On more than one occasion, we have overheard builders grumble about architects’ inexplicable need to constantly reinvent the wheel. These builders are invariably referring to the sophistication of our construction details and how difficult they are to execute.
Why do we constantly reinvent the wheel? The answer, after years of occasional reflection and contemplation, is pretty straightforward. It is a matter of priorities.
The aforementioned builder’s paradigm (which is thankfully not shared by all builders), demonstrating expertise in standard detailing and familiarity with the cost and availability of building materials, is bound by the tradition of expediency. A cursory inspection of many of the details we see in vernacular construction reveals a widespread and committed dedication to this tradition: face-affixed skirtings hide the floor to wall junction and make plastering easier; ceiling grids remove the need for plaster stopping altogether; hipped roofs minimise tricky edge flashing; weather beading on windows make use of standard timber dowel sizes; floating floorboards eliminate the need for gluing and nailing; expensive cupboard faces hide cheap joinery carcasses and expensive carpet hides cheap chipboard; veneers of all kinds may be inexpensive but they are dishonest.
Expediency is the enemy of the architect.
The architect values quality, craftsmanship and excellence. We seek the truth in structure and materials, and dedicate our designs to their expression. We do not assemble materials in a certain way because that’s how it has always been done, or those were what was available at the hardware store. We start with first principles, endeavouring to discover the heart of a problem and ensuring all that follows seeks its eloquent resolution. We recognise that our buildings are intended to last lifetimes and deserve careful consideration across all their dimensions.
All photos of Hill House by Mihaly Slocombe, 2006
The wheel is fine as it is, if all we want to do is travel from A to B. As architects, we hope instead to savour the journey.