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Flex Ability

Metal delivers aesthetics, performance and design liberty to architects and owners.

By Henry Burke

A building must be many things to many people. To its owners, a building must be efficient, effective, and durable. To its occupants, it must be comfortable, functional, and clean. To its neighbors and community, it must be pleasing to the eye and at peace with the environment.

Addressing and balancing these needs is central to the work of an architect, and the choices designers make along the path of any project must be made with deliberate purpose and vision. Material choice can carry particular weight since it often involves the very backbone and skin of a building.

With an ever-growing array of options open to today's design professionals, metal continues to inspire architects. It provides a palette to realize a variety of aesthetic notes while delivering the performance, long life and affordability owners seek. The flexibility of metal helps architects achieve that all-important balance between the designer's vision and the owner's day-to-day needs.

Listen and Envision

Every architectural firm has its own vision for what a building is and should be. That vision overlays all the work that firm does. "Atkins designs structures that harmonize with the surrounding landscape, climate, and culture," explains Audie Robinson, AIA, LEED AP, senior architect with Atkins, an international design, engineering and project management consultancy with world headquarters in the U.K. "We conceive each of our buildings to tell a uniquely meaningful story that can also absorb other narratives, thus gaining in richness over time. Our approach embraces a distinct ethos that embodies six principles: innovation; efficiency; carbon-critical design; integrated, multidisciplinary design; and contextual care."

While a firm's vision and design principles serve as a foundation, ultimately an architect needs to realize that vision through the prism of the client. That means being able to listen to the client's requirements and desires and then translating those into a workable design. "The main tenant of our approach is: 'We listen,'" explains Maximiano Brito, AIA, principal with Rhodes+Brito Architects in Orlando, Fla. "We first seek to understand. True problem solving demands it. Our solutions tend to be semi-collaborative — we start with options and then seek buy-in from the client."

"Our external motto is, 'Think Alpha First,' but our internal motto is, 'Think Client First,'" says Rebecca Key, AIA, LEED AP, associate and architect with Alpha Associates Inc. in Morgantown, W.V. "We create client-focused designs with quality and value that are sustainable and cost-effective. It is our job to provide solutions that are responsive to the client's needs and operation, as well as to the budget and image of the facility."

It can be a tricky balance of vision between owner and architect, and this balance can vary wildly from client to client. Some owners may have a very distinct concept and others may look for the architect to take the lead. Designers must be ready for both.

Variety in Application

No matter what the specific client goals or design aims for a building, many architects have a short list of qualities they look for in any material they may consider specifying. Terms that often appear on this list are durability, long-term performance, flexibility, and budget consciousness. Coincidentally, these terms also tend to come up when architects are asked to share their thoughts about metal.

"Flexible" is the first word that comes to mind for Brito. "We have used metal for utilitarian building types, as well as high-end assembly facilities," he says. "We've used metal in renovations and new construction. We try to select materials that are appropriate for the project's context and function. This selection is also driven by budget constraints and owner buy-in. Our practice has allowed us to work on a great variety of building types and we have used metal since the beginning."

"Many factors contribute to our material selection process," Robinson says. "Sustainability plays a central role in our projects, as do maintenance requirements, durability concerns, and return on investment. Of course, our client's budget often helps narrow our material selections. We often specify metal for its wide range of aesthetic options, as well as its outstanding weather-protection benefits. Metal often satisfies our clients' functional needs and financial objectives."

Architects agree that for clients looking for a distinctive look that is schedule-friendly and budget-appropriate without sacrificing performance, metal often fits the bill nicely. "I've chosen metal for its friendliness to budget and schedule, and for its image," Key says. She notes the Agricultural Sciences Building at West Virginia University (WVU) in Evansville, W.V., where metal provided just the attributes the project needed. "The expediency of the project necessitated a building envelope that was fast and affordable, while at the same time providing a connection with the existing white/gray masonry construction of the 1950s era Agriculture Sciences Building."

Architects are always finding new and creative ways to use metal. Ultimately, a material is a means to an end. When the end is beauty, longevity and performance with an eye to bottom-line costs, metal is an excellent means for designers to achieve their aspirations.

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

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