Why Do Architects Focus on Art More than Building Science?

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architecture vs building science Aqua Tower Chicago small

"If architects did their job there wouldn’t be any need for building science." So says Joe Lstiburek, principal at Building Science Corporation, in an interview with Andrew Michler of Inhabitat. Actually, there still would be building science. It's just that it would be fully integrated into the design process, where it belongs.

The photo at left is the Aqua Tower in Chicago. As Lloyd Alter points out in his Treehugger article about this abomination, this building has been called "architectural pornography" by engineer Ted Kesik. This building exhibits two of the biggest problems with the design of commercial buildings: Too much glass and too much thermal bridging. If you don't believe it, see the thermal image in engineer Robert Bean's article about the Aqua Tower.

A while back in the Energy Vanguard Blog, we published an article about a high-rise condo building here in Atlanta with similar problems. The author and his wife, both architects by the way, live in a 900 square foot condo and pay what seemed to them way too much in their electricity bills. Turns out that the concrete slabs that form the floor and ceiling suck a lot of heat out their condo in the winter. But hey, who could have suspected that concrete would do that?

Well, the architects who designed it should have. As Joe correctly points out in that interview, though, the "architects have caused their own problem." What they're doing is art, but it requires much more. Incorporating building science, which he describes as "the interaction of the building enclosure with the climate and the people and the mechanical system," is what they should be doing. It used to be part of their job, but along the way somewhere, they dropped that piece to build glass boxes with cantilevered thermal bridges that are building science nightmares.

One of the things that Lstiburek likes to point out is that commercial buildings a hundred years ago were more efficient than the high-tech monstrosities we're constructing now, yes, even the LEED-certified buildings. It's time to dump the fascination with all-glass buildings and cantilevered slabs that don't have thermal breaks.


Related Articles

A Huge Heat Loss Flaw - A Lesson in Energy Efficient Design

US Green Building Council to Require All-Glass LEED Homes (an April Fools' Day post that actually fooled a lot of people)

INTERVIEW: Building Science Pioneer Dr. Joe Lstiburek on the Good, Bad and Ugly Side of Buildings by Andrew Michler, Inhabitat

Gimme A Thermal Break Redux: Engineer Calls Chicago's Aqua Tower "Architectural Pornography" by Lloyd Alter, Treehugger

What happens when artistic expression and culture trump common sense and principles in sustainability? by Robert Bean, Journal of Indoor Environmental Quality



Photo from wikipedia.com, used under a Wikipedia Commons license.


Dan Kerr

Oh man, now you're speaking my language! Engineers (I am an engineer) are to blame, too, for focusing narrowly on their own specialties. I'm heartened by ASHRAE's recent move toward whole building thinking, though real change will come slowly. If you don't know they recently rebranded away from only HVAC and refrigeration, "Shaping Tomorrow's Built Environment Today."

John Poole

While we're dumping all-glass skins and cantilevered slabs, let's also dump building designs predicated on HVAC systems running continuously. The commercial buildings of 100 years ago that you mention had far less glass but also windows that actually opened so you could naturally ventilate office space when the weather was decent (or when the HVAC system failed or had problems).

M. Johnson

It would be nice if someone could simplify some energy usage numbers, and tell us how one of these modern buildings compares to another style. I have read the blockhead way to size air conditioning is 400 sqft/ton for homes, and 200 for businesses. -- oversimplified to be sure but at least it is something to compare. 
Proper homes can use this type of measure to show how superior they are, for example 1000 sqft/ton is a modern norm. 

Joshua Lloyd

More and more I am finding that by starting my architecture education at a two year technical program has provided me a much better base for the profession. I love design, however it is not my strong point, give me the details.  
I would have never survived in a theory/design based program, and honestly I don't know how graduates of those types of programs are successful in the profession unless they work for big name DESIGN firms. And as Joe said, it is because of program like that we forget about the details and performance of the building, which makes my job much harder arguing with them that they are hurting the efficiency.

Robert Bean

Energy perspective: consider the cooling energy required for solar heat gain through windows subjected an intensity of 800 W/m2 and a SSHG = 0.5 is equivalent to the heating energy required to melt snow from walks and driveways…


A few years a go, after a tremendous failure of hiring three Architectural students (two with masters and 1 with a BS), I asked them why they didn’t have a clue about codes or building science, to my surprise, they said that the master class for codes was an elective, and since it was too hard, no students would take the class, thus it was discontinued. On thinking for themselves on how to develop elevations based on a floor plan, they said that the computers generated the elevations, and since mostly are flat or curved roofs, they can’t figure out multi-gables or multi-hips. When I asked the Dean about it, he said that his curriculum was set by some national board that sets all curriculums for all schools, and it was out of his hands. 
But worst of all is the AIA thinks the monopoly on Architecture is theirs… what a farce!!!

