Form No Longer Follows Function?

November 30th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

Research shows that the old axiom doesn’t hold water anymore:

From Jennifer Harper at the Washington Times:

The grand train station, the dignified town hall — once, form followed function in America’s public buildings, where design was meant to reveal purpose and enhance a sense of community.
That’s a rarity, according to research released yesterday by Ohio State University, which found that most of us are often mystified by our surroundings — and at a price.
“If form follows function, then you should be able to look at a building and have a good idea of what goes on inside,” said urban planner Jack Nasar, who directed the research. “That didn’t happen in our survey, which suggests form is not following function in American architecture.”
Attributed to architect Louis Sullivan in 1918, the form-and-function dictum helps citizens “read” a building, Mr. Nasar said. He believes that without it, cities descend into impersonal, confusing places.
“If you can make sense of a place, it should make life in the city more pleasurable and comfortable, and help people figure out where they are,” he said.
To prove his point, Mr. Nasar randomly selected and photographed a dozen public buildings, then asked 160 persons in American, Canadian and Japanese cities to judge whether the sites were city halls, museums, theaters or libraries, solely based on appearance.
The participants got the identities right in 32 percent of the cases, not much better than if they had randomly guessed at the photographs — which would have been correct 25 percent of the time, Mr. Nasar said.

But if form follows function, must it follow that people must be able to deduce the function from the form?

I believe that “form follows function (FFF)” in this research is not true to the legacy of Sullivan. According to Leland Roth in “A Concise History of American Architecture”, Sullivan wrote that “if a building is properly designed, one should be able with a little attention to read through that building to the reason for that building.” Tall buildings confounded this idea, as Curtis suggests in “Modern Architecture since 1900”: “Sullivan had discovered that function and structure could not on their own ‘generate’ and adequate form, without the intervention of highly abstracted historical or natural examples.”

So, while the function of the more complicated building was a starting point for the design process, it wasn’t enough to drive the complete architecture. An artistic leap was required to develop beautiful buildings. Asking viewers to visually track backward from the building’s facade past the artistic inspiration to the function of the building is asking an awful lot.

The task would be much simpler if the viewers knew the architect and the environment in which the building is located. Should the historical cues for a library be expected to be visible in today’s library, so dramatically changed by technology? I think the case is weak, especially if the viewer is deprived of knowing the context in which the building sits.

Ohio State’s website suggests that “If you can make sense of a place, it should make life in the city more pleasurable and comfortable, and help people figure out where they are,” he said. But is sense of place dependent on having transparent buildings which tell their all at a glance? I think not. Place goes deeper than individual buildings and is strengthened by history and changing uses.

Another quote: “When buildings clearly show their purpose, it can help visitors more easily find their way, and make life more comfortable and understandable for everyone in a city.” Again, I think this is a stretch. Wayfinding is based on many cues, and we each key into different things. If I told you to go to the big glass building and take a right, you’d find your way whether it was city hall or the library. Function can become a label for buildings, but it is not primary in our experience of urban space.

Can knowing a building’s function help me be more comfortable? Sure, but if I can see it all from outside, where is the allure of exploring, of getting to know a place through time?

“Form follows function” is only a starting point for design, not a guide to architectural translation. Can you judge a book by a photograph of its cover?

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Green Roof Study Results for Cold Climates

November 29th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

--Green Roof System Image--

Green Roofs are becoming a favored way to design buildings to be more earth-friendly. At the most basic level, they consist of a waterproof roof membrane covered with soil and plantings. The benefits are many: increased membrane life, insulation, storm-surge reduction, and usable space on the roof. Mostly, however, this idea has taken off in warmer climates.

The Professor Brad Bass of the University of Toronto has been researching the performance of these roofs in cold climates, and the results are soon to be unveiled.

“Bass analyzed a test roof built in Ottawa by Karen Liu of the National Research Council’s Institute for Research in Construction, to offer the first conclusive data that winter green roofs can help reduce heat loss and energy consumption during cold months…”

“The winter green roof uses evergreens – juniper shrubs – and a thicker soil base than typical leafy green roofs, which generally provide passive benefits to the environment by reducing the need for air conditioning on hot days. The winter roof was installed on both a standard test house and an energy-efficient winterized house. Bass used environmental systems performance software to chart the indoor temperature fluctuations in both buildings”.

