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    Credit: Jesse Lefkowitz


degrees of separation

Where you go depends on what kind of practice you have. When you’re not the person hiring the subs, it’s harder to find out which windows install easily and have the fewest callbacks. At design/build firms like Peter Gluck and Partners, which contract with each specialty trade, the conversation goes farther.

One example is ultra-efficient mechanical systems. Heating and cooling options have multiplied in recent years, Kaplan says, requiring more communication to make sure the increasingly complex, digitally controlled systems are easy to install and user-friendly enough to function well post-occupancy. That means working back and forth between product reps, installers, and engineers. One recent example is a home in Aspen, Colo., that uses solar hot water to heat the pool and spa. Because of the extreme cold, the local subs nixed a brand the engineer had recommended.

“The engineer wasn’t close enough to the products to be able to help us with this,” Kaplan says. “The subs suggested using a different kind of solar panel system where the water drains into a tank and can’t freeze. Once the engineer knew what the system was, he had additional input. It was a four-way conversation that in a traditional process you rarely have, unless you have a good general contractor, and then it usually means a change order. We’re doing the research before we buy the contract for that product.”

If anything, traditional firms are moving closer to that principle. With a focus on whole-building systems and fiscal restraint, architects are huddling with subs and consultants. And manufacturers are meeting them halfway.

“Five years ago, we might have developed an exterior wall system that we built ourselves and had to fine-tune layer by layer,” says BNIM’s Nagle. “More and more, manufacturers are building entire envelope systems that are fully tested. So you’re dealing with a single source, which is better in terms of design, but also installation and the challenges that may arise after installation.”

In Phoenix, Thamarit Suchart, co-principal of Chen + Suchart Studio, observes that manufacturers are getting into step with the intensifying trend toward resourcefulness. A few years ago, Suchart reduced costs by going directly to an Alabama factory for a house’s Cor-Ten steel skin rather than through a fabricator and installer. He ordered 40,000 pounds of steel directly from the plant, which cut the panels to size and shipped them to the jobsite for “far less money” than a local shop charged. He says: “The contractor was gung-ho about taking on the installation himself. It’s not about looking for a metal system, but being innovative about how to achieve a metal-clad building.”

When you know what you want, it’s easier than ever to grab the technical information, too. “On one house, we were looking for roof drains,” says Federico Engel, an associate at Butler Armsden Architects, San Francisco. “It was amazingly easy to go the manufacturer’s website and in two minutes import their CAD drawings to get a detail you could work with. The exchange of information like that is becoming more prevalent.”

But not prevalent enough, if you ask Jonathan Boelkins, AIA, studio director at Marlon Blackwell Architect, Fayetteville, Ark. Most manufacturer renderings are missing a layer of articulation he’d like to see. “We insist on accurate 3D content, not just 2D drawings you can plunk into Revit,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll take 2D content from a manufacturer and make the 3D content. It’s a lot of work, and the joke is that we should sell it back to them.”

It’s not just detailing. Manufacturers are automating custom design, too. According to Belzberg, who designed the orchid wall, even some of the smaller stone and glass manufacturers are able to cut and mold custom pieces from digital files. “The manufacturing process to print these is so efficient now that the final product is any kind of image I wish,” he says. “That’s powerful stuff.”

Two years ago, for the first time, the firm made an entry structure for a house in Hawaii from a kit of parts fabricated in Los Angeles. “It’s coming to a point where I think a great deal of the buildings will be automated in their manufacturing—not prefab but custom,” he says.

Les Eerkes, AIA, thinks so, too. “If anything has happened recently, it’s a greater ability to customize products because of the relationships we have with the product reps and subs,” says Eerkes, principal at Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle. Since 2008, the firm has been using GoToMeeting, screen-sharing software that lets the architects collaborate on 3D CAD drawings and other digital files in real time.

The design team selects fabricators early on, working with them to determine cost, complexity, and constructability. “We can have the structural engineer, steel fabricator, architect, and contractor twirling the 3D model around and manipulating the image,” Eerkes says. “I’ll have three or four of these GoToMeetings a day, and the contractor can point an iPad at the thing we’re talking about.” The technology allows them to explore ideas fluidly, prefabricate components, and get deeper into customization mode.