I am on vacation this week, criss-crossing the state following the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I am an avid cyclist, and having a world class event like this in my own backyard is nothing short of incredible. Everyone has interests outside of their professional responsibilities, and this is one of mine. I spent Wednesday on Independence Pass watching the conclusion of a 130 mile day and yesterday, I watched 125 riders compete in the time trial event in Vail.
As I consider the plethora of bike designs that I have seen over the last few days, I can’t help but consider the challenges of structure, aerodynamics, bio mechanics, budget et al that are addressed. It is intriguing that these, and many others, are exactly the same issues we face in the design and construction of a building. The skill is to understand where one selection may be appropriate, and another may not.
Bikes are manufactured out of many different materials. We started with steel. Steel is incredibly strong, but also very heavy. Weight is among the worst enemies of a professional cyclist. Add weight, and you lose speed and agility. In the 1980’s, companies such as Cannondale began experimenting with aluminum. Aluminum is light and strong, but the ride is often punishing, leading to rider fatigue. Lately, carbon fiber has taken the stage as the preferred manufacturing material. It is light and strong, and can be tuned to be extremely rigid along one axis and more forgiving along another. Bikes are also made out of titanium, magnesium, plastic, and even bamboo (how sustainable of them!). Beyond the question of material, bike designers modify the geometry of frames and frame components to further change the ride characteristics. Race bikes and time trial bikes are extremely rigid and aerodynamic, while sport and comfort cruisers are much more compliant. Each is appropriate for the activity for which it was designed.
As architects, we do many of the same things to buildings. We build out of many things; wood, steel, concrete, glass…the list is almost endless. We tune buildings to be rigid in one direction, and compliant in another (think seismic design). We manipulate shape, configuration and color all in an effort to change how the building “feels.” It takes practice, but eventually we learn to listen to our clients to understand what decisions are appropriate to satisfy their needs.
Watered down analysis is all that may be possible in 500 words, but consider that each of the decisions that we make as designers needs to be appropriate for the given situation and substantiated in use. Don’t put someone on a time trial race frame to run to the grocery for a quart of milk. Don’t build a supremely rigid structure in a zone where seismic considerations must be accounted for. And of course, there is always the question of the budget. Don’t have your heart set on the latest carbon fiber race wheels when a used pair of steel training wheels is all that the budget will support. Of course it won’t have the same “cool factor”, but it will provide the project with exactly what it requires.