“The results for the winterized house were good, and the results for the regular house were dramatic,” says Bass. “The assessment opens up designers to considering winter roofs as part of a year-round energy efficiency strategy.”…

More from TreeHugger. Thanks, Michael, for the link.

Our own Carleton College is studying green roofs:

David Holman ’06, Jason Lord ’06, Jake Gold ’07, Andrew Kaplan ’08, and Mandi Fix ’08 continued their independent study on green roofs with Director of Facilities Richard Strong as their advisor. Last spring involved the construction of a 660-square-foot green roof on top of the Olin storage room. The roof is currently visible from the Olin/Mudd loading dock and walkway. Last fall and winter the group researched green roofs from a number of different sources and constructed several test modules, studied soil mixtures, prairie spices, and drainage options.

They used a drainage system, donated by American Wick drain, that prevents soil from reaching the roof rubber, allowing ample drainage when the soil is saturated and holds water to evaporate back into the plants. They carefully selected the soil of Vermiculite, Perlite, compost, and clay to be lightweight, hold nutrients/water, and not to break down. They created a list of almost 200 different native prairie hardy species they thought would survive on the desert-like roof. Construction began on Friday, May 13, and was finished and planted by Thursday, May 19.

The green roof has performed better then expected so far. They placed between 2” and 6” of soil on the roof and planted prairie plants on the roof. Even in only 6” of soil, the prairie plants have grown to a height of over three feet–without any water since early July and no fertilizers whatsoever. The past few weeks we have seen several natural wild flowers on the roof. Feel free to stop by the Olin/Mudd walkway and see it for yourself.

We have been following the development of green roofs for many years and have watched their growing use. Soil depth is an issue both for plant viability and structural requirements to support the roof system. Spencer Jones, a local Landscape Architect, has suggested that the long-term viability of the plantings is a concern to be watched in our climate. Many roofs look good the first year, then seem to decline thereafter. Carleton’s look into prairie plantings will be interesting to follow in this regard.

VIVUS embraces the concepts of green roofs, and invite other interested individuals into dialogue and design about green roofs.

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Online Conferencing: Quick, Easy Impromptu Meetings

November 28th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

VIVUS has a new tool to make our communication even better!

So far, we have hosted four meetings with clients located in different locations and looked at works-in-progress online, and it is working great.

One client was on his lunch break in Minneapolis, and we were able to review plans for his addition together. We spoke over the phone while viewing the addition simultaneously in three-dimensions and floor plans. Another couple put their kids to bed in St. Louis Park, then called us for an evening review meeting. This time we annotated the plans together, making changes as we went. We also hooked up with a client in Minneapolis and his pajama-clad fiance in Berlin, Germany for a long-distance collaboration; from Germany, she was able to draw in new walls and add windows where she thought they should be!

We hope this new technology will help us help our clients feel comfortable with the designs, get us on the same page quicker, and save money in the process.

A quick calculation: These four meetings saved our clients and us 28 hours of travel time, and each meeting lasted, on average, less than an hour. While heavily weighted by Germany, the time, mileage and convenience value is undeniable.

VIVUS will continue to pursue technologies that allow us to better serve our clients in every way possible.

Thanks, Paul, for the artful image above.

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VIVUS visits Fred Sommers Studio in Nerstrand

November 23rd, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer


On Saturday, Mary and I visited the Nerstrand studios of Frederick Somers. What a treat!

Fred showed us around, telling us about his work; he truly is passionate about his painting.

It ranges from representational landscapes, to focused natural vignettes, to less representational images of leaves in water. My favorite is the latter, which captures a transitional period in the fall. As Avis explained, the moment to capture such images is very brief: the canopy needs to open up, to allow light to the water, yet there must still be sufficient color in the leaves to provide reflections.

The studio itself is a charming building. It was converted to a study and gallery from a grainery, with some of the original foundation and beams exposed in the studio. Ample windows invite guests in from the road with a celebratory blast of the colors of the art on the walls. The interior suits well the exterior; both are non-pretentious, clean, and sharp. Everything lends itself to a great experience: character, lighting, hospitality, and of course, art.

Thank you, Fred and Avis, for a wonderful afternoon.

Griff Wiggley shot some photos of our visit, including the one above, and posted them on Northfield.Org. Click here to take a look. Better yet, stop out at the studio and see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!

