Once you’ve settled upon an architect and have presented your vision for a project, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Or aluminum clips. Or just your basic woods screws. The materials you choose—with input from your architect and contractor—will end up defining your construction budget and determining how your project will look, perform, and last.
At the Los Angeles Design Group (LADG)—a Venice, California-based firm led by Claus Benjamin Freyinger, Assoc. AIA, and Andrew Holder—choices relating to a project’s materials evolve from client conversations. LADG co-founder Freyinger says that client input shaped choices in several of his firm’s projects. For one Los Angeles house early in the firm’s portfolio, the Armstrong Avenue Residence, Freyinger indicates that the client expressed a strong distaste for stucco; instead, at the client’s request, LADG opted for shou sugi ban—a traditional Japanese method of charring cedar that provides natural waterproofing and fire resistance—to highlight the nuances around its monolithic form. “We found a way to embed the logic of that [material] into the design,” he says. “Using that burnt wood as a material is quite strong for reiterating that form.”
Having conversations about materials early on means that they are less likely to get value-engineered out of a design solution; once baked in, they become integral to the design. And it’s important to have an understanding about budget as well. At FreelandBuck—a bi-coastal firm with offices in Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles, run by Brennan Buck and David Freeland, AIA, respectively—the principals take concerted efforts to get the most bang for their building material buck in both their residential projects and their commercial work, such as a pop-up shop for Linda Farrow. “We try to make simple, economical materials do more than they would normally,” Buck says. “We use simple materials and try to produce unexpected or dramatic qualities with them.”
“On interiors, clients are very involved in the selection of materials in the most intimate areas of the house. That really needs to be a process with a close dialogue.” - David Freeland, AIA
Freeland adds that, especially in residential design, clients shouldn’t be afraid to speak up about what will make them feel most at home: “On interiors, clients are very involved in the selection of materials in the most intimate areas of the house,” he says. “That really needs to be a process with a close dialogue.”
There are plenty of considerations to take into account when selecting materials, and a good architect will help guide you through the pros and cons of each. Materials that are inexpensive upfront might have larger long-term costs if they aren’t durable enough to age well. “In terms of durability, that’s thinking about the life-cycle cost of material, and knowing how long it’ll be before it needs refinishing,” Buck says. “Although we may not engage with the client directly in this kind of conversation, we’re always going to recommend the most durable material that meets their objectives.”
These days, the topic of sustainability often arises in remodels and construction projects. And many architects engage in sustainable design, whether it’s through strict adherence to a point-based certification system such as LEED or simply by making smart environmental choices. In discussing another Los Angeles project, an artist studio addition, Freyinger talks about sustainability both in terms of specific moves and broad strokes. “We’ll take advantage of a tall ceiling by venting it along the ridge so that hot air is constantly moving up. In the summer, it keeps things cool, or in the winter we can rely on a little radiant heat to distribute air,” Freyinger says. “Something I often say is, ‘As opposed to looking for recycled wood flooring, if we’re talking about energy efficiency, let’s start with planting a tree, or orienting this house correctly on the site.’
Whatever the material choices are, you’ll stand a better chance of loving the final result if you can express your preferences to your architect early on. These conversations—whether budgetary, environmental, or otherwise—can steer your architects toward unexpected, yet fully informed, material selections that will best fit your project.
About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.