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Reflecting on construction

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Bill Allen's book, Envelope Design for Buildings1, is a very personal reflection on a long career in architecture and particularly on the technical aspects of building failure. It is full of intelligent observations - for example, 'The construction industry, collectively, has a high learning inertia.'

After arriving from Canada, Allen first worked at the Building Research Station at a time when it was establishing itself as a source of construction expertise. In 1962 he founded the firm of Bickerdike Allen and Partners, which quickly became known for its investigations of building failures.

This book contains a mass of useful information on building construction. It first discusses the technical aspects of the external and internal environments and then highlights various aspects of the design of building envelope systems that interact between these two environments. It is organised in recognisable topics, though lacks easily locatable notes that would be useful to the busy architect or technologist during the construction documentation process. It would be worthwhile for architects to read it thoroughly and prepare more succinct notes for use in the practice environment. This is unlikely, however, and it is a pity that more effort was not put into a more structured presentation of the information. I would also have preferred that the useful sketch details were annotated on the drawings rather than in the body of the text for more easy reference.

Some of the opinions Allen expresses in the book are open to argument. But he makes you re-examine previous solutions and think through the basic science behind the performance of materials and components. He also rightly emphasises the importance of looking at junctions and corners in detail, and preferably in 3D, so that buildability problems can be better considered at design stage.

I found the book a bit of an architectural horror story with its emphasis on so many things that can go wrong. Having read the section on leadwork on the train, I had a nervous few hours until I could check the drawings and specification of a recent project for compliance!

Floored again

Floors and Flooring is the second book to be published in the Building Research Establishment's Building Element series - the first was Roofs and Roofing (aj 19.9.96). I suspect the publishing priority is closely linked to the incidence of building failures investigated by the bre Advisory Service. Indeed, the introduction emphasises that this guidance concentrates on those aspects of floors and flooring that have caused most problems. The authors state that the information relates mainly to older buildings, but they have also included much material relevant to new buildings.

As the authors note, there is no shortage of industry information on flooring. This book attempts to bring much of it together in a single volume without marketing hyperbole. The introductory chapter highlights the basic functions of all floors, including the basic principles and functions which the designer must understand to design functional and successful floors and flooring. The middle sections are concerned with types of floor structure, followed by chapters on floor screeds and the main types of floor finishes.

The contrast in presentation with Allen's book could hardly be stronger. This publication is copiously and clearly illustrated, including many colour photographs. Not surprisingly, it is similar to other bre publications such as the Good Building Guide series. Much of the information is presented in tabular form and emphasis is achieved with highlighted text. It is the type of book that will be well used in the busy architect's office.

Understanding structure

It is a basic premise of Structural Design for Architecture3 that the relationship between architecture and structure is a fundamental aspect of the 'art' of building. The author believes that building design should be a truly collaborative task between architects and engineers. (One might also add services engineers - and, not least, the client.) In my experience it is generally the architect who originates the functional, spatial, and structural concept for a building, with further development of the latter by the structural engineer. Just like architects, some structural engineers are more creative than others. So it is crucial that architects have a good understanding of structural design even if they choose to ignore the simple structural solution in some situations.

This book is an excellent introduction for students, at a reasonable cost, and a helpful reminder for practising architects. The illustrations give historic examples as well as up-to-date modern ones. The introductory chapters discuss the background to the various types of structural systems and the differing architectural approaches to structure by classifying them into four different categories: structure ignored; structure accepted; structure symbolised and true structural high-tech. The author rightly points out that much structural expression in modern building is 'symbolic' and justified on visual grounds, not technical and structural grounds.

The main sections of the book discuss the properties and performance of different structural materials such as steel, concrete and masonry. There are useful charts and tables throughout giving basic information, for example on typical spans and depths of different types of beams.

This information is essential for architects at an early design stage so that good decisions can be made at a strategic level even if a structural engineer has not been appointed.

I liked this book and found the earlier sections on the relationship between architectural aesthetics and structure stimulating. The practical information given in the book is clearly presented and mostly useful. It represents good value for architectural and structural-engineering students.

Ironing out the crinkles

Coated Metal Roofing and Cladding5 is the result of a detailed investigation of metal roofing and cladding carried out by the British Board of Agrement (bba), commissioned by the detr. The bba carried out a survey of manufacturers, contractors and designers on current practices and trends within this sector of the construction industry. As such, it concentrates on materials and specification more than design and detailing.

It is somewhat reassuring to note that reports in the technical press of widespread problems with these products were not borne out in the bba's investigation. Some instances of poor installation were noted, which emphasises the importance of careful selection of specialist sub-contractors. This emphasis is borne out by my own firm's poor experience on a large d&b project.

This book will only be of interest to designers and contractors who are involved with a lot of projects employing coated-metal roofing and cladding.

Learning to build

The Technology of Building Defects5 covers some of the same problems as those addressed by Allen and the bre, but is written specifically for students. Stated learning objectives are given at the beginning of each chapter. As such it is a possible complement to the various building construction series, such as Mitchell's.

References are given at the end of each chapter for further reading, but without any guidance to content and relevance. The first section of the book discusses the mechanisms of materials failure, followed by further sections on building components and elements. At £34.99 it seems a bit expensive for a student library.

John Duell is a partner in Hurley Porte and Duell

1 Envelope Design for Buildings. William Allen. Butterworth Heinemann: Architectural Press. 288pp. £45.00.

2 Floors and Flooring: Performance, Diagnosis, Maintenance, Repair and the Avoidance of Defects. P W Pye and H W Harrison. Building Research Establishment. From Construction Research Communications, 0171 505 6622. 304pp. £35.00.

3 Structural Design for Architecture. Angus J MacDonald. Butterworth Heinemann: Architectural Press. 320pp. £19.99.

4 Coated Metal Roofing and Cladding. M S Oliver, J M Albon and N K Garner. Thomas Telford Publications. 192pp. £45.00.

5 The Technology of Building Defects. John Hinks and Geoff Cook. E & F N Spon. 361pp. £34.99.

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