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Arnold Schwarzenegger on Strength

November 21st, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strength. When you go through hardship and decide not to surrender, that is strength.

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AIA Convention: Pass it on!

November 18th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

AIA Conference Logo

Architects from all over the state and across state lines converged on the Minneapolis Center this week for the annual Minnesota American Institute of Architects Convention. This year’s theme, Pass It On!, is a reminder to the profession that our role involves sharing our knowledge, creativity, ethics, and leadership abilities with not just our clients, but with our communities at large. So, on that note, I’ll post about the convention, what I saw, and what I learned.

The Minnesota convention is the largest AIA convention in the US, except the national AIA convention. When we get together, the parking ramps are usually full for blocks around the convention center. Why? We bring together hundreds of architects, product suppliers, engineers, students, teachers and professionals in related fields for four days of discussion, seminars, keynote presentations and our annual member congress. I come away from the convention slightly weary from all the sensory input but mentally recharged about the value architects add to our projects and society.

In addition to spending several hours in the exhibit hall, talking with building industry representatives, I chose the following seminars:
– The Smart Building Episode
– Decentralized Wastewater Management
– The Architect as Master Builder in the Urban Environment
– Affordable Housing and the Green Guide
– Downtowns: The Importance of Place and Experience
– An Historic Perspective of Building Construction
– Steps to LEED Accreditation
– Four Views of SALA Architects Inc.
– Honor Awards Jurors Show and Tell

The Smart Building Episode

Computers can be used with sophisticated controls to allow highly responsive and manageable buildings and campuses. From a single computer, on operator can monitor and control multiple systems of multiple buildings including security, heating/cooling/ventilation, communications, life-safety systems, fire suppression systems, access, and video systems. Example: On Saturday morning, A CEO swipes his access card to get into the building. The Smart Building System reads the card, turns on the lights in the hallways and office, adjusts the temperature in his office. Only the energy required is provided where needed. Another example: On another Saturday, a new worker enters a multi-building industrial facility. She needs access to certain areas, so her access card was programmed accordingly. The system monitors her movement into the boiler room, recording video as she enters. A valve explodes in the boiler room and she activates a duress alarm. The system operator, at home for the weekend, receives a call on his cell phone and logs on to the control system online. There he sees an automatic alarm from the boiler, then the duress alarm. The boiler is shut down and emergency help is called instantaneously and directed to the spot. Problem solved, from home.
These specialty systems are becoming more affordable and make use of the ubiquitous Local Area Network, providing functionality on infrastructure that most businesses use anyway. Failure of the central control does not affect individual systems function, so it is not catastrophic. Needless to say, Smart Building systems are a speciality of a limited number of consulatants. VIVUS now can offer these systems in buildings we design to bring together the best of technology and design for your space.

Decentralized Wastewater Management
As rural Minnesota feels the pressure of expanding population, it also faces the need for management of the sewage associated with development. “Big pipe” systems are often very expensive to expand, especially in areas of limited population density. The solution is decentralized wastewater management. Using biological and wetland pretreatment of the sewage, single and clustered residences can own and operate their own treatment systems. Unlike standard septic systems, these systems never clog the drainfield and can serve from one to fifty houses. Various patented technologies exist to aerate and breakdown sewage, eliminating and filtering out the particulates that limit drainfield life. Perhaps the biggest benefit of these systems is that they allow open space to remain open: unlike big pipe systems, which require high density to pay for the big pipe, decentralized systems serve a limited area, calling for clusters of development rather than continuous development along the big pipe.

Architect as MasterBuilder
A new member has joined the array of project delivery methods. The traditional method is known as design-bid-build, where owner, architect, and contractor have distinct roles. Common today is the design-build method, that combines architect and contractor for a single-source turnkey project for a client. We have also worked with negociated contracts and multiple-prime contracts. This seminar suggests that architects should consider returning to the pre-traditional role as master builder and become developers of space. Why? Architects have the vision to shape space, technical abilities to design, financial abilities to control budgets, supervisory skills to monitor construction, and often, the skills to build themselves. The result is a simple model of architect coordinating her vision from start to finish, then offering the product for sale or rent. In this model, more of the architect’s time is spent on site and with the contractors. The architect becomes the client, general contractor, and designer. This is an intriguing possibility. What community could not use more inspired design, constructed at lower cost?

