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Building as a science.

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

I have just heard Professor Brian Cox on the TV talking about the role of science and engineering, how there has been a renewed interest in these subjects and how the UK punches above its weight. Undoubtedly true in my view, but I would also like to add another dimension to this. If I said the building is a science, how many of you would scoff at the comment? To raise the question in another way, how many times do you hear the words building and science in the same sentence?

It’s a forgotten science perhaps because we over-engineer in some respects and we have such low expectations of the building industry. Another possibility is the fact that some parts of the British mentality are stuck in the past, and there is no doubt, other reasons we have a grown-up cottage industry instead of a science. We have some world-renowned centres of excellence nearby, the Building Research Establishment at Garston Watford and even here in Milton Keynes in the form of the Energy Foundation. We have, or possibly had, been regarded at the forefront of good building practice by the rest of the world for many years, and of course, during the industrial revolution, the UK brought many new construction techniques into use.

Did you know that there is a mathematical formula for the design of a chimney for an open fire? Probably not, this is why so many open fires built in the last few decades leak smoke into the house. Did you know that the shape of an arch approximately describes the shape of the mathematical shape of the forces pushing down and that a pointed arch is nearer still to the perfect shape, through centuries of trial and error, the shape got nearer and nearer to the perfect elegant shape but it took science to realise that the perfect shape is actually a parabola? Of course, none of this matters if you over-engineer, or use a steel lintel from B&Q. The elegance and science of building are forgotten in such a world.

I really would like to see a better understanding of the benefit a more scientific approach can bring to the building. Frankly, the first thing we have to do is to raise the expectations of the general public and explain that there are better ways of doing things. We should not accept poor building construction and the haphazard way in which we deal with the common garden leaks in roofs, dampness, sound transmission through party walls or the overheating in summer etc. I could go on but my soap box has given way. If it were made of plywood using stressed skin technology (as used in fighter planes in the second World War) instead of softwood nailed together it would have held much better.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

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