Architecture, Entropy, Anatomy

Image top: Seawolf skin-on-frame Kayak, image by Oliver Ludlow

I’ve been struggling with an idea for a good thirty years. It has to do with maintenance and time, or entropy, but it can be summed up simply by asking what is the best way to skin a building. I’m not looking for conventional answers, as architects we all know a few hundred ways to construct and cover architecture with what we call cladding, which can be thought of as skinning a frame. Cladding materials can be traditional or super high tech, but that isn’t what I’m trying to get at here.

Tanning moose hide in NWT. Image credit:

You see, buildings are very much like an animal, they have a skeletal structural system, like bones, that may consist of a steel frame or concrete or simply stacked stones. They have articulating parts that let the building breathe, like vents or windows. They have a vasculature that takes in and expel fluids, like pipes and ducts and valves and plumbing stacks. They have a kind of fur that we call insulation. They have skin, or what we call ‘cladding’. They have a nervous system, or wiring. This is how I have always tried to see every building. Not as living things, but as dead, crystalline analogies of living things. 

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. When Architects Piano, Rogers, Franchini, expressed the ‘guts’ of the building together with its steel ‘skeleton’, 1977

The interesting, and problematic thing is that buildings decay. In nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures, parts of buildings were expected to decay, return to the Earth. In Nature, all waste is food. There is a process of reciprocity and movement of materials among living and dying things. Everything is cyclical, and subject to the forces of death and renewal. Buildings, although they are not living, are subject to all of the same forces. My friend Torvald Faegre (RIP) wrote a book called simply ‘Tents’, wherein he described how the Mongolian ‘Ger’ or yurt was skinned with a felted fabric from the hair of their herds. The old felted covers became floors, and as the floors broke down, they simply turned to Earth, and as the family and tribe relocated, what was left behind would soon become indistinguishable from the landscape of the Steppe.

Abandonment means a stoppage in maintenance. Nature will reclaim all. House in Sequim, Washington, from the Shelter Blog.

Animals and people decay also ~ but quite a bit faster after they are not living anymore. This is where entropy enters. As I understand it, only living things have this knack for continually re-assembling, utilizing nutrients from the environment, food or air or water, and renewing itself, almost perpetually, mechanically, almost perfectly. This is what Bucky Fuller called ‘Syntropy’ in contradistinction to Entropy. But unplug the source of that life, and like an inflatable structure, it flattens. We melt into a puddle of our most basic chemistry and elements, given the lapse of a few short weeks and some sunny and rainy days. Gravity, and water, on this planet, never take a day off. As architects, these forces are not exactly foes, but known adversaries that we build defenses from.

We expect buildings to last. But we need to ask our clients, for how long? 50 years? 100 years? 500 years? It really depends on the culture, and how much you want to spend on your materials up-front. In Germany it was pretty routine to design for 500+ years, as there were houses I worked on there that had been in the same family for 500 years. In Canada, in our speculative, ‘market-driven’ economy, 50 years is the outlook for most houses. The Brothers of the Cistercian Order not too long ago built a church in Texas to celebrate the 1,000 year legacy of their order.

Cistercian Abbey Church, Irving Texas, by Cunningham Architects

And so the Architect was directed to design a structure that could last 1,000 years into the future. But no building lasts without maintenance, not even the Temple of Luxor or the Pyramids or the Acropolis. I think to ancient papyruses, and then this digital blog, and the utter ephemerality of the things we create today. This probably won’t even last beyond my lifetime. Unplug a few servers and this content is wiped out for good. Anyone that owns a boat knows that the forces of wear and tear as provided by Nature are accelerated by wind and waves. Anyone with a classic car or antiques knows that exposure to weather is the ticket to decay and dissolution. But buildings are designed to be exposed to weather, every single day.

Members and friends of the Myrtle Hill commune, in northern Vermont, gather in front of a geodesic dome in the summer of 1971. From:
Credit: Kate Daloz

Which brings me back to my current project. How to skin a series of geodesic domes for a new client. The structures should last longer than a typical tent. In my own experience with prospector tents made of canvas and set up for four seasons, moisture and pollen form a kind of glue that collects dirt and dust, and eventually it appears that the Earth is trying to reclaim the organic components of the material. In tents that are truly lived in year-round, there is usually a source of heat that drives moisture out, and dry things tend to last longer. We call this ‘vapour drive’ in building science, and you want to keep that vapour or moisture out of your building assemblies. You can block it with membranes of plastic, or you can help it find an escape with venting and a driving force like heat or pressure. Everything you would ever need to learn about building science can be learned viscerally by camping outside for a single Winter. Survival is a function of understanding science. Just ask any noob that has ever had to sleep in a wet down bag, or hammer ice out of their sleeping bag because of an ill-placed vapour barrier. (Architecture students should all be required to do Winter camping!)

Covering domes in a durable way has been a problem encountered and abandoned from a long succession of back-to-the-landers in the 60’s and 70’s, and explored by Stuart Brand and Lloyd Khan, and also abandoned by them, all basically concluding that since domes have lots of joints, and the sun heats them differentially as the Earth orbits and spins, it’s hard to keep them leak proof for very long because the damned joints move so much by expanding and contracting and so therefore domes are not worth pursuing as a form of shelter. I think they gave up too easily. Perhaps they had never built an aircraft airframe before. Or a car. Or a skin-on-frame kayak. Nicholas Grimshaw thumbs his nose at them with the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK as pictured below.

Eden Project, Cornwall, UK by Grimshaw Architects.

EFTE such as was used to make the pillow-dome sections and its opaque cousin material PFTE are options, but they aren’t exactly available at the local Home Depot. I’m trying to find something less polluting, you know, that will simply and readily return to the Earth someday. The gist however is not just to skin the dome in a way that will not leak, but that can also help insulate from the frigid Canadian Winter, and provide an interior finish that can support shelves, hooks, pictures, light fixtures and the like. It may well be that I am looking at something like early aircraft, skinned in plywood and canvas, with rockwool insulation in the sandwich somehow, and clear panels of EFTE for Windows and skylights. It’s an open question, one I’ve had for many years, but need to find that optimal solution to now.


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