The Rise of Manufactured Systems in Architectural Design

One of the many things that have changed in the practice of architecture during the last 50 years is our dependence on manufactured building systems. Architectural education and training 50 years ago included the detailed design of components like windows, doors, cabinetwork, and mill-work. We had to learn about different species of wood and their properties and how best to shape and connect them, because we were expected to design those components that consisted primarily of wood or other basic materials. We were expected to include design features for expansion, contraction, and – in the case of exterior work – weather resistance and water shedding. We had to learn to include drip kerfs and drip edges in design details, including details of components like exterior railing.

Things have certainly changed in the construction industry, in architecture schools, and in the “drafting room”. Today, we depend more than ever before on manufactured systems to include the features and properties needed for durability, and we (as a profession) tend to learn less about the materials and components that comprise those systems and, thus, know less about designing for durability. We select and specify manufactured systems based on appearance and advertised performance (e.g., industry standards), but in many cases the architect or specifier is not actually familiar with the named standards. So, 50 years ago an architect could be expected to design a window in all its details; but today, the architect selects a manufactured window assembly while knowing much less about its internal construction. Given changes in the building industry, codes, and performance standards, some of that knowledge loss may seem unimportant, but it is troubling to think that an architect today is likely to be specifying an assembly made up of materials (and proprietary material names) and system details that may be unfamiliar to the architect. Increasingly, the architect trusts the manufacturer to deliver a system that will perform as needed. And, increasingly, the manufactured system is becoming a “black box”; the architect can see what it looks like from outside but relies on the manufacturer to convey information about what’s inside the box.

The architect has inherited more responsibility for understanding how to apply and connect separate manufactured systems, yet sometimes without sufficient knowledge of the systems themselves. At the same time, the “drafting room” has evolved from a place where we developed “working drawings” for putting materials and buildings together to a place where design is regulated by the limitations of software (itself a manufactured system), allowing unrealistic connections between walls and roofs, disconnects between architectural components and intended supporting structure, and automatic software selection of building components based on information embedded by the software manufacturer. Thus, architectural work today is less about designing buildings and more about making the software go. Architects throw up their hands and exclaim, “We all have this problem!” A lot of decision-making has been inadvertently delegated to building system manufacturers and software manufacturers, and “sustainable” labels have become acceptable as assurance of durable design. Now, for a fee, the project owner can pursue a certificate of sustainability granted by a remote authority who reviews submitted documentation including forms with checked boxes.

All of this suggests that much of the meaningful substance of architectural design has slipped out of the hands of professional practitioners and into the hands of product and software manufacturers. They seem to hold the keys to the future and, increasingly, the knowledge of what is really “under the hood” in our buildings. That, of course, can make you think liability for design should also be transferred to the manufacturers.


Posted in Construction Documents, Design, Practice Management, Specifications

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