Throughout this book many alternative ways of building are described: different structural systems, different systems of enclosure, and different systems of interior finish. Each system has characteristics that distinguish it from the alternatives. Sometimes a system is distinguished chiefly by its visual qualities, as one might acknowledge in choosing one type of granite over another, one color of paint over another, or one tile pattern over another. However, visual distinctions can extend beyond surface qualities; a designer may prefer the massive appearance of a masonry bearing wall building to the slender look of an exposed steel frame on one project, yet would choose the steel for another building whose situation is different. Again, one may choose for purely functional reasons, as in selecting terrazzo flooring that is highly durable and resistant to water instead of more vulnerable carpet or wood in a restaurant kitchen. One could choose on purely technical grounds, as, for example, in electing to posttension a long concrete beam for greater stiffness rather than rely on conventional steel reinforcing. A designer is often forced into a particular choice by some of the legal constraints identified later in this chapter. A choice is often influenced by considerations of environmental sustainability. And frequently the selection is made on purely economic grounds. The economic criterion can mean any of several things: Sometimes one system is chosen over another because its first cost is less; sometimes the entire life-cycle costs of competing systems are compared by means of formulas that include first cost, maintenance cost, energy consumption cost, the useful lifetime and replacement cost of the system, and interest rates on invested money; and, finally, a system may be chosen because there is keen competition among local suppliers and/or installers that keeps the cost of that system at the lowest possible level. This is often a reason to specify a very standard type of roofing material, for example, that can be furnished and installed by any of a number of companies, instead of a newer system that is theoretically better from a functional standpoint but can only be furnished by a single company that has the special equipment and skills required to install it.
One cannot gain all the knowledge needed to make such decisions from a textbook. It is incumbent upon the reader to go far beyond what can be presented here—to other books, to catalogs, to trade publications, to professional periodicals, and especially to the design office, the workshop, and the building site. There is no other way to gain much of the required information and experience than to get involved in the art and business of building. One must learn how materials feel in the hand; how they look in a building; how they are manufactured, worked, and put in place; how they perform in ser vice; how they deteriorate with time. One must become familiar with the people and organizations that produce buildings—the architects, engineers, materials suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, workers, inspectors, managers, and building owners—and learn to understand their respective methods, problems, and points of view. In the meantime, this long and hopefully enjoyable process of education in the materials and methods of building construction can begin with the information presented in this textbook.