Skins for buildings

Just released is ‘Skins for Buildings’, a bulky encyclopaedia of materials that helps architects find the right material. A review by Harrie van Helmond.

The title of this massive reference work (over 500 pages) emphasises the full-page photos of the documented building materials and the two photos of buildings in which the material in question is applied. But the accompanying text forms the core of this 'encyclopaedia' that meticulously describes 200 common finishes. The chapters on Wood, Stone, Ceramic products, Concrete, Glass, Metals, Plastics and 'Future materials' are easy to read, concise, and prefaced by up-to-date introductions. Each selected material is then dealt with separately.

The publication certainly won't replace the specialised trade journals, manufacturers' websites, or the documentation and samples found in every architecture practice. But it will prove useful when pre-selecting materials. The photos give an impression of what the featured materials look like when used. The selection of projects is notable; some design offices are included many times, while many high-profile projects in which the use of materials is a major feature are left out. The quality of the published buildings is mixed and ranges from much-publicised buildings to mediocre structures.

A striking element of the book is the attempt to describe the sensual qualities of materials: degrees of shininess, translucence, texture, sturdiness, heat conduction, smell, and acoustic quality are indicated in a simple diagram. To me this exercise seems to serve little purpose, since most of the qualifications are obvious.

William's Morris's statement that 'architecture is the art of building with the right material' is the book's motto and one that unwittingly suggests that there is a method to finding the right material. But the book devotes insufficient attention to the relation between the life-span of materials and the different ways in which materials are used and maintained in Western design practice (which is the focus of the book). Texts regularly indicate when a product should not be used, but amongst the published projects are quite a few in which the material is deliberately applied incorrectly. For many years Dutch trade journals have been drawing attention to the repeated and avoidable mistakes in contemporary construction: more than 10% of building materials have to be discarded because of such errors.

Is the book complete? Of course not, but it is a very good place to start when first considering a particular material. The book will appeal to a wide range of readers: students and recent graduates can discover the difference between oak and beech, between basalt lava and basalt, between aluminium and titanium. But even old hands will discover useful and practical information in the texts. Although the publication will not have been intended as such, I read it from start to finish with much pleasure. The link between age-old and recent applications shows the possibilities brought on by technological progress – from the stacking of large blocks of natural stone to stone finish, from in situ poured grey concrete to coloured prefab concrete onto which photographic images have been silk-screened, from oak facade boarding to sheets of coconut husk.

Are there mistakes in the book? Very few, and that is a huge achievement. Clear colourless glass is not listed among the possibilities of glass even though it's receiving plenty of attention today. Also omitted are the many common ways to add finishes to metals, such as bronzing, bichromating. And a decimal point goes astray in the reduction in the thickness of patinated metals: 0,3 mm/year! But that's peanuts for a first edition.

And then we have Morris's statement on choosing the right material. The achievement of the book is that it offers a good place to start searching and it offers us concise and readable descriptions of groups of materials and particular products. But the success of every choice ultimately depends on the relation between price and quality, the maintenance aspects, the potential for recycling, the quality of the contractor, the quality of detailing and degree of integration between design and construction. You don't find all that in a book, unfortunately. You'll find it by adopting an open attitude that enables you to take all those factors into account. Only in that way can a fetish for materials be kept in check.