Wicked details

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Detailing is a fundamental, very complex part of architecture. Clare Newton outlines the shifting context of design documentation, and associated detailing strategies and issues.

In every field there are problems that are so complex that you need to be well informed just to be undecided about them. Such problems have innumerable potential solutions and each problem is a symptom of another problem. Rittel and Webber call them wicked problems, while Donald Schön calls them messy problem sets. Architectural design and detailing can be like this. Complex judgments by a variety of stakeholders are required. Iteration through trial and error and reflective practice result in one solution being built. The built solution can obviously fail in a range of ways, but no objective set of criteria will ever fully measure its degree of success. Within this uncertain framework, architects make detailing decisions every day, all with cost, environmental and social implications. This article outlines a range of strategies and issues that may be considered by architects during detailing.

I write with admiration for the many architects who achieve high quality buildings in the face of extraordinary difficulties. Architects are often critical of the profession, of architectural education, of their own abilities as construction leaders, and of their ability to keep abreast of changing technology.

And while many architects express concern that the profession is in disarray, their work consistently demonstrates expertise in higher order thinking and abstract problem solving skills. The complexity of the architectural task may be underappreciated and underestimated within the wider community but it should not be dismissed by architects themselves.

As “creativity” takes over from “innovation” as the preferred buzzword of the workplace, architects can rightly claim expertise.

Detailing is not a prosaic exercise best left to the backroom boys who know their nuts and bolts.

While I was researching for this article, even the architects who are known for their detailing finesse expressed the agony of giving birth to the refined detail. The illustrated conversation between John Wardle and his joiner is redolent of architects’ commitment to detailing decisions being integral to the designed outcome. Excellent detailing resolves issues beyond simply satisfying cost and functional considerations.

There are many ways to approach detailing, many factors which affect what is viable in a particular project, and many relevant sources of information. Rather than always working from first principles, one well-accepted strategy is to adapt precedent details from earlier projects, or from work done by other architects. One difficulty in Australia is the lack of local and current details in publication. Not since the 1980s have there been books dedicated to Australian details, although UME does often contain local exemplars. Over the last decade, the German publisher Birkhäuser has released a range of texts on architectural details, but while the examples within these publications may be interesting they are often not directly applicable to the Australian situation because of the different climates, budgets and regulatory constraints, different available trade skills, materials and products, and different building procurement methods. Experience is still the best way to develop sufficient knowledge of the Australian construction industry in order to know how to best adapt details from precedent.

Suppliers are another source of detailing information and many architects are skilled in taking everyday products and techniques and transforming them in unexpected ways. It may be the use of form liners and retarders to impress an image into concrete or the simple transformation of a supermarket lighting system into something more elegant. Architects may also borrow manufacturing and craft skills from other industries.

The constraints of the construction industry and clients’ budgets also affect detailing strategies. For example, when the budget is tight, one method is to concentrate effort and money into the more significant parts of a building. More generous budgets mean that refined, crafted details can permeate the building, and also allow the use of exposed structures that require small tolerances.

Building procurement methods also influence the level of detailing possible. For example, with design and construct contracts, robust detailing decisions need to be made with the knowledge that costs are often cut towards the end of the project.

Awareness of how procurement methods facilitate or limit detailing possibilities helps ensure the success of the built outcome.

New products, particularly composite materials, are also shifting the way buildings are designed and detailed. Materials such as ETFE film, polycarbonate cellular panels, optical fibre fabrics, woven metals, large format digital printing and even translucent concrete open up new opportunities.

With an increased palette of materials and products available it is easy to dismiss traditional details. Nonetheless, lessons can still be learnt from traditional details and the materials and methods used to make them. Details developed over time get refined and resolved. Traditional details respond well to their locality, aligning with climate, local materials and skill levels. They are likely to age well and not leak. For example, facade engineer Ric Bonaldi notes that the traditional double-hung window accidentally uses a pressure equalization chamber to exclude water, even though the knowledge of rain screens and pressure equalization was only developed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Functional requirements for detailing need to be understood whether details are developed from first principles or adapted from precedent. Edward Allen’s Architectural Detailing is still the best resource for tracking the key functional principles.

This book lists methods that architects may use either instinctively or overtly, along with more subtle considerations such as designing for ageing, ease of construction, efficient use of resources and aesthetic considerations. This book, while comprehensive, is not detailed and so other references are required for issues such as environmentally sensitive detailing, rain screen systems for excluding water, assessment of prefabrication and in situ construction, and the impact of the building procurement method and changing computer technology on detailing decisions. The case study included is less relevant for Australian conditions. This illustrates the fact that architects must understand the construction environment they are detailing for. Architects working globally must avoid carrying assumptions about construction into a foreign construction industry. Likewise care needs to be taken by the larger firms considering subcontracting documentation into overseas labour markets to save costs.

