing sits on 1/2″ x 7″ steel plate, and is locked in by 1/2″ square steel bar on each side.  Well, with the massive amounts of butt glazing, that detail wasn’t going to cut it – we needed more structure to hold our tall spans of glazing.  The detail would work for our standard replacements, but not for a window wall.  So I was told to look at a particular detail on a previous project, which used a ready made glazing system often used for glass rail walls.  Pretty much an aluminum channel w/ neoprene blocking holds the glass in place with a solid 1″ bite or more to hold the glass.  Well, our details are steel.  This aluminum channel would be sitting on a steel shelf.  Aluminum and steel don’t mix – the aluminum corrodes.  We could separate them w/ another neoprene gasket, but then we’d have the clashing aesthetic of aluminum with steel.  So now I’m looking at using a steel channel instead of aluminum, but nobody makes such a product.  We’d have to customize a steel channel and specify the blocking and gaskets.  It will work, but we need to engineer it.  I also had no idea how these channel systems worked, so I had to disect the aluminum channel system to reassemble a steel channel system.  It’s fairly simple, but until I learned how it worked, I had no idea how I’d get this together aside from specify ‘Steel Channel’.

And that’s really where this all started. In school, we learn to specify ‘Steel Channel’ or ‘Spider Connection’ or sometimes we might even get specific enough to call out bolt and stud sizes, but in general, the emphasis was on design.  That’s really how it should be, because we can learn the nitty gritty on the job, which is what I’m doing.  But if you’re burdened with making sure you know exactly how to assemble the building while learning to design, your horizons will generally be diminished.  Not to say that we should be designing completely impossible things – our structure courses keep us in line, but knowing how an aluminum channel glazing support system actually works is rightfully kept to the sidelines. 

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