Affordable Housing and the Green Guide

This was an overview of the Affordable Housing Design Guide and its role in producing healthy, durable, affordable housing. In conjunction with the MasterBuilder idea, this one has my wheels turning.

Downtowns: The Importance of Place and Experience

Northfield has a great downtown (come visit!), but it could be better. David Feehan of the International Downtown Association calls for intensifying our efforts to support our downtowns. Healthy downtowns mean heathy cities. Healthy cities mean healthy regions, which in turn mean a healthy country. After an historic review of the trends of population movement, David offered insights into healthy downtowns. Clean and safe are primary. After that, downtown design should focus on the experience of visitors to the downtown, since that is what people crave:

Education Opportunites – we love to learn
Entertainment- we love to be delighted
Escape- we need to “get away” once in a while
Aesthetics- we love great spaces that stimulate all our senses
Uplift- positive experiences will bring us back for more

Downtown Success relies on six M’s:

Management: Show visitors that someone is looking out for them, keeping the place nice
Maintenance: It’s got to be clean and attractive, not run-down and grimy
Marketing: Let people know the downtown is a great place to be
Magic: Engage people (this is elusive and hard to define)
Memories: Make the experience so positive that people with never forget.
Moments: Create opportunities for multiple small encounters to build the whole experience.

An Historic Perspective of Building Construction
This was a great course. In rapid-fire succession, we were introduced to the reality of the historical development of building systems and codes for wrought iron, ductile steel, modern steel, concrete,wood, masonry (brick, clay tile and concrete units), elevators and fire suppression. Why was this great? We love to remodel existing building and give them new life. The problem is that most existing commercial buildings were built when their structural systems were still not completely understood. Wide varieties of methods were used, often differing from the original drawings. The question in these cases is what is holding up the roof? What is in those walls? Is that concrete structural or only for fireproofing? Can I remove that arch or is it integral? Exposure to the variety that exists will help us help you make the most of your existing building.

Steps to LEED Accreditation
LEED stands for Leadership in Education and Environmental Design. It is a USGBC (Green Building Council) rating system that encourages and acknowledges efforts toward sustainable design. Accreditation certifies professionals for their understanding and application of the LEED systems. I am considering becoming LEED certified, because this system is not affiliated with any specific interest group and is becoming the recognized standard in green building. Green building makes sense economically, environmentally, and aesthetically. In fact, my Master’s Thesis involved understanding green building relative to modern architecture. So, accreditation would be a return to the roots of my architectural training and my passion for ecologically sensitive design. The process of becoming accredited is a study-then-test procedure, much like the architect licensing exam.

Four Views of SALA
SALA received the Firm of the Year Award, which is a tremendous honor. Sarah Susanka (The Not so Big House) and Dale Mulfinger started this firm in the early 1980’s to serve residential clients. Since then, the firm has produced some wonderful design, written several books, and grown to a three-office company of 50 people. Congratulations to SALA for this award and for years of service to clients and the profession

Jurors Show and Tell
When awards are given, jurors are chosen to determine who gets the award. This seminar was a chance to see the work of the jurors for the AIA-MN Honor Awards.
Kirk Blunck FAIA presented the work of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck, an award winning architecture firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
Lawrence Scarpa AIA gave us a tour of his own zero-energy home.
Karen Van Lengen AIA, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, showed her work focusing on sound in architecture.

One of the highlights of the convention was listening to the keynote presentation by Kate Schwennsen FAIA. Kate is the president-elect of the American Institute of Architecture and was instrumental in my training as an architect. She nailed it! She called on architects to embrace sustainability, serve the poor, embrace racial and gender equity, share our knowledge, and to become leaders with our communities.

Another highlight was spending some time with Erik Hansen of Legends Architecture in Hayward, Wisconsin. His is a good friend of my brother, Bill, is involved in Boy Scouts, and we have much in common. Look for collaboration in the future!

For more on the convention, visit

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Resources: Working with an Architect

November 7th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer


What do architects do?
What should I expect from my architect?
What resources can help me find the design help I need?

Here are some links you may find useful…

The American Institute of Architects —You and Your Architect
AIA – Architects and the Public
AIA Minnesota – Finding an Architect

And, of course, you may call on us to answer your questions or discuss your project.

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