Building Science and the Risks of Experimentation

Science is experimental; it consists of hypothesis and experiment. The path to success can be littered with experiments that fail. Scientists learn to expect failure along the way and to live with experimental failure as the cost of progress. Scientific design is experimental, and it is accompanied by an expected risk of failure.

The growing popularity of building science today brings increased risks of experimentation to the mainstreams of the building industry and the practice of architecture.

Historically, building design decisions were based on long established and proven practices and material selections. Expectations of reliability rested on proven performance over years or decades or – in some cases – centuries. The practice of experimentation was left mostly to the fringes and outliers. Main-streamers tended to avoid products and systems that lacked a good track record. Established building technology was a focus of learning and skill building; architects and builders could expect to learn from a previous generation and practice for decades with a building technology that would remain essentially the same.

More recently, we have seen and become obsessed with an increasing pace of change. Many equate faster with better, making decisions based on the latest available product or on predictions of the next invention or innovation – perhaps even with a belief that it must be better simply because it is new and not established. However, this kind of experimental approach to building design and construction dramatically increases the risk of building failures, in large part because it discredits time-tested performance and avoids or dismisses time-consuming consideration of the multiple roles played by building materials and the roles played by parties in the construction process.

Valid interest in (and popular incentives for) conservation and quality of resources and processes may have led to a willingness on the part of some to take more risks with experimentation. But questions need to be answered: Who assumes the risk? How much risk? Is there awareness and consent of assumed risk? and, If it fails, who owns the failure? Further, If it fails, how can it be considered a sustainable practice?

Posted in Design, Practice Management, Specifications

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