A 21st Century View of Architectural Graphic Standards (2005)

Foreword: Architectural Graphic Standards
© 2005 William McDonough

Architectural Standards

For my graduate project at Yale, I went to Ireland during the autumn of 1975 to build a solar house in rural County Cork. I had never built a building before, and no one had ever built a solar house in Ireland, and so it was not long before I realized that my ambition had outreached my knowledge. There I was, freezing on a stormy heath, one moment dreaming of a solar-powered world, the next trying to figure out how to build a sturdy rural house by hand. Thankfully, I remembered to bring my Architectural Graphic Standards.

Indeed, Architectural Graphic Standards was my bible. When I needed to know how to build a footing, I came here. To figure the stresses in my roof trusses, I came here. Day after day I wore out the pages of my third edition poring over its rich collection of details and drawings. Studying the book, as much as making the building, was my initiation into the trade.

As deeply personal as that experience was, it was not unique. If you are a professional architect, this book has, at one time or another, been your mentor. Its encyclopedic representation of architecture’s best ideas and practices has not only shaped your understanding of what it means to make a building, it has helped you make better buildings, for what you find here is tried and true, the rock-solid, indispensable wisdom of our craft.

Yet Architectural Graphic Standards can also be seen as a living document. While the book’s time-honored reliability makes it an able keeper of rich traditions, its content is always evolving. The volume I carried with me to Ireland, for example, is not the same as the one you hold in your hands. Like the preceding editions, this 11th edition preserves the detailed knowledge of the past, but it also contains forward-looking sections on solar collectors, porous paving, and green roofs, which I could only dream of in 1975. There is also a wealth of new information that shows the importance of considering the specific qualities of each site—its geography and climate, its ecology and cultural history—when applying the universal standards illustrated in these pages. Gone are the days of Le Corbusier’s “one single building for all nations and climates.”

The evolution of Architectural Graphic Standards, then, represents more than a simple accumulation of facts; it actually enables change in the way we think about and practice architecture. Not trendy change for change sake, but intelligent innovations that answer the needs of the future and introduce a new layer of quality to building design. Consider the new chapter on sustainability. Here we find a treasury of ideas and practices that enables designers to respond to a diverse range of economic, social and environmental concerns. To be sure, architecture has always been a multi-disciplinary profession, but appreciating the rich connectivity of economy, ecology and equity has become a crucial dimension of our work as we have come to see each building as a complex event affecting everything from the health of its inhabitants to the long-term prospects of the planet.

Too often, the news from this expanded purview—how buildings waste energy and resources or contribute to climate change, for example—has either been ignored or read too narrowly. Ignoring this news is negligence, plain and simple—a strategy of tragedy. But a narrow response, like trying to limit the negative impacts of architecture by using an environmentally damaging energy source more efficiently, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter either. Rather than creatively addressing the design flaws that create pollution and waste in the first place, minimizing strategies only make architecture “less bad.” Or “differently bad,” as we saw in the 1970s when a single-minded response to the shortage of fossil fuels yielded a host of energy-efficient buildings that made their occupants sick.

If we have come far since then, we still need a principled framework for good design that offers a positive, regenerative course for the future of architecture. The new case studies presented here offer just that. Illustrating the many ways in which architects, landscape designers and engineers have been effectively applying the intelligence of natural systems to building and site design, the case studies show that we can create architecture that is not simply less polluting or less energy intensive, but which generates a wide spectrum of positive effects, enhancing environmental health, social well-being, and economic vitality.

In each of these examples we see a design process built on a dialogue with natural processes, a creative interaction with the flows of sunlight, wind, water, and nutrient cycles in a particular place. By integrating this dialogue into our technological discourse on building and energy systems, architects and designers are developing magnificent innovations. We see safe, healthful materials designed to be perpetually recycled or returned to the earth to nourish the soil, effectively closing the loop on material flows. We see public buildings powered by the energy of the sun and private residences heated and cooled by geothermal currents rising from underground. We see green-roofed manufacturing plants that create habitat, restore landscapes, and cost-effectively filter storm water while providing safe, comfortable places to work. We see a profusion of inspired designs that are not only surpassing conventional standards of cost and performance, but are creating beautiful, deeply satisfying places to live, work, learn and participate in community life.

