God is in the Details: Seminar Review and Recording

Last week Architecture Today and SIG Design and Technology hosted a fascinating seminar focused on the importance of details to architecture.

This lively event with some renowned speakers reinforced the sense that architects care a great deal about how their designs are executed and discussed some of the ways to make this happen.

Amin Taha – New Ways of Looking at Facades

Amin Taha focused on two projects which illustrated a different attitude to load bearing facades – Barrett’s Grove, a residential scheme with a CLT structure and load bearing brick rainscreen façade, and Upper Street, a mixed use infill project in Islington which used a terracotta and cement load bearing façade to ‘tell the story of an imperfect memory’.

Amin’s confident presentation demonstrated a clear understanding of the commercial reality of property development and showed how by understanding client needs, architects can achieve their vision and save the client money in the process.

Both projects eschewed the commonly held view that conventional multi-layer facades are the most commercially viable. A more efficient use of materials, that made better use of their inherent characteristics, led to reduced costs for the client. By taking a holistic approach to façade design, the team could also successfully achieve a much wider range of effects.

Mary Duggan – A Focus on Materiality

In complete contrast, Mary Duggan looked in depth at the briefing process her practice carries out and how this is heavily influenced by an exploration of materials. Mary showed us a range of design tools and mockups, many developed as tactile samples which could be handed round in meetings.

Mary’s focus on materials expressed an understanding of the relationship between materiality and spatial arrangements, relationship to site, weight and lightness. She talked about the influences of the 20th Century Italian printmaker and painter Giorgio Morandi and illustrated her talk with examples of housing and pavilion designs and several arts projects, including the Dorotha Lange exhibition at the Barbican and a new events space at the Science Museum.

Mary’s interest in materiality and the art world has also led to the practice sponsoring a residency programme.

Daniel Bosworth and Terry Fearfield – Choosing the Right Materials

The theme took a different turn yet again with Daniel Bosworth’s talk about a housing scheme for Shape Homes York and City of York Council, and Terry Fearfield’s advice for using natural slate at low pitches.

Daniel described how SIG Design and Technology worked in partnership with main contractor Wates to help develop the architects’ initial intent into a scheme that could confidently be executed on site and attract meaningful long-term guarantees. This involved product substitution in some cases, combined with expert detailing that makes the most of the materials and avoids compatibility issues.

Terry Fearfield, who works for our sister company SIGA Natural Slate, described how low pitch slate roofing is a common issue with architects. Terry explained how with the right choice of slates and good detailing, it is possible to combine pitches effectively. He also demonstrated how the location of your project affects the lowest pitch permissible and the size and fixing of slates required to achieve it.

Sasha Bhavan – Working with Specialists

Whilst a pragmatic contrast, Daniel and Terry’s presentations flagged up the huge importance of working with product specialists early in the design process. This was reinforced by Sasha Bhavan who gave an enthusiastic presentation of some of Knox Bhavan’s work and introduced us to some of the craftspeople who worked on them.

Building their own office was a key turning point for Knox Bhavan. By getting ‘stuck in’ the firm were able to test out ideas without taking risks on behalf of a client, and they learned a huge amount from hands on experience. Sasha explained how engaging with the people who make your buildings gives you respect for their expertise and helps you achieve your project ambitions.

Sasha urged us to think about details right at the beginning of projects, however mundane the material you are using. Whether it is designing a house in the Lake District with an exterior entirely of local slate, or flat pack housing to help earthquake survivors rebuild their lives, the key to success is good detailing. She concluded with a plea to architects to use their innovative mindset to respond to the challenges of PassivHaus and thermal breaks, bringing us full circle, back to Amin’s innovative façade approaches.

Bringing your Ideas into Reality

As you can imagine, the panel session that concluded the webinar was lively and varied, touching on the philosophical and the practical. You can watch the discussion in the video below.

Amin Taha summed up a key learning of the session beautifully when he said that generations of architects ask themselves, ‘when we draw something, do the details mean anything?’ He concluded that Dan and Terry’s presentations illustrated the process from ‘architecture as image’ to reproducing that image in the real world, in a way that it can be reproduceable and warrantied. If you are not knowledgeable about how materials come together, the details can destroy your ambition. This is where expertise can deliver your vision in the built environment.