Thomas Anreise

Joshua- I couldn't agree more. I also started my architecture education at a technical community college and was fortunate to study under a man who I would consider a "practical architect" who designed functional and aesthetically pleasing buildings that were consistently built under budget. What a concept. I was always astounded to discover that my contemporaries studying at a prestigious program nearby (which shall remain unnamed) understood very little about construction and had no practical thought behind their designs. It was literally ALL about looks and concepts. 
Allison- I would just add to this that there is definitely a spectrum of approach in the architecture community and that it is important to preserve the art and beauty in the built environment, but not at the expense of functionality.

Ken Riead

What I find most interesting is that Joe Lstiburek's wife is an architect. No family tension there, eh? I believe it was Ed Mazria that offered the headline "Architects Pollute!" which also went over well.

mike eliason

Just a slight correction... 
"Too much glass and too much thermal bridging" should be revised to "Too much low-performance glass and too much thermal bridging." 
With glass now available (well, at least in the EU) w/ specs exceeding requirements for Passivhaus, and paired w/ proper shading, I don't think we're too far off from seeing more high performance glass houses. Werner Sobek's gotten close with the D10 house in Ulm, which was presented at the PH conference in Hannover. The bigger culprit there was the uber-slick sliding doors (Skyframe, CH) which have a 'poor' U-value of 1.0 W/m2K. Ah, if only US manufacturers cared to play the game, too...

Nate Adams

This may be banal, but I can't get over how much the Aqua Tower in Chicago resembles a Harley or VW air cooled engine. Unfortunately, from the infrared picture, it functions just like one too.

Martin Holladay

The situation hasn't really improved since I wrote an article on this topic for Energy Design Update seven years ago. 
Here's a link to that article: 

Keith Nelson

This is possibly a little off topic, however, I was at the AIA Convention when I first read the Inhabitat post after sitting through a presentation on the new AIA Contract Documents for "Sustainable Projects". The docs include the following language: 
AIA B101-2007 SP § 10.9 "...the Architect does not warrant or guarantee that the Project will achieve the Sustainable Objective." 
AIA 201-2007 SP § "Sustainable Objective is the Owner’s goal of incorporating Sustainable Measures into the design, construction, maintenance and operations of the Project to achieve a Sustainability Certification or other benefit to the environment, to enhance the health and well-being of building occupants, or to improve energy efficiency..." 
Daring to disagree with Joe, I offer that the architecture profession as defined by the AIA SP docs is doing "its job" in ignoring building science (i.e. perfomance) and allowing Owners to divert what used to be the architect’s responsibilities (and fees) to outside consultants.


Architect and former designer here, now working for a state weatherization program. I know exactly what this is like. The last firm i was at made a big issue of architects becoming LEED certified. But basically, all they did was alter their specs to include recyclable carpet and bamboo flooring. 
I'm a big proponent of unconventional and unique designs. But they have to be aesthetically contextual, and they have to work. If architects can't incorporate passive techniques and energy-saving features into their designs, then they deserve the scorn they so often receive.

ted kidd

I dunno. Seems a bit like expecting the cardiologist to also be a top pediotrist and neurologist. That's expecting too much.  
I think the problem is silo's. Seems many businesses operate as uncooperative silo's rather than cross disciplinary collaborations.  
Hey, energy is cheap. Unnaturally so (Frack baby frack). People like incentive. Until there is real incentive to be less wasteful expect more of this.

Tapani Talo

With current tax system in US, any developer or even University or similar client worthy of their salt has to produce the cheapest and at the same time sweetest looking building that rents and leases immediately. Any time that I have proposed even minor improvements in performance, they have been cut immediately as the cost for instance was 10 dollars more per sq ft on curtain wall. A classic case was the UN tower renovation, where I could have changed the entire mechanical system to be 80% smaller by state of the art curtain wall, and million other tenant improvements due to the comfort improvement. Even the best developer in New York has to be in each meeting with architect and engineers to keep them from saying this is not the norm, or too difficult etc to make things happen. The rest, forget about it if something is not the stock true and tried product for the past 30 years.

James Awosina

Architectural education and practice posit us for endless need for reasearch and learning. 
We have the onerous duty to satisfy the needs of our clients for functional, beautiful, environmentally-responsive and structurally sound buildings.