Friday, August 21, 2009

Pulling details out of not-so-thin air

I recently got an email from an intern asking if working at a construction company before working as an architect is a good idea. The intern asked this because he didn't know how a building went together or how to draw a wall section--was working in construction first the way to learn that? The short answer is: not really. Let me say that if you wanted to work at a construction site at some point before taking on an architectural job, then go right ahead. Using your hands to assemble things that someone else drew gives you the perspective of being on the receiving end of some crappy drawings. There's a lot to be learned by doing the job as opposed to watching it get done.

However, the same could be said for architecture. While you all probably took more than one materials-and-methods courses in college (do you still have your copy of Francis Ching's Building Construction Illustrated?), it's hard to remember how to detail wall sections and casework and stone pilasters and so on when you don't do it every day. You'll be doing a lot of detailing during your time as an intern architect, and you'll learn it through a variety of sources. The first is the Ching book I just mentioned. If you already sold yours back after college, shame! SHAME! Go get another copy, now! Other than Ching, I recommend Architectural Graphic Standards. Some offices will buy an office copy or two for everyone to share, but I guarantee you if you splurge on a personal copy, you will have lots of friends in your office. It's more thorough than Ching, and it covers a lot more topics, everything from the turning radii for a variety of vehicles to designing angled theater seating to basic anthropometric standards for nearly anything. It's really, really handy.

The second source is using details from previous projects in your office. This is generally a good thing, but it can occasionally backfire when you copy a detail that's been wrong for a long time and just keeps getting copied into projects. It's also not a good thing when some recent change to codes or building science makes a detail obsolete all of a sudden. That's often something that interns aren't going to know about and architects should know about but sometimes don't (or they know but they forget to tell you). However, these details are usually already drawn somewhere and can be copied and pasted or brought in and traced over (i.e., if it was drawn in CAD originally and brought into Revit). After bringing it in and/or tracing over it, someone needs to review the detail and make sure it applies as it is or if it needs to be revised. When you start working on details, ask your project manager or job captain if there is a project from which you should pull details to start this process.

A third source is, naturally, the internet, but be careful what sites you surf through. One of the best sites is the one kept up by the Building Science Corporation, which has some pretty good reports that sometimes include drawings of the details you may be seeking. Other good sources are websites sponsored by industry and trade associations, which will sometimes offer to review your details and/or specs for you. Three examples of industry and trade associations are:
A fourth source is a product's vendor. If the product is something very specific and somewhat unusual, like a metal panel or insulated glass block, it's worth emailing the company and finding a local rep to provide you with some typical details or even to meet with you and review your details (as well as review the application of their product--if you're specifying a metal panel as a roof when it should only be used as a wall, it's good to have a rep look at it and throw up a red flag before you go too far). You can also use a product rep for help with checking your details, but be forewarned that s/he may try to design a system for you (or edit your specs for you) in such a way that it is prescriptive and only allows for the contractor to use their product. This can jack up the cost of a project unnecessarily.

There are probably more ways in addition to these four, including just asking someone in your office how to do a detail or how to lay something out, but these are the main four I can think of.

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