As ecological design principles become a part of Architectural Graphic Standards, they become a part of our culture; if a practice appears between the covers of this book, it has been done, and will be done again. That’s not to say that Architectural Graphic Standards is prone to the whims of fashion. On the contrary, showing how to construct a human habitat in harmony with nature is an important act of historical and cultural restoration, for the story of architecture—from the Roman Pantheon to Monticello, from the cathedral to the vernacular house—can be read as a long, fruitful dialogue between our buildings and the sun.

Only in the 20th century was this knowledge lost. In 1975, when I was designing my first solar house, my professor at Yale, a celebrated modernist, told me that “solar energy has nothing to do with architecture.” Twenty-five years later, at a meeting of the American Institute of Architects, less than a dozen of more than a thousand architects in attendance raised their hands when I asked who knew how to find true south. But that skill is the true cornerstone of our profession. We see it in the deep history of building in places like Mykonos, where orientation and the play of light and shadow were fundamental elements of design. There, each cottage was built with thick walls that transferred the heat of the winter sun or the coolness of the summer night into the interior, while deep, whitewashed window reveals reflected sunlight coolly and deeply into the space. In Vitruvius’s 1st century BC encyclopedia of architecture, a seminal antecedent to Architectural Graphic Standards, these vernacular skills become the art of building and one finds entire chapters devoted to the profound significance of the sun’s movement in relation to the location of rooms, the size of apertures, and thermal mass. Fourteen hundred years later, Palladio was deeply influenced by Vitruvius, and Thomas Jefferson, in turn, studied them both, drawing inspiration from the masters’ classical forms as well as from their keen attention to site and solar flux. Indeed, Monticello and the University of Virginia make art of an intense engagement with history, landscape and the movement of the sun. Armed with the technology and ecological insights of our age, 21st century architects can surely do the same.

One can imagine the self-taught Jefferson studying his Vitruvius as we study our Architectural Graphic Standards. And one can imagine the architects of the future poring over this book as we pore over Vitruvius. That is the singular place Architectural Graphic Standards holds in our profession: It is, all at once, a repository of our stories, a comprehensive resource for practicing architects, a record of what it means to make a building in our time, and a signal to forthcoming generations that we stayed in touch with our sources as we anticipated the needs of the future. Feedback and feed-forward all in one volume.

In that sense, Architectural Graphic Standards plays a pivotal role in both cultural memory and cultural evolution. In the absence of mentors, it fills the role of the elder craftsman, much like the father or grandfather on the inter-generational crews that build temples in Japan. There, wooden temples are de-constructed and rebuilt each generation so that the local building arts are never lost. The grandfather’s third time building the temple is the grandson’s first and board by board he transfers ancestral knowledge and skills into living memory. At the same time, high-speed change is a 21st century reality, which demands that we practice anticipatory design—a strategic, purposeful approach to architecture that uses sophisticated, regenerative technologies and a new architectural language to nurture and celebrate the future of life.

Both of these roles are value-laden, and so begin to suggest a value-based framework for the application of the tools of our trade. Quite simply, architects need to follow all the laws of nature as diligently as we follow the laws of gravity. This is a blessing, not a burden. We live on a wondrous, biologically rich planet daily renewed by sunlight and new growth. Working with, rather than against, all the processes that make the surface of our world a dynamic living biosphere—the energy of the sun, wind and waves; the vital synergies of biochemistry; the dynamics of photosynthesis—we can create buildings that celebrate our interdependence with other living systems and make architecture itself a regenerative force. Imagine a building that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for thousands of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, builds soil, creates microclimates, changes with the seasons and is beautiful. Such buildings already exist, and they show how our tools can serve a principled, creative dialogue with the Earth that generates a living architectural language for our time—an aesthetically rich, technologically sophisticated language that celebrates sunlight and landscape, people and place, community and creativity as well as the immensely rich traditions of the past. At this fertile crossroads is Architectural Graphic Standards, preserver and creator of architecture’s dynamic legacy.

William McDonough, FAIA
Founder and Principal
William McDonough + Partners