Why it’s important to think of buildings as being unstable

by 12th May, 2014

Interior of a home extension, left hand wall open bookcase, right hand wall and far back wall is glazed with timber frames, in the centre are two grey sofas on a oak floor.Interior of a home extension, left hand wall open bookcase, right hand wall and far back wall is glazed with timber frames, in the centre are two grey sofas on a oak floor.

Communion’s mission statement is “Working closely with people to deliver exceptional projects that transform spaces and change lives.” Each of our architects draws on different philosophies to interpret this statement in different ways and deliver unique solutions. seven_shearing_layers One of Alex’s philosophies is based on the work of British architect Frank Duffy. The traditional view of buildings is that they are steadfast and unchanging but Duffy held that buildings are inherently unstable. He said that buildings had six elements which he called Shearing layers and which each last for different lengths of time:

  • Site – the location of the building; this is considered eternal
  • Structure – the materials from which a building is constructed; this lasts between 30 and 300 years (although often not past 60 years for many reasons)
  • Skin – the exterior surfaces such as windows and doors; these typically last 20 years
  • Services – the boiler, the electrics, the plumbing; these typically have a lifespan 15 years
  • Spaceplan – the interior walls, ceilings and floors; in a domestic dwelling, these may last 30 years
  • Stuff – your furniture; these tend to move around very frequently.

For Alex, a successful project considers all six of these elements and also considers a seventh – sustainability. This is fundamental to each of the layers and must play a key part in all of them. Seeing buildings as a series of ever-changing components opens up new possibilities to shape them to suit our needs and desires. This is what the concept of Shearing layers gives to Alex.

Shearing layers in domestic projects

When it comes to domestic projects, Alex considers the client’s needs, wants and desires then, starting with stuff, he can work through the Shearing layers to answer them. For example, where do you want to eat breakfast?

  • Sitting at a table (this is your stuff)
  • in a kitchen (this affects how the spaceplan is divided up)
  • which needs plumbing and electricity (that is, the services)
  • by a window (this affects the skin and structure)
  • with morning sunshine pouring in (this affects the location of kitchen and its windows in the site).

Shearing layers in church re-orderings

6 When it comes to church re-orderings, the services are often the largest area that needs to be considered. The site, structure, skin, spaceplan and, sometimes, stuff are too architecturally important and beautiful to be changed, but it is the services that are holding the building back from achieving its mission. By installing these services in a sensitive, carefully considered way, this can be rectified.

Architects’ philosophies and why they matter

All architects have philosophies that inform their work. These overarching ideas may not be at the forefront of our thinking about a project, but they do provide us with a framework that helps us to identify the central issues and keep us focused on them. They help us to marry up the dreams and aspirations of our clients with the practicalities by allowing us to focus on the essentials, order and prioritise ideas and cut out the distractions.