As the Portland area has burgeoned in both density and its commitment to building green over the past decade, a whole generation of new buildings have gone up with advanced facade and envelopes that often fail to deliver the efficiencies or even simple basic operations they were designed for. This has kept one Portland firm, Western Architectural, busy even as the profession has experienced a big decline in business.
Western provides what's called forensic architectural services. That doesn't mean they're doing chalk outlines or tracing DNA at crime scenes. Instead, they investigate construction and design defects in problematic existing buildings, such as the much-maligned Round at Beaverton Central, and advise firms on how to prevent their buildings from leaking water and air.
"Doing over 200 projects a year on the forensic side, we see a lot of stuff," says Eric Hoff, Western's president. "We have a large knowledge base of, ‘Here’s things you can do, and here’s things you want to do, and why.’" Did I mention Hoff testifies in a lot of court cases?
"As an architect, it’s not like the old guild days where architects are all talking to each other with that knowledge of things that do and don’t work. It doesn't seem to move around well in the profession. All the young designers want to be the new great whoever, and they haven’t seen a lot. We see a lot of design come out where you can tell it looks great, but then it makes you say, 'Have you thought about this?'"
For The Round, Western helped design a new facade that replaced an existing metal facade. "The detailing of that is different from conventional siding," Hoff adds. "Typically the holes are found where you make a hole in the skin. There were also other areas because of the way the siding came together. It’s not an easy way to detail."
For tenants of The Round, Western Architectural is validating the commitment they made and have thus far regretted. "They've invested heavily into condominiums plagued with shoddy craftsmanship, plummeting values, sky-high association fees and persistent court cases," Brad Schmidt wrote in The Oregonian in an August 14 story on The Round. "They've opened businesses in buildings with spendy rents, cramped parking, slow elevators and striking vacancies. These people admit the Round has a long way to go, but they're careful to defend their home. At the Round, frustration is mixed with hope. "
On any facade, the biggest risk of water and air leakage or unwanted temperature transfer comes where it is penetrated. "When you’re trying to bring different materials together, they’re usually difficult to interface together and to make them tight. It’s how you detail those connections. It’s been our experience that regardless of the materials there can be problems in how you get them to come together."
An increase in these sorts of connection problems has come from more mixed-use buildings, where the ground-floor retail has a different material feel from the rest of the facade: usually more glass. Green buildings can also create more facade penetrations through exterior materials such as sun shades and light shelves. "Usually those are structural attachments and penetrate the skin. There are ways to deal with that, but it’s things you have to think about. ."
It's not at all to say that Hoff is anti-green building or innovation. His point is simply about execution. He estimates that more than half of all LEED-rated buildings are not performing as efficiently as designed - and hopes Western has a niche making sure they do. What's more, Hoff says certain sustainable inventions such as rain-screen facade technology will ultimately better enable buildings in this climate to survive our rainy season.
The green building world is injecting a lot of new products into the market place. It’s such a rapidly evolving technology that it’s difficult to get buildings put together well that do function well. The profession is learning right now. It's just that on our side, we basically get to see all the problems."
Many clients, though, have come to hire Western or other facade experts before the design is completed. "They can be running ideas by us. 'Where do you see there could be issues we need to pay attention to?' They’ll talk about the materials they want to use and we’ll talk about our experience in the past with it. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘You need to tell me what you’re trying to do here because the drawing as I see it the building is going to leak.’ Then we can eliminate the issues before they happen. You can draw an awful lot of stuff that you can’t build. What you can do with a pencil you can’t necessarily do with sheet metal strips, or afford to do it."
And as Hoff understands, for all the extra difficulty that may come with innovations, sustainable or urbanistic or otherwise, it's always worth it for us to push the envelope - pun intended. It's also necessary, though, to have firms like Western Architectural assuring the envelope bends but doesn't break.