Amassing Architectural Acumen

Learning from others, and from experience, and sharing that knowledge is what separates <em>homo sapiens</em> – most of us, anyway – from other species. Sometimes, however, we learn something and then forget it – or fail to heed it and pass it on. The consequences of not getting smarter and smarter can be devastating.

Take scurvy, as an example: In 1593, British Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins figured out what prevented this deadly disease and advocated that sailors drink citrus juices to ward it off. Others concurred over subsequent decades, and some seagoing Brits (nicknamed Limeys) benefited from this wise counsel – but far from all. During the 18th century scurvy killed more British sailors than combat. It wasn’t until 1795 that a daily juice ration was mandated throughout the Royal Navy.

In modern architecture, the learning curve is less dramatic, but when knowledge is acquired – or regulations, practices, and technology change – it makes sense to spread the word. At Centerbrook, Ken MacLeod, AIA, is one of the curators of the firm’s accumulated design wisdom, which has been compiled into “NEAT Cards” since the 1980s. NEAT means No Excuses After This.

Searchable by topic on the firm’s internal website, NEAT Cards are one component of Centerbrook’s “Knowledge Management” systems. Jim Coan, AIA and LEED AP, is Director of Architectural Practice and Building Science, and all projects at key design stages must pass muster with him and various 3-D computer reviews. Post construction analyses are conducted as well. Jim also heads up Continuing Education, scheduling presentations by outside experts in various disciplines. Steve Haines, Director of Information Technology, keeps the internal website stocked with electronic resources on project management, sustainability, 3-D modeling, and other technological design tools. Sheryl Milardo is in charge of Product Resources and the Centerbrook Library, which houses reference materials, architectural periodicals, and books. She arranges presentations by manufacturers’ reps.

But the concept of formalizing the collected intelligence of the office took a giant leap forward with NEAT Cards, an effort initiated by partner Mark Simon, and nearly 250 cards have been created and updated over the past two decades plus. Some are fairly expansive while others are quite narrow in scope, like the one that forswears “in coastal applications” hot-dipped galvanized roofing nails in favor of the improved 316-grade stainless steel alternative.

In another card, Mark delineates a more complex topic: the differences in terms of cost, building code issues, and efficiency of various geothermal heating and cooling systems: open-loop wells, closed-loop wells, ground field loops, and aquatic loop systems like the one installed for Centerbrook’s office.

Most cards are the result of in-house research, first hand observation, or industry recommendations – or all three. Last year, Sue Wyeth, AIA, discoursed on treating wood shingles: “A coating will extend the life of cedar shingles. You can use paint or stain in a clear or a semi-transparent finish. Both stains will change the color of the shingles somewhat, but semi-transparent will obviously change color more than clear. Semi-transparent stain will provide better UV protection (the pigments providing the protection) and should be reapplied after 3-6 years, while the clear may need to be reapplied in only 1-2 years.”

A few cards have the ring of folk wisdom, such as this recommendation gleaned from a client: “Canada geese do not like the taste of Grape Kool-Aid … sprinkle the powder on the area.” Honkers, presumably, favor Cherry and Lemon-Lime. When the Norway maple was declared “an invasive species,” a NEAT Card suggested native sugar or red maples as landscaping alternatives.

And while many cards are quite technical and not easily understood by the layman, others are eminently accessible. One titled “Chair Noise” urges:When you specify a chair that will go on a hard surface floor in an auditorium, be sure to test the selected chair on the actual floor by dragging it across the surface.” Heaven is in the details, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe averred.