Book Worms and Bytes

William Richards, photographer.

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, with Deborah Marquardt

Thom White, a young Virginia Beach architect, returned from the recent Greenbuild conference in Chicago jazzed about something he had seen. Yes, new building technologies were interesting, but he was just as intrigued by all the vendors who had their product information stored on iPads and tablet PCs—not in cumbersome binders.

It got him thinking about the library in his office, often cluttered and out of date. “If we had a product database, we could eliminate a lot of paper,” says White, of Ivy Architecture. “It would save the vendors from having to change binders out once a year. Instead, products could be searched online and vendors could bring a sample for viewing and then take it away again.”

Architectural firms, not unlike traditional libraries, struggle with how to achieve the right balance between digital references and hard copies. Yet in architecture firms, keeping things organized and up-to-date is often not anyone’s job. We count on vendors to keep product binders up to date, but cataloging other contents falls to the wayside.

Erin Sterling Lewis and Matthew Griffith just opened a new firm, in situ studio, in Raleigh, North Carolina. They recalled the library at their previous firm: a back storage area that everyone avoided except for the annual clean-up, when they would fill up a dumpster with binders and samples. The partners made a pact to be as clutter-free as possible. They are storing data in the clouds and their product and design research occurs almost exclusively on the Internet.

Archdaily.com is a daily burst of eye candy,” says Griffith about searching for design inspiration. Favorite materials and reps are bookmarked on their laptops. “It’s just quicker to go to a website,” he adds. “Things are ever-changing, and often websites are updated even before a new product is released.”

Beyond archdaily.com, a general news site, online databases like www.materialconnexion.com and www.materialsmonthly.com are useful sources that deal specifically with materials. Some product manufacturers have made it easy for architects to sample their wares. The wall-covering manufacturer Wolf-Gordon, with showrooms in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, just launched a website that allows customers to search their catalog by color, texture, features, and designer. Customers can also click on selections to reveal larger swatch images, which contain specifications and availability.

Digital solutions are practical for many, but some are reluctant to give up on the old reference model. At Richmond’s Glavé & Holmes Associates, a long corridor of their newly renovated office in Shockoe Bottom is lined with bookshelves, which hold code books, periodicals and product manuals—all of which are logged into the firm’s computer system for reference. Firm principal Randy Holmes’ personal collection of more than 200 volumes on topics ranging from history of places, master planning ,and landscape design to architects, theory, and technical data is open to everyone.

“Our book culture is critical to us,” says Holmes. “Books give us a long view of history, our rich architectural heritage in this country and globally back to the Greeks and Romans. Understanding that is critical to thinking about the future.”

Recently, upon returning from a trip, he found two colleagues in his office researching quoins to understand how they were used as details in the past. “Without reference materials, a dialogue with the past would be hard to have. Books and buildings are valuable teaching tools,” he adds. “And books are a lot easier to get to.”

“The library is a tool for thought and ongoing discussion, which we constantly use,” writes Steven Holl in Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books (Yale University Press, 2009). “If one of the aims of teaching and work is to raise architecture to the level of thought,” he notes, “the library and its books provide a transcendental field with ongoing operative tools.” Even Griffith admits that he and Lewis maintain a good-sized bookshelf of favorite design books.

Our firm, Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas+ Company, makes more and more use of digital research tools for product and inspiration but, like many firms, we still have product binders and code books on shelves. We also have a conference room that contains a “library” of inspirational books on architects and design. As more information comes to be stored in our building information models and on the web, a day may come when we can use our bookshelves for other things. While that may rid our building of paper, it may not solve the clutter dilemma. As Thom White warns, a server can get cluttered, too, and a library—digital or real—still requires care.

Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, is the Chief Operations Officer for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company.

Deborah Marquardt does public relations for Hanbury Evans. Her writing has appeared in national magazines.

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