The Pantheon, 125 AD… The Tower of Hercules, 117 AD … Nanchan Temple, 782 AD, the Hagia Sofia, 537 AD. All of these structures were built centuries ago but still stand in use today. Do modern-era buildings get created in such a way that allows for them to last for this long? Of course not, but why is that? What can we do to improve the longevity of our buildings? Can we try to make our buildings last longer utilizing the methods of today’s construction environment? How long should we be trying to make buildings that last? Welcome to Episode 129 … “Built to Last”
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This episode can help you earn your required annual AIA/HSW credits. Life of an Architect has partnered with Construction Specialties and Building Design + Construction to get this episode accredited. This means, just by listening today, you can earn 1.0 AIA/HSW unit. Just follow this link (here) and go to the BD+C University landing page for this episode where you can take a short 10-question quiz, provide your AIA information and BOOM – HSW credit! The quiz can be found at the bottom of the page and you will need to create an account in order for them to have your AIA information to record that credit on your behalf.
Mr. Blasi is a graduate of The Pennsylvania College of Technology with degrees in Electronics Technology and Technology Management, and he is currently the Director of Engineered Product Solutions at Construction Specialties. Gabe and his team have designed, manufactured, and supplied some of the world’s most complex seismic expansion joint systems, and in recent years, they have led the advancement and integration of modular technologies into the commercial sector. Gabe has over 20 years of experience working with architects, engineers and building owners across the globe to develop solutions to complex construction problems. He also manages and leads a test laboratory in Pennsylvania where Construction Specialties Inc. has tested the final expansion joint system designs for over 20 base-isolated structures across the United States.
He currently resides in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania with his wife and 6 children.
Average Life Span jump to 3:03
I feel like if you are going to have a conversation about building buildings that last, you should ask the question “Why do I want my buildings to last?” Depending on the answer, or at least your individual answer, is there a consideration that you might not actually want your buildings to last? Are we talking about buildings that last hundreds of years, sixty years? How long are we talking about? If you are in the business of building buildings or designing buildings, wouldn’t that be a consideration? How long do we want our buildings to last?
How does ever-evolving technology and the advancement of building sciences figure into the answer on how long a building should last? You would assume that air distribution might need to change. Maybe electrical, plumbing distribution, wall assembly, moisture – how does consideration for advancement impact any considerations we have towards future considerations for how our buildings work?
When it comes to the buildings that we are tearing down, is this because they are underserving the community where they are built? Or they didn’t have the flexibility to make technological modifications? All this sort of flexibility costs money and I think we have all been through an experience – or experiences – where budget is the primary driver of decisions.
Additionally, factors that impact life span typically include such considerations as Geography, Materials + Quality, and Use typology.
Most industry standards place the current life expectancy of a commercial building at about 30-50 years. This is mainly due to the factors listed above. Of course, each of those items has its own subset of issues. We will get to some of them in the show. But if you work in the industry, you know this projected lifespan may not be 100% true. Much of the construction today utilizes materials that are not meant to last for even 15 years. Yet the idea of bones vs shell plays an important role in these calculations. Also, the design of a building can impact its lifespan. This is not just in the selection of materials and construction methods but in its actual design. Many buildings today are built to be task specific so that they lack the flexibility of space that if that task becomes obsolete or outgrows the building, it has been so “over-specialized” that it cannot be repurposed efficiently. I say efficiently because economics plays a large part in this process. For many, it is easier, faster, and cheaper to demolish a structure and start a new one in the exact same location.
Maintenance plays a major role in the lifespan of a building as well. Many major maintenance items appear in the 20-30 year range for current buildings. Many of the originally installed systems begin to fail at this age and are planned for replacement. Think HVAC, roofing, and other envelope elements. But the notion of creating and protecting the major elements of a building can be the first step in producing longer-lasting buildings. This involves addressing the “main” components of the building such as the structure, stairs, and other “bones” of the building.
Identifying how long a building should last is a fundamental question that needs to be asked when designing a new structure, renovating an old structure, or trying to evaluate the analysis of the demolition of an existing structure. The research reveals that a typical commercial building has a life expectancy of 30-50 years. This is not a significant time frame and in many cases, the industry believes that this time span can be extended and increased.
As construction techniques evolve and research data reveals evidence and proof of where we need to focus our attention, it becomes clear that increasing the longevity of our buildings is well within reach. The fundamental questions in early design will lead us to the answers. What will your structure be made of? What will the building envelope comprise? What will the roof and exterior façade be and how do we make worn items easily replaceable? One area in building technology currently making major advancements is the breakdown of building assemblies into replaceable components that are more easily replaced without a major impact on the system. If we look at the mechanical systems and ductwork of a building as an example for future maintenance and change, it allows us to keep a building healthy for its occupants and creates a longer lifespan. Changing out the HVAC system with an upgrade after 20 years while allowing the use of the original ductwork may be a consideration. Taking an intentional view of areas like this will increase a building’s longevity, look at areas of planned failure and keep the building looking new.
Building longevity starts with setting goals and establishing those goals should be done with the building owner at the earliest point in the design process. Identifying the short- and long-term intent of the structure will allow for key decisions to be made early that allow future success and efficiency in the entire process through and including future use and maintenance. As building owners surround themselves with the teams necessary to make a construction project possible, they must ask fundamental questions. Where do I want my building located and what type of climate exists? The northeast united states, for example, has significant temperature swings. These temperature variations require building materials to go through thermal changes in a more intense fashion than a climate in the southeast that has a more consistent annual temperature. A great comparison would be the New York climate and the North Carolina climate. Building materials in the northeast will be faced with significant temperature changes and subject them to increased thermal expansion and contraction. Other considerations are wind sway, soil conditions for settlement, element control created by changing weather conditions such as rain, and potential seismic activity.
