Most architects think traditional design and detailing techniques are a boring cop-out. Similarly, many academics find blunt prose simplistic. Plain language is indeed comparable to accepted building techniques—direct and to the point, with acknowledged meanings and proven results. Just like florid prose from the mouth of a professor, experimental building techniques and products that are designed to impress often reflect an architect's need for self-justification.
In propping up their professional personas, many architects end up trusting products that rely on technology to overcome the basic laws of physics. The greatest example of this mindset is the flat roof. Water flows downhill. Although many manufacturers tout the multi-decade durability of their roofs, virtually every flat roof I've come in contact with has less durability, year over year, than any pitched one I have seen. Obviously, some pitched roofs leak like a sieve and some flat roofs are as tight as a drum--but year after year, storm after storm, I trust gravity (and thus roofs with a pitch greater than 4 in 12) over a building product's ability to be a monolithic barrier against water.
Lately, architects of high-art buildings have been fascinated by plywood products for exterior surfaces. Once again, I trust the solid materials over those that rely on glue for stability. There are many undesigned buildings where plywood exterior siding has been used for decades (sheds, garages, and commercial buildings) and the results aren't pretty after a few years. A similar faith in technology over simplicity can be seen in the recent failures of so many synthetic stucco products. The products that on paper seemed to be bombproof and virtually inert turned out to be part of a system that propagates mold, mildew, and rot.
It is true that architects are often the culprit when it comes to things like removing eaves from houses so they become more "sculptural" (and thus sentencing doors, windows, and the joint between dirt and wall to a lifetime of never-ending maintenance and water intrusion). But the motivation for the vast majority of wrongheaded decisions to trust new technology is in fact cost. Flat roofs are cheaper than pitched roofs. Synthetic stucco is cheaper than real stucco.
Still, the history of architecture is replete with examples of noble failure in the search for new construction techniques. Frank Lloyd Wright's many gifts of artistic expression and technological advancement are undeniable. However, the same vision that allowed him to see past affected historicism caused him to overreach into revisionism of a few hundred years of building technology. In attempting to build many of his Usonian houses using roughly 2x4-sized pieces of wood, Mr. Wright showed that there are limits to how cheap cheap lumber can be. Little wood boards that are cantilevered, double cantilevered, and cantilevered again, lapped and butted, woven and clad, typically have a lot of joints that can fail. Rot can simply consume the guts of the house. In this non-Depression era, when labor claims a far greater percentage of building cost than when these homes were designed, the budgets for saving Usonian houses often eclipse anything that might be called "affordable."
The Austrian-born architect Frederick Kiesler sought to reinvent architecture by creating a prototype house out of concrete, dubbed the "Endless House," which remained an exhibition piece until his death in 1965. Kiesler wanted to shatter any connection with the past and reinvent our sense of how a building should inspire our day-to-day lives. The house was formed of lumped-together bags of space and their "feet," all made from thin-skinned concrete.
Like many of his less famous compatriots, Kies-ler showed why conceptual art often remains just that--conceptual. Many potential patrons tantalized him with thoughts of building whole communities of his magical design, only to have the reality sink in that they would be exquisitely expensive and simply unappealing to the vast majority of those who purchase homes.
It is not just an architect's ego that creates flights of technological fervor. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, a whole subtext of architecture--"active solar"--was glamorized in the press and heralded as a new era. New technologies were literally pasted onto building envelopes, creating any number of opportunities for leaks, rot, and endless repair. Almost all of this well-intentioned techno-cladding--best symbolized today by the occasional outsized, perfectly angled south-facing roof where solar collectors once lived--is gone. The death knell for the movement, of course, was the loss of federal tax credits for such work, but the continuing celebration of style over substance means few lessons have been learned from these experiments.
The high point of silliness came in the 1980s in The New York Times' home section. A front-page article written by a noted architecture critic presented about eight projects as "solar." While all the homes shown had the iconic solar panels, only one project was a design based on passive solar principles.
This world of "solar" design has had an ongoing conversion into "green" building, and although the same sense of reinvention is present, the "green" movement has at its roots a sense of technological mesh as opposed to tacked-on technology.
The bottom line is that our "default" mode of building homes--the 2-by dimensional lumber and 4-foot-by-8-foot panel set to 16-inch and 24-inch modules--is an amazingly efficient and flexible system. According to the NAHB, we build about a million-and-a-half houses a year in the U.S. and more than two-thirds of us own our own homes. The level of personal expression such a generic technology affords is astonishing when contrasted with other First World housing. It's not broken (yet) and any "fixes" will probably cause more problems than they solve.
Given all the undeniable failures of this overreaching faith in technology, the trick ultimately is not to reject innovation, but to be clearheaded in its application. Embracing existing technologies with an open mind often produces the biggest bang for the buck. The goal is to combine all of the zesty creativity of the best fashion designers with the utility of the Gap. Can we do it? Time will tell.
Duo Dickinson is an architect in Madison, Conn., and the author of five books on residential design. His next book, The House You Build, will be published by The Taunton Press in 2004.