A holistic approach to detailing – the whole within the part – can also be very productive. In systems theory the concept of the holon has been taken from biology. Systems are understood as interacting layers of holons, with a holon defined as a process that is both whole and a part. This is also a useful way to think of detailing. In any layer, the holons are at a similar level of definition or precision. Emergent properties appear in much the same way that an assembled bike becomes a device for transport even though the unassembled parts do not demonstrate these properties. These emergent properties are why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Functional properties appear when all parts of a system work together to achieve a set of objectives. Sometimes failures occur due to unforeseen interrelationships between components or between a component and the user. In contrast, when the parts work in concert with each other and aspects of the whole are contained within the part, the best architecture may be created. A simple example might be the use of negative detailing at all scales from the urban down to the detail.

A systems approach is useful for detailing decisions within the triple bottom line criteria of environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Embodied energy of materials is linked with larger issues of manufacture and transport. The Green Building Council’s Green Star rating system provides a framework for making informed detailing and construction decisions as well as design decisions. The RAIA provides a range of support documents in the Environmental Design Guide and the database Ecospecifier provides environmental information on approximately 1000 locally available products.

There is little research into the gaps between design, documentation and the final building. One exception is Edward Ford’s The Details of Modern Architecture, which explores how the construction of key modern buildings was often at odds with descriptions and explanations given by the architects. He argues that construction styles exist apart from, and sometimes in conflict with, architects’ design ambitions and that this reflects pragmatic constraints. Ford gives the example of Rietveld’s Schröder House (1924), which has been described as being constructed in concrete. Rietveld designed it to be concrete but cost and skills meant it was constructed as a hybrid of brick, steel and timber rendered to look like concrete.

So, does it matter if a timber, steel and brick building appears to be concrete? Rob Di Blasi, a structural engineer from Winward Structures, describes a detail on the new Southern Cross Station by Grimshaw Jackson, currently under construction in Melbourne. The architect intended a pin joint where the spine truss met the column arm. The engineers required the joint to be a fixed moment connection and yet in appearance it remains a pin joint. Countless other examples exist where pragmatic decisions, made during documentation and construction, have created gaps between the designed architecture and the built architecture.

In a curious paradox, construction that can be drawn with few lines is often the most complex to build. Exposed structures do not contain a hierarchy of finishes from rough to refined. Shadowlines and butt joints are more difficult to construct than joints covered by cornices, architraves and skirtings. As labour costs increased during the twentieth century relative to material costs, designs became less elegant. Steel structures were not pared back to a minimum but bolted together with haunches at junctions and concealed behind a skin facade. The situation is shifting back towards a greater consideration of material costs, particularly in terms of the environment. Improved manufacturing and computer technology are also enabling more complex details to be built simply.

It can be argued that computer simulation and modelling are helping to close gaps between design and construction. The virtual construction of buildings allows problems to be anticipated and resolved prior to construction. For example, steel shop drawings are resolved in three dimensions prior to being sent for fabrication. Complex junctions between circular hollow sections are laser-cut using pipe wrap software.

Facilitated by software such as Graphisoft ArchiCAD and Autodesk Revit, buildings increasingly have virtual versions which can be used as databases for construction and then later for facility management. Eventually computer models will support interoperability within the construction industry with the ability to share information from project inception through to occupation when data is required for asset or facility management.

Currently, however, three-dimensional modelling is not extensively used by architecture firms for detail resolution, except as providing the base models on which details are overlaid. As new software is released, the three-dimensional potential for detailing is being constantly reassessed by architects.

Computer modelling is changing the way smaller firms work through the design process and communicate with clients. The extra time spent at schematic stage resolving the design as a computer model seems to allow a smoother transition through design development and documentation, even though detailing is still largely undertaken using more traditional two-dimensional documentation.

The building construction industry lags behind the aerospace, transport and manufacturing industries in terms of IT use, testing and prefabrication. The aerospace industry currently uses IT that allows the construction of virtual models that mimic actual models for testing, repairs and flight simulation. The one-off nature of architecture means that such processes are more difficult in the construction industry. However, it could also be argued that changes would happen more quickly if architects extended their skills to think like process engineers, extending the design act to consider the potential of the assembly line.

Detailing involves complex decisions which are best understood within the broadest context rather than simply satisfying cost and function. Architects make overt or unconscious decisions about how to detail within the construction environment. Some architects will push construction expertise to the limit and achieve outstanding levels of craft or technology, while others take a more pragmatic viewpoint and focus their energy on achieving outcomes that do not rely on refined detailing.

Sometimes architectural design exists in conflict with the built reality, but invariably details contain genetic coding for the architectural designer and the construction industry of the time.



Continuing Education

RAIA National Continuing Education Program “Devil or the Detail: Documentation for design excellence, a case study approach”.

All capital cities.

T 03 9650 2477 E W www.architecture.

Building Smart Associated with the International Alliance for Interoperability, Building Smart seeks to drive the industry uptake of improved collaboration tools such as building information modelling.


Building Design Professions Environment Design Guide A quarterly subscription-based resource published by the RAIA, containing independent peer reviewed material.


Ecospecifier A membership-based guide to eco-preferable products and materials for the construction industry.

T 1300 66 9997 E W

Green Building Council of Australia A not-for-profit organization that aims to develop a sustainable property industry for Australia and to drive the adoption of green building practices through market-based solutions.

T 02 8252 8222 E W



Published online: 1 May 2006


Architecture Australia, May 2006

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