Learning architecture properly takes years, decades really. Architecture students are notoriously dedicated to their design studios and lackluster about all other subjects, including what was called in my day, “Tech,” but is now “Building Science,” the study of the physical realities of buildings. Tech Professors were always the geekiest and most boring people, wash-ups from related professions like mechanical equipment sales. Stupid from all nighters in the design studio, we weathered their classes in a sleep-deprived haze. We pried our eyelids open in cavernous basement classrooms to view forensic slides of rotted insulation and rusting metal structures, failures that could have been avoided with better window flashing.
Jim Tuley, my graduate school detailing professor, changed all that. He approached detailing – the intricate thinking-through of how a building is put together – with the focus of a Zen monk and the casual profanity of a 1960s Malibu surfer. His signature question was, “How’re you gonna get the damn water off the damn roof?” He was full of stories. Once, he told me the great architect Louis Kahn offered him a job, with the caveat that he couldn’t always pay him. Tuley’s response? “I’m sorry, Mr. Kahn, I have a wife and family to support.” Inconceivable to my student mind, but that was Tuley, practical and cocky to the core.
A few years after grad school, water, as it inevitably does, found its way into the wall of professional virtue that I was constructing. A speaker at a Young Architects Earth Day forum opened my eyes to the tremendously negative impact buildings have on the environment. They use (and waste) a great deal of energy, water, and materials, many of which are toxic either in manufacture, service life, or disposal – with more than a few achieving a perfect trifecta. I was shocked to learn the degree to which my chosen profession contributed to climate change, environmental degradation, and poor human health.
Tuley taught a methodology to approach the wall section, a large-scale drawing depicting the logical assembly of materials from the inside out. A good wall section is the embodiment of how the architect plans to keep wild nature in its rightful place outside while sealing the people inside, safe and warm and dry.
As a student and then young intern, I was intoxicated by the promise of a system, a craft following on centuries of tradition that I could learn through diligent study and application, and apprenticeship with known, recognized masters. I was joining a latter-day guild. My shelves soon filled with manuals containing secret codes to control the elements. Books with names like “Dwelling House Construction” and “Building Foundation Design Handbook,” with careful drawings to copy for getting water off roofs, keeping it out of basements, and anticipating the wiles of capillary action and differential air pressure in walls. Water was said to be able to sneak through even the most apparently solid assemblies and it was our job to anticipate and prevent that.
Jim Tuley taught us how to make drawings that revealed everything: beams and columns, insulation, window shims, placement of windows (flush to the outside, centered, deepset), flashings at window head, sill and jambs to shed wind-driven rain from the assembly, sheathing, a moisture barrier layer (depending on climate), exterior finish material (brick, wood siding, tile, metal panels, old chalkboards), interior finish material (drywall, plaster, tile, wood paneling), floor structure, floor finish, ceilings, roof structure, drip edge, gutter, roof membrane and/or shingles. In the process of making these wall section drawings, we had to consider dozens of variables and alternatives. The drawings also included lighting and mechanical systems running through walls, such as the ductwork that would bring warmed or cooled air to the space.
The wall section, I learned, was a tool for thinking through the many systems that comprise a building, as well as how they interrelate. We were taught that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and nowhere is that more evident than in the wall section. During the inner conversation of drawing, the architect is considering the many ways that water will penetrate into the wall, and its many forms: as rain, as vapor, from outside, from inside (think bathroom exhaust fans).
They say it takes twenty years of practice before an architect gains enough knowledge and experience to competently put a building together, let alone master the métier. I can still remember my excitement at seeing the valley of requisite information and experience stretching to the far horizon promising mastery and confidence. It was as enticing as it was daunting, because I knew there was a program to follow, books to consult, grey-haired veterans to ask, that would make all the years of learning bearable.
Did you know that water increases in volume 9% when it becomes ice? Water that gets into a stone wall, then, can exert as much pressure as 100,000 pounds per square inch from within the wall when it freezes. That’s enough force to lever even heavy stones right out of the wall. That’s what we’re up against whenever we try to build anything. Fortunately, there is a centuries-old craft of keeping water out of walls in the first place. One has only to learn and apply it.
In practice, this constant battle with the elements demands vigilance. There’s always more to learn and the fear that ignorance of some obscure point of physics will render the most meticulous wall section impotent. Tradesmen and freshly hired laborers add to the danger, for they tend to sling materials together with the casual distraction of teenagers. Caulk (also known as “schmooey” or “pookie”) is used to cover a multitude of sins, but builders can be unaware of the epic nature of the battle they wage. Their concerns are more immediate – avoiding injury, collecting a paycheck, staying hydrated on hot days.
After that semester, I got a summer job working for Tuley, who had his office in the living room of his house, a Miesian box designed and exquisitely detailed by him, artfully set atop a hill with spectacular views of the countryside around Charlottesville. He presided over it like a general, sometimes in his bathrobe fresh from a morning session on the rowing machine, with a glass of red wine in his hand – yes, in the morning. He owned every album Tom Waits ever made and didn’t mind if we played them while we worked.
In his Yoda-like way, Tuley reminded us that nature always wins. Buildings leak, liability flares, forensic experts consult and take slides that are eventually shown to groggy architecture students in windowless classrooms. It was our job, always, to keep nature at bay.
At that Earth Day forum a few years later, my initial dismay about the state of the environment and the complicity of my beloved profession was rapidly replaced by the excitement of a new challenge: further technical knowledge to be gained. New questions to ask, green building rating systems to learn, definitions of sustainability to debate, PowerPoints to deliver, strategies to employ. This new quest took me far, since the need to get water off the roof hadn’t changed. I would switch to recycled shingles and a rainbarrel and counsel whoever would listen to do the same.
The paradigm seemed sound enough: learn the craft, acquire knowledge, grow your expertise, inquire of mentors, utilize the latest high-tech materials. My aim was to be part of this elite culture of competent professionals, doing the right thing for my clients, being diligent in the face of nature’s impressive oppositional forces. Thus I unwittingly accepted the story that “nature” was something separate from me, a foe to wrestle, preferably to outwit, sometimes to be humbled by.
It is this humility — awe, really — that stops me in my tracks. I already learned that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; it’s just that the whole I was taught didn’t include anything beyond the human-made. How does the awareness that we are not separate from the natural world, but interdependent with it, inform the practice of architecture? I don’t have ready answers, but my sense is the simpler the approach, the better chance of partnership. Is it possible to build something that actually benefits the natural world, the way a tree is so generous in a forest? When the architect Bill McDonough posed this question, I took it as inspiration, as metaphor. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were more than a metaphor?