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Buildings for Today, Architecture for Tomorrow

Metal provides the material inspiration for architects and owners.

By Henry Burke

Buildings are part of the tapestry of the communities where we live. Once built, they become part of the lives of their occupants and neighbors for generations. The choices that define how a building functions and relates to its surroundings very often begin with a simple conversation between an owner and architect. Ideas, aspirations, and goals are exchanged, and the resulting plan, carried out by an army of contractors and other building professionals, brings the finished structure to life.

"I always tell people that we build buildings for today, we create architecture for our children," says Paul Urbanek, FAIA, LEED AP, vice president, design, with SmithGroup in Detroit. "So there is always this thinking of what we're giving back as architects to the world in the presence of these buildings. We want to make a conscientious effort in what we're doing."

Part of the responsibility of the architect in this process is to make the owner aware of the implications of their building's responsibility to the future. "We encourage all of our clients to invest long-term in their projects," explains architect Jon Seibert, associate at Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects in New Orleans. "Short-term cost savings lead to far greater long-term maintenance costs. There is a balance we strive for in a building design where the overall integrity of the structure balances its purpose, costs, use, design, durability, and environmental performance. That is where our experience and expertise comes in to convince the client that the initial cost is insignificant in the long term."


Many decisions are made along the way, but the choices made in those initial meetings steer the process. All designers have their own methods for working with clients, but all agree that one simple technique is vital at the start: listening. Architects in essence translate the broad ideas and hopes of their clients into design concepts and programmatic goals. "We carefully listen to our clients' goals and objectives for the project and develop several options with respect to the project's context," says Jeffery R. Bottomley, AIA, senior design architect with O'Brien/Atkins in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "We then vet those solutions with the client."

"Our design process not only addresses the numerical, programmatic, and functional needs and goals, but also their emotional and aspirational requirements and preferences," explains Jim Luckey, AIA, LEED AP, principal and director of design of SHW Group, a national education AEP firm. "We conduct visioning sessions to ascertain their stylistic and material preferences. Materials register and resonate differently, and our goal is to design a building that consistently supports all of our clients' needs."

An open and expressive dialogue between the owner and architect helps ensure a truly collaborative and successful project. Architects must often both inquire and inform when working with their clients. "Most clients I know are very able to say what their needs are, but they aren't architects and often don't know what to expect from architecture and architects," Urbanek says. "We tend to start projects with different exercises to understand where the client is coming from. We have a process we call visual listening where, after we know a little bit about what the client's thinking is, we show them images of buildings, pieces of buildings, interiors, and other components to see what their reaction is. It's often easier for people to react to something they see than it is to express what they want to see."

Material Matters

Material selection is one of the most important decisions made in any project. This drives not only a building's aesthetic qualities, but also its very composition. It has wide-ranging impact on how the building will perform and endure through the years. "Each project is a different experience," Seibert explains. "There is always one aspect of the project that will provide the initial direction of material choice, whether that comes from the owner, the budget, the context of the site, the program of the building, or even a design vision from somewhere deep within. Most times it's a combination of many of these, yet it is always a desire to build something that maintains its integrity over the long term."

"As we look at any material for a project, it really comes down to what the project is about," Urbanek says. "What is that material going to say about the project? Is it right for that time and for that project? All of these things come into play. When we look at metal, we use quality products that will give us long-term durability. If it's painted, we need products that will hold their color. If it's a natural metal, we need to look at how it will patina and weather over time. Metal is a very good material to use on an exterior or interior level."

On a practical level, metal can deliver certain looks an owner may want without breaking the budget. "Metal is a cost-effective way to provide a clean, elegant, and modern aesthetic," Bottomley says. "It is very versatile and is a great fit for our technology clients looking for a modern building with a good value."

Many designers also see a value in the material that goes beyond the eye and the pocketbook. "Metal has a specific emotional appeal," Luckey says. "It reflects, it shimmers, and it can be formed. Even when clients express a preference for masonry, metal becomes a pleasant counterpoint to the heavier material. Its use creates focus."

Another quality many architects appreciate about metal is its ability to work with and bind other materials on a building. "The way all the other materials associated with construction can be blended with metal sets the imagination into overdrive," Seibert says. "Many times it becomes the go-to material to knit together other materials since it has the ability to be many things."

"We use metal with terra-cotta, with concrete, and with brick," Urbanek echoes. "It really gives a wonderful contrast with many materials. You get the coarseness of some of the materials I mentioned with the very taut, reflective nature of the metal."

Whether as an accent or a complement to other materials, or as a primary component, metal plays an important role in projects of all kinds. "I don't think I've done a project without metal," Bottomley says. "Used properly, metal is very durable and allows you to do almost anything."

Henry Burke lives in Chicago, where he writes about architecture and construction.

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