ASTM International

Architecture and Building Science Education in North America - Challenges and Opportunities

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Courtesy of ASTM International

A recent workshop on Building Science Education in North America, hosted by ASTM International and the National Institute of Building Sciences, spurred frank discussion about the place of the modern architect in building design and construction. Workshop chairman Daniel Lemieux offers a summary of the dialogue.

When the design of a building falls short of expectations and performance suffers as a consequence, we often blame the architect. Arguably, however, the architect never saw it coming.

Education requirements for colleges of architecture accredited in the United States by the National Architectural Accrediting Board do not specifically include building science as a discipline or defined area of inquiry, and only four of the 32 requirements published by the NAAB — “Sustainability,” “Environmental Systems,” “Building Envelope Systems” and “Building Materials and Assemblies” — can be loosely translated as course work directly related to building science.

Training requirements for intern architects in the United States after graduation also lack emphasis on building science. Only 160 of a total of 5,600 hours of verifiable training is required as a prerequisite for licensure by the National Council of Architectural Review Boards through its Intern Development Program in Material Selection and Specification, with no specific requirement for training in the fundamentals of building science and the experience necessary to both understand and deliver fully integrated, climate-specific and quantifiable whole-building performance.

This is a challenge and an opportunity for architects, given the level of public interest involved, particularly when you consider that more than 80 percent of construction claims in the United States each year are associated with improper management of heat, air and moisture transfer across the building envelope,1 and that the built environment continues to account for 30-40 percent of energy use worldwide2 and, by some estimates, 60 to 70 percent of the materials extracted, processed and consumed by our society today.3

What happened and where do we go from here? Those are the questions we sought to explore during the first in a series of workshops and symposia on Building Science Education in North America,4 hosted by ASTM International and the National Institute of Building Sciences.

The workshop was held during ASTM’s May committee week in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and attracted more than 100 participants ranging from students to professors to department chairs representing U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities as well as practicing design and construction professionals and representatives from both the legal and insurance communities north and south of the border. The workshop opened with an overview of building science curricula as it is currently being taught in the United States and Canada, then evolved quickly into a thoughtful and at times impassioned debate over curriculum development and the need to more effectively educate architects in building science and the technical rigors of professional practice. To understand what happened and where we go from here, first a brief look at where we’ve been.
Changing Role of the Architect

At the workshop, Barry Yatt, an architect and associate dean for research in the department of architecture at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., eloquently described the perceived role of the architect in our culture:

Architects see themselves and, to a larger extent, are seen by society as “creative types.” As a culture, we recognize these individuals as renaissance people — licensed professionals who think in the abstract and possess the rare combination of vision, creativity and the scientific rationale necessary to bring us informed, responsive and, in some instances, truly inspiring and thought-provoking design. This notion of the architect’s place in our society is reaffirmed time and again in the popular press when business leaders and politicians are referred to as the architects of a given mission or success — be it the start of a successful new business or, perhaps, the outcome of a successful piece of legislation. We use the term reverentially because, as a society, we have come to recognize architects as individuals with a proven ability to solve major problems through the use of a creative, yet structured and thoughtfully applied intellectual process.

But in-depth technical research and a fundamental understanding of building science, competent and effective detailing, and a commitment to regular inspections of work during construction have increasingly fallen victim to the demands of compressed schedules and unrealistically low budgets. Consequently, architects have responded by reducing their scope of services and shielding themselves from liability by outsourcing these tasks to what has become a breathtakingly large and still expanding field of design consultants. Developers, for their part, unwittingly contributed to this shift by creating a more competitive environment for design services during the conceptual stages of a project. The environment has become one that, while perhaps more cost-effective in the near term, nonetheless contributes to the compartmentalization of the design process and an attempt, in many instances, to redistribute design responsibility downstream into the construction industry and trades. That arguably has lowered the bar for a profession that is increasingly unwilling or unable to invest the time and resources necessary to respond to the rapidly evolving technical challenges of a project. “It should come as no surprise, then,” Professor Yatt continued, “that developers increasingly turned to consultants to fill this void. And architects who did, in fact, invest the time and financial resources to design responsively, increasingly found themselves facing a market that no longer expected to see them in this role.”

