Monday, May 30, 2011


The unconventional design of this house has resulted in another little communication snafu. Last week I visited the welding shop where my steel is being fabricated. Steel columns hold up most of the house, everything except the Great Room and porch. And there are steel connectors that will sit on top of the brick columns in the Great Room and porch to hold the wood beams of the roof. Most of these steel columns and connectors will be seen in the final building, inside and out.

This is one fulfillment of a primary design principle of this house: honesty in construction. Instead of doing the usual (easy) thing and erecting a sloppy arrangement of stud walls and then hiding everything behind sheetrock, I challenged myself to be very intentional about the design and location of structural members, and then let them be seen.

I came up with a structural system of steel columns connected to wood beams in such a way that no structural walls are necessary. Yeah - I admit it - I'm poking a bit of fun at the whole structural stud wall trend in residential construction: there are stud walls all over this house, but not a single one is structural. A hurricane could blow every stud wall off this house, exterior and interior, and there would still be all the steel columns holding up the roof. The stud walls in this house serve only as space dividers. But MOSTLY (I promise) it's about giving the building a thoughtfully crafted skeleton and being honest about what it is.

Exposing the structure opened up a whole other layer of design work. The proportions of steel plates and columns, and even bolt hole spacings, became design problems that I put to my eye and made consistent with the visual themes of the rest of the house.

This is why I was worried when I walked into the welding shop and saw some of the steel connectors they had put together. To cap the ends of the steel tubes they welded a steel plate to each end - all fine so far - but then cut the four corners off of these plates, resulting in a little dip at the end of each column - NOT part of the design. I pointed this out to the welder, and we had a conversation something like this:

Welder: This is how we do structural steel; if it's not exposed, what does it matter?
Me: It IS going to be exposed.
Welder: You mean this is decorative steel??
Me: No, it's structural; it's holding up my house. But it's also visible. So I guess it's structural AND decorative.
Welder: I wasn't told this steel was exposed. I'd have to charge a lot more for decorative steel work.
Me: Didn't you get a set of drawings?
Welder: No, just the one sheet showing the steel.

So that was my lesson on the difference between "structural steel" and "decorative steel," at least as the terms are understood by the welding trade. Buildings these days so seldom expose their bones that "structural steel" is assumed to be invisible, and "decorative steel" is assumed to be non-structural. I think authentic and honest design requires these to be one and the same.

Later in the day the welder called me to say he put some extra weld in the column corners to fill in that dip I didn't like, and that he'll grind the welds down so they'll blend with the rest of the column - apparently for no extra charge. Oh, the little things that can make an architect's day.

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