Axonometric drawing by MLTW depicting the framing system for one of the units of Condominium No. 1, Sea Ranch, CA
Whenever I read Bill Kleinsasser’s words, I’m reminded about how multivalent and challenging what we do as architects is. His premise was always that our work reveals what we have considered, and that our goal should be to take into account all that should be considered in design and do it well.
The palette architects work with includes various types of structural systems. If we select them appropriately and employ them with style, skill, and grace, the potential for these systems to contribute to the making of great architecture is boundless.
That being said, Bill wanted his students to appreciate how good places are an inclusive integration. He repeatedly told us how successfully integrating construction systems contributes to establishing a lucid outline for the whole. We learned that making architecture, let alone a great building or place, requires tremendous discipline. At the same time, Bill made sure we understood we could not seriously consider a particular structural system to the exclusion of other essential concerns. With Bill’s guidance, we discovered how important it is to respond to many frames of reference at once and throughout the design process. This was his definition of Synthesis.
Establishing a Primary Structure
If the construction system of a building does not define the intended spatial order of the building, it will confuse it. The construction system has to be there, so it either does or does not articulate the intended order of the whole. To integrate construction and spatial order, the designer must unite two understandings: understanding of spatial intent and understanding of essential constructional discipline.
Spatial intent includes the rooms, sub-rooms, zones, paths, services, relationships, contextual connections, and conditions of daylight that need to be defined.
The essential discipline of a construction system includes:
- Materials (their strength and character)
- How vertical support is provided and how often (this establishes maximum spans)
- How lateral support is provided and where—diagonal bracing, shear walls, rigid frame, or a combination—this support must be multidirectional and distributed in a balanced manner
- Directionality of the system—if there is any
- Inherent shape and geometry of the system, especially the roof
- Need for material continuity or unbroken mass—this will identify where vertical and horizontal openings can and cannot be made
- Capacity for variation, inflection, and addition
- How the system meets the ground
- Determine spatial intent (use the diagram of operational laws).
- Consider the essential disciplines of several likely systems of construction.
- Choose a system of construction where discipline is compatible with spatial intent. Also consider: a) fireproofness; b) perceived character—color, texture, softness, strength, gestalt; c) availability; d) long and short-term cost; e) feasibility; f) legality.
- Diagram the essential spatial discipline of the system. Describe vertical support, lateral support, inherent directionality, inherent geometry and shape (especially in the roof), possible openings, possible inflections and additions, inherent ground joint.
- Follow the discipline of the constructional system as the building is developed. Remember, you may stretch this discipline but you may not break it.
- Establish vertical and horizontal chases with columns and shear walls (hollow primary structure is better than solid for distribution of pipes, ducts, wires, elevators, toilets, storage space, and other service).
- Make several three-dimensional models of just the primary system of construction (the permanent, load-bearing system). This will allow testing of how well the primary system defines spatial intent. Check its performance in regard to all aspects of spatial intent.
- Make the primary construction system vivid as well as clear.
The Sea Ranch condominium project by MLTW offers further explanation:
The construction system in the Sea Ranch is a 2-directional wood post-and-beam system with a wood plank roof deck and a wood plank curtain wall. The roof is a moderately pitched shed. Lateral support is provided by evenly distributed, multi-directional wood braces, which occur above the height of eight feet. “Hollow structure” isn’t needed.
The system was selected because it could provide:
- Maximum internal openness
- A strong framework (perceptually and actually)
- A simple roof shape (easy to combine with other similar shapes)
- Maximum opportunity for wall openings below the height of eight feet
- Softness of material (compared to concrete or steel)
- Rich color and texture
- Low initial cost
- Easy maintenance
The essential discipline of the system (the requirements that had greatest impact on spatial organization) included the following:
- Vertical supports had to occur at intervals of approximately 16 feet or less in two directions (given the beam depth that was considered appropriate) and be sufficiently stiff to resist bending.
- Overhead lateral bracing had to point in all directions and be distributed in a balanced manner.
- Wood members had to be kept out of contact with moisture.
Though very simple, this essential outline came into play very early and remained a significant organizational force throughout design. As a discipline, it was stretched but not broken.