While design responsibility and fees for architects engaged in traditional practice have suffered, the number of players and costs associated with assembling a technically competent project team have continued to increase, with arguably little or no significant reduction in risk for the owner/developer, and only minimal gain in the long-term durability and performance of the buildings that continue to emerge from this process.

The Way to Inspire

John Fernandez, professor of architecture and head of the Building Technology Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, provided the audience with a glimpse into the science-based approach that his program has taken. Finding himself in the unenviable position of defending the status quo before an audience that views its work largely as a consequence of what some in attendance argued is a dying profession, Professor Fernandez offered a compelling and often spirited defense of architecture and the responsibility that architects have to “improve the human condition by creating a more humane, sustainable and culturally resonant built environment.” Fernandez reminded us that, over the next 30 years, the urban population around the globe will, by some estimates, grow by 3.5 billion people — a demographic shift that is already under way and one that, for Fernandez, suggests we are “bearing witness to an unprecedented ecological and environmental transformation” that will reveal itself in the anthropocene5 that may one day serve as evidence of our activity today and its impact on the earth’s ecosystems. “The built environment is central to both of these,” Fernandez argued, and the actions that architects take today and in the near future “will be instrumental in creating a truly sustainable and resilient built environment.” Fernandez concluded:

But the real work is still left to do. Designers need to grow up, and building scientists need to stop lobbing insults. The science and technology of buildings will have the greatest influence on the trends that we have discussed if the building science community takes seriously the need to understand and support architectural aspirations of every kind. Young designers will not be inspired by the threat of future lawsuits. This is not the way to inspire. The way to do it is to provide a pathway for students to gain the knowledge they need to help create a more humane, inventive and resource-efficient built environment.

The Road Ahead

Where do we go from here? One popular refrain among owners, developers, contractors and other stakeholders in real estate development is to lobby for a return to the Renaissance ideal of the architect as “Master Builder” — as Yatt described it, “that legendary paragon of creativity and pragmatism that once guided both design and construction before the increasing complexity of building technology warranted building codes and public regulation of the architecture profession.” As tempting as this may be when viewed through the myopic and often overly romantic lens of history, it holds little or no promise when viewed through the multifaceted prism that has come to define architectural practice and the realities of the project delivery process today.

The real answer lies in education and how we, as architects, adapt and respond to the demand in the marketplace for higher performing buildings. Our goal must be to strengthen both the curriculum we use to educate the next generation of architects and the training and experience necessary to better prepare intern architects for licensure and the technical rigors of professional practice.

“Of course, this will require a partnership,” Fernandez asserted. “The design community is equally responsible for partnering with scientists and experts to improve the performance of buildings — not as an alibi for the business-as-usual — but as a pathway toward strengthening the curriculum we use to teach the next generation of architects who will deliver, for all of us, a new and truly sustainable, culturally resonant built environment.”

Said Fernandez, it’s “time to get serious about cooperating — both designers and scientists.”

The Role of Standards

ASTM International and similar organizations with the history, technical depth and broad industry representation needed to develop standards in a truly open, consensus-based standards development process will continue to play a vital role in this effort. The ability of standards to respond effectively — and objectively — to the immediate concerns of the marketplace while serving the broader public interest by enabling continuing education opportunities for those responsible for our built environment cannot be underestimated.

In the context of building enclosures and fully integrated, whole-building performance, ASTM International and the National Institute of Building Sciences have continued to work together to build on this opportunity through the joint development of ASTM standard E2813, Practice for Building Enclosure Commissioning, and draft ASTM standard WK38892, Guide for Building Enclosures Commissioning Process (BECx).

The minimum required core competencies in each of these standards will form the basis of the new ASTM/NIBS Building Enclosure Personnel Certification and Training program. The program will be developed in accordance with ISO/IEC 170246 and offer students and practitioners an opportunity to specialize in an area of practice that, arguably, will have the most direct and quantifiable impact on energy use and our built environment for generations to come.

Planning for the second workshop on Building Science Education in North America is under way; the event is tentatively scheduled for January 2015 in Washington, D.C.

For more on preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the challenges that lie ahead, see the article beginning on the next page.

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