Over the course of the last decade, the industry has made great strides in true material testing. Some examples are water infiltration, age degradation, and seismic testing. The analysis of these materials has led us to understand where to focus our energy and what areas allow us to increase building longevity. Allowing for future flexibility of program maintenance and systems is a key area that focuses on the overall lifespan of a facility. Allowing for the replacement of certain systems without the need for unnecessary demolition has become more important than ever.
Considerations to Increase Building Longevity jump to 21:06
When you think about making a building last longer the question of resources comes to mind. As a Designer or Architect, the view could be that we are designing ourselves right out of a job. Not at all, in fact, it is a shift of needed resources and advancements in technology that are going to create more jobs and build longevity and safety into buildings of the future. Think back to the days when we would roll out architectural prints on the table in the office. Technology has allowed us to remove that from our day. The same technology has also allowed us to model our buildings in future state conditions, develop clash detection points of failure for certain trades and foster an environment where experimental design changes are merely a mouse click away.
In 1971 California experienced a devastating earthquake. Because of this event and the reaction of our industry, buildings have become safer. Just 23 years later, in 1994, the Northridge earthquake took place. Although less devastating, there were still things to be learned and the industry once again reacted with advanced design, code requirements, and continued research. After significant preparation, UCSD conducted an advanced laboratory test in 2012 where they put a five-story structure under seismic stress. After careful review and data analysis, the results revealed that the structure underwent damage. Some examples were elevator doors locking shut because of drift displacement, interior finishes were damaged, and the stairs detached from their landings.
The question then really becomes, is the building still safe to occupy? In many cases, the structural analysis of a commercial building excluded the effects of the stair tower and how it would affect the building’s ability to flex and move as required to survive a seismic event. At first reaction, you may think that making a stair system more rigid could assist in its ability to undergo this type of strain. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Designing a stair system that is flexible and lightweight while also meeting the load demands creates a system that does not stress adjacent construction during drift movement. Ultimately creating a more elastic and long-lasting structure.
The original test at UCSD utilized the best available technology at the time and focused on identifying new points of unknown failure. The results of this test were far from conclusive regarding the advancement of building technology and the effects of these devastating motions that the building was subject to. It was the start of the preparation and design of the next round of testing. UCSD not only went on a quest to upgrade their equipment, but they pushed the limits of design and in May of 2023, tests were conducted on a 10-story, mass timber building, making it the tallest full-scale seismic test in the world. The results of this design were impressive and the entire structure, along with its components, performed remarkably well. Design elements such as displaceable stair landings and building façade expansion joint systems allowed for increased building movement and safety. The displaceable “drift” joints were able to withstand significant seismic movement that was in excess of 2.5% interstory drift. The structure also used mass timber construction which focused on the use of renewable resources and consideration for our carbon footprint
Moving Forward jump to 56:10
The structure used several areas of modular offsite construction techniques. One example was a modular, self-supporting stair system. The holistic view of the construction process is well at the forefront of change in this industry. Offsite, modular manufacturing, and construction is continuing to eliminate waste from the entire process. It focused on the reduction of time, efficiency, and effectiveness of integrated design and the significant reduction of construction material waste.
Building longevity will not be achieved by a singular view or perspective. This is a strategic view that takes our entire construction process under the microscope. Consistent incremental change will take us to our goals. A look at the process, technology, materials, and project delivery methodology will serve in the quest for us to create building longevity.
What the Rank jump to 68:31
We decided to give Gabe the opportunity to select which sort of question type we went with for this episode and he chose “What the Rank?” Once this was decided, we spent a lot of time debating what we were going to rank and in the end, we decided on the worst candy bars. Of course, there are rules – there are too many weird and seasonal candy bars to not put some parameters on here. The candy bars you get to choose from must be readily available and any time of the year at and generic grocery store.
Today we are ranking [drum roll please] ….
The Worst Three Candy Bars
|Bob’s Worst Candy Bars||Butterfinger||Baby Ruth||3 Musketeers|
|Andrew’s Worst Candy Bars||Butterfinger||Payday||Almond Joy|
|Gabe’s Worst Candy Bars||Chunky||Milky Way||Hershey’s Special Dark|
This one is admittedly all over the place since at least two of us admitted that we don’t eat candy bars. Since I represent 50% of that number, I can tell you that while I don’t eat them now, I ate plenty when I was a kid. The challenge here seems to depend on your thoughts toward the use of coconut and peanuts.
You should also know the history behind Baby Ruth, raisins DO actually exist as an ingredient in candy bars (what?!?), and the role that egg white plays in the creation of nougat.
Ep 129: Built to Last
Achieving a better-built building, a more resilient structure is not an accidental process – it is an objective from the beginning. I don’t think I have met an architect in my life who has admitted that they design and detail their buildings without any consideration of their lifespan. Where they are built, how they are built – these are fundamental questions that are considered consistently throughout the design and documentation process, but as technology and building science continue to evolve, there is always more to learn and implement.
By reading this post and listening to this podcast episode, you can earn 1.0 AIA/HSW unit. Just follow this link (here) and go to the BD+C University landing page for this episode where you can take a short 10-question quiz. The quiz can be found at the bottom of the page and you will need to create an account in order for them to have your AIA information to record that credit on your behalf.