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Innovation of Metal

innovation_metal_2Metal is not a new material. In fact, the dawn of civilization is marked with the term "The Bronze Age," but metal still holds the unique aspect of being a material designers use to give their creations a contemporary look, an innovative feel, a cutting-edge sensibility.

The first use of metal in construction was probably the small, inconspicuous cramps the Greeks used to hold together stones in edifices. Throughout the history of buildings, though, metal has been extolled for its combination of beauty and strength. In fact, metal has such a unique position in our advancement that historians use it as a mark to identify more advanced civilizations. The greater the sophistication of the use of metal, the more advanced the civilization.

In today's contemporary design environment, metal has a significant role in innovation and the most innovative designs often include a heavy use of metal. But the idea of innovation itself is difficult to assess. To help us understand this concept and place the use of metal materials properly within the spectrum of innovation, we turned to two architects: Jonathan Moore, AIA, principal at ROJO Architecture, Tampa, and Mark Horton, FAIA, principal at Mark Horton Architects, San Francisco.

It Begins with the Clients

"You have to ask who the innovators are," says Moore. "Is it the architect or is the architect's clients who are willing to let the architect go out there and-not necessarily take chances-but explore." Moore adds that in many situations his firm has been lucky to have clients who want to innovate and take chances. He admits that the bulk of his clients want tested, tried and true buildings that have clearly established budgets that they can pinpoint.

The element of risk and custom creation is essential to the clients understanding of the innovative process. "As an architect," says Horton, "If I have a client who is more interested in design and the end result, the more they associate that with some sort of custom product. The more they think they want a design that is theirs and theirs alone." Those clients come to an architect, and the last thing they expect is for him to take an existing piece of design and that existing piece of design and put them together like tinker toys. The want all custom.

Innovation is generally viewed by clients as something unique that requires special attention and devotion from the designer. Those architects who are fortunate to have clients coming to them for innovative design can let out all the stops.

But there is a danger, and you can see it in Horton's comment. It is possible to achieve innovative design by not going completely custom.

The best example is the role of innovation in the construction process. In residential construction, especially, new processes are garnering more attention, such as modular construction and the use of factory-built walls and structural insulated panels. In metal construction, this process has been around for decades and shows in the pre-engineered buildings.

"On the metal side, it may not be prefab in the same way," says Horton, "but when you think of pre-engineered metal building systems it is the time frame for construction. They go up so quickly, and they also tend to go in a path or methodology that is different from traditional construction. … The big piece of it is the speed with which something is going to be fabricated and enclosed."

Horton points to the design of a multisport project in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., that relied heavily on pre-engineered systems. The design is innovative, but the construction was also innovative because it allowed the building to be built much more quickly in a harsh environment with a greatly reduced building season.

Performance Counts innovation_with_metal

Innovation can come from the project's construction, and pre-engineered systems are a tested way to improve and deliver greater efficiency. But the increased attention sustainable design is getting, where architects are being pushed by building owners to deliver the highest levels of certification, is also increasing the need to turn to innovative products. And that is where some tension can arise in the design process.

Both Horton and Moore speak about the need for their firms to maintain sterling reputations. Adoption of new products, some of which may not be tested very completely, can put that reputation to the test at the same time the building owner is demanding more innovation.

Horton relates the story of a residence his firm designed several years ago, using cementitious board panels as a cladding. Within a couple of years, 180 of the approximately 250 panels developed cracks and needed to be replaced with another material. "Fortunately, we had a very understanding client," says Horton.

But that isn't always the case. For Horton and Moore, the need to have proven and tested building products is essential before they will tackle wildly innovative designs. "A new sustainable product comes out every 30 seconds, it seems," says Moore. "When it comes to innovation, we have to be careful in understanding the personalities of who we are innovating for. The products are out there may have a reputation for being innovative; they also need to be tested because we're putting our reputation on the line. I'm not going to spec a product that will corrode or conflict with any of the building systems that I've designed. The word innovative is scary in one sense that we can't take someone's word that it will work without there being some testing of performance measures."

Because of high winds in Florida where Moore designs, there is a lot of horizontal rain and many rainscreen products don't account for that. "We were looking at a sustainable building coating that needed to be behind a rainscreen system that was fine for vertical dripping, but when it came to horizontal rain, we feared there was not enough testing say to the client we feel confident that the sustainability of your project will be enhanced and your building will be protected by this coating."

Horton agrees and says he worries far more about the product than the details of making the design work. "For us the innovative part is having confidence in the material," he says. "I can do the details as an architect. That's not a problem."

"We love working with products that are not necessarily used every day," adds Moore.

Aesthetic Innovation

Whether a product looks innovative is different than whether it truly is innovative. While metal in building materials has been around for centuries, it still maintains an aesthetic of innovation. Moore identifies the St. Louis arch as an example. It still looks innovative, although the use of the building material is not very innovative any more.

"Every building product has intellectual or political connotations," says Horton. Stucco has a certain feeling in the Mission District of San Francisco. Heavy cedar siding seems to fit into the Western Mountain regions. "Metal has connections of sleek and modern and clean and efficient and a rational material," Horton says. In short, metal lends itself to expressions of innovation, perhaps because it is not a vernacular material that fits in a regional or political sensibility other than a feeling of being a contemporary product.

Metal has long been prized for its ability to reflect light and brighten dark areas. It is also prized by designers for its predictability. Metal develops a patina over time that can be accounted for in the design. Playing with the color and texture of metal is a significant element of the innovative use of the material. Horton has recently used bronze in a residential interior for the softness of the color, making it also a leather texture.

Not only does it reflect light, it is light, and that plays out regularly in contemporary design. Moore describes it by saying you can't hide things with metal. "If you express metal," he says, "it's hard to hide things. Metal can't be what it is not."

That is an honest aesthetic, which innovative designers choose to express and take advantage of. "One of the nice things about working with metal," says Horton, "is that it can solve issues that other materials can't. It can provide for architecture ideas that other materials can't."