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The Architectural Palette

Designers look to metal for flexibility in aesthetics and performance

By Jim Schneider

Architecture is where art, science, anthropology, history, and economics all come together. When architects design buildings, they aren’t just thinking about aesthetics. They must also factor in how the building will perform, how it will serve its occupants, how much it will cost, and how it will fit into its surroundings.

Addressing these and other considerations unique to each individual project is no small challenge, and designers often find themselves juggling multiple competing priorities. Whether its initial cost versus lifecycle cost, or aesthetics versus energy efficiency, the goal is to have as much of everything as one possibly can.

Every project is made up of a seemingly endless list of decisions, and material selection can be one of the biggest. Today, an increasing number of architects are looking to metal to achieve myriad project goals. Whether in a lead or supporting role, metal has a flexibility that appeals to many designers and owners. It has the expressive qualities designers look for, and in the right application it can provide the economy, durability, and sustainability owners seek.

Beautiful Collaboration

Designing a structure is a collaborative process that requires contributions from the designer, the owner, the contractor, and everyone else involved along the way. If a building is a journey, the architect is the guide. It is part of the designer’s job to define the destination and make sure everyone is on board. “An architect’s role is one of educator,” says Juan Gabriel Moreno, president of JGMA in Chicago. Moreno has worked on an international scale, serving as global design director for two large firms before launching his own firm in 2009. “I don’t come in with preconceived ideas of what a building should look like, nor do I try to design to what I think a client might want. I apply design to the client’s mission, their organization, the community, the place, and the locale.”

“Each project presents a new set of challenges that are unique to the site, client, program, culture, and climate, all of which require constant communication in order to facilitate the most appropriate response,” says Ron Izzo, associate principal with RNL in Denver. RNL is dedicated to critical architecture and sustainable design, and is consistently ranked among the top 20 architecture firms in the U.S. “Our process is extremely collaborative, both with our staff and with our clients and consultants.”

Material plays a large role in this architectural vision, whether in realizing the client’s programmatic goals or establishing a positive niche in the fabric of a community. “For me, the approach to material selection starts with the surrounding context,” Izzo says. “Understanding the site and the sense of place that comes from the vernacular is hopefully compelling and informative. Each project has a unique identity and how that is portrayed is inherent in the materials and details.”

Of course, other factors must be considered as well. Context may be the beginning of the conversation, but it is certainly not the end. “Budget and cost factors almost always play a role in the selection process and can alter the decision to use one material over another,” Izzo continues. “However, the mark of a successful designer is the ability to be both innovative and respectful to a project’s surroundings while establishing a distinct project identity, all within the confines of an often strict budget.”

Other factors are also vital to material selection. “We first consider a material in terms of sustainability. We like to know how it’s made, what materials are used, if it’s emitting VOCs, and where it’s being manufactured,” says Emily Hodgdon, an architect with Brooks + Scarpa in Los Angeles. Founded in 1991, Brooks + Scarpa has been recognized for achievements in design and sustainability, receiving more than 50 major design awards in the past 10 years. “Then we consider durability. It doesn’t make sense to install materials that won’t last and need to be replaced too quickly. We like to use basic materials in innovative ways.”

Why Metal?

Whether it’s aesthetics, performance, durability, or all of the above, architects who work with metal often come back to the material because of its versatility and flexibility. It is an important part of the design pallet for many architects. “I’m fascinated by metal because metal is a material that transcends time,” Moreno explains. “It has been through the ages, and I love that you can still play with it.”

Cost, aesthetics, form, as well as context are factors that go into the decision to include metal, according to Izzo. “The process of selecting building materials from a design perspective can sometimes come down to what feels right about certain aspects of the design, what we are trying to achieve, and how it wants to be expressed. Whether a simple canopy or an entire building envelope, metal is a material that is consistently used in some fashion.”

Designing a structure means striking a balance between form and function, and metal has much to offer in both respects. “The skin of a building is like the skin of a human being: it’s what protects the building. Its performance has to be higher,” Moreno says. “Metal allows me to be creative. When I use metal, I have a chance to look in so many directions. My palette as an architect is so open.”

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