When failure is a good thing

Words:
Paul Ruff

That’s when testing a design to breaking point strengthens a project, and modular construction is the way to do it says RIBAJ Rising Star Paul Ruff

Top floor bedroom showing modular SIP panel construction at Ruff Architects' latest social housing scheme.
Top floor bedroom showing modular SIP panel construction at Ruff Architects' latest social housing scheme.

Failure is often deemed a negative act. It can be hard to accept, especially if you’re of the architectural disposition, but it is possible to fail constructively. When the effect of that failure doesn’t jeopardise a project or a relationship, but strengthens it, surely failure is positive? It should be rebranded as ‘design to fail’ or ‘tested to breaking point’.

As an emerging practice, Ruff Architects is incredibly lucky to already be working on projects from multi-billion pound masterplans, as part of strong architectural teams, down to single family dwellings and all scales in between. Ensuring we can test, or, more interestingly, ‘design to fail’ ahead of the roll-out of the design for construction is something that interests the studio.

To model-make, to prototype, to draw and to test allows much understanding of the project before construction, but, inevitably, there are some elements that are simply not understood or allowed for. We spend a great deal of time managing these risks. Is modular construction a realignment of that thinking?

Southborough Road wall treatment maquettes looking at changes of material and impression when viewed from different directions.
Southborough Road wall treatment maquettes looking at changes of material and impression when viewed from different directions.

For the social housing scheme in Oxford we are working on, we tested and appraised the construction methodology again at RIBA Stage 4 to go back to an early prefabrication SIPs panel approach. Although this had been reviewed and dismissed during the early life of the project, time and technology had evolved. The contractor has now saved 23 weeks on the prelim and is nearing completion four months ahead of the programme! Here, re-evaluation ensured we used the latest thinking and technology to improve our design and our approach.

At Battersea Power Station, where we are working directly for a bathroom pod manufacturer, we are currently testing and designing to breaking point 388 bathroom designs – a finished element in the building being constructed before final co-ordination is complete or there is even a roof on the building.

Likewise at the refurbishment and extension, both vertically and in plan, of a 15-storey block in Stockwell, south London, we are using a modular approach to rejuvenate and update the building with, hopefully, a single, flexible module type. Through drawing, planning and testing, we are looking to refine kitchen, bathroom, bespoke tile design, FF&E and internals, all long before they start to come together on site. We are initiating a factory production line that is working backwards from a finished, and understood, physical prototyped product.

  • Mcleod Road, a mixed-use development in Abbey Wood, London. Retail podium with volumetric modular housing above with a scaffolding-free strategy.
    Mcleod Road, a mixed-use development in Abbey Wood, London. Retail podium with volumetric modular housing above with a scaffolding-free strategy.
  • Paul Ruff preparing sample palette proposals within The Mad Science Lab mock-up room.
    Paul Ruff preparing sample palette proposals within The Mad Science Lab mock-up room.
  • Modular bathroom pod prototype developed by Ruff Architects for Battersea Power Station at The Milan Pod Factory.
    Modular bathroom pod prototype developed by Ruff Architects for Battersea Power Station at The Milan Pod Factory.
  • East Street site massing model studies showing proposed city block development ideas.
    East Street site massing model studies showing proposed city block development ideas.
  • Mixed-use scheme in Barking, East Street Square elevation adjacent to existing town all providing new active frontage at ground floor and c.80 residential units above.
    Mixed-use scheme in Barking, East Street Square elevation adjacent to existing town all providing new active frontage at ground floor and c.80 residential units above.
  • Study model for pavilion proposal showing key building block elements and expressed structural cantilever.
    Study model for pavilion proposal showing key building block elements and expressed structural cantilever.
  • Volumetric study model for Zealand Road providing triple-height new space.
    Volumetric study model for Zealand Road providing triple-height new space.
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Each of these projects is allowing us to readdress our ‘traditional’ approach. Clients have clear decision times, mainly upfront, that not only minimise later variations but help them truly understand the finished product. Historically, we can get lost in the construction detail, but it’s the finished product that sells, that can improve family life, that affects the urban realm. Modular, to me, feels like designing to fail and quickly – there are no pretensions, and more detail is needed at an earlier stage to refine the construction strategy and drive it, to not let the construction stage drive you.

How does this ensure creativity rather than a perceived banality and repetition? It provides us with the opportunity to isolate the important elements, to build and draw prototypes, to rip apart and ensure the detail is understood. Different projects require different scales. Mock-ups, kitchens and whole bathrooms can be made and tested, facades can be constructed and joinery junctions can be formed.

Time, finally, is key – planning how this will work within a programme that is probably already tight. And it is paramount to spend time with the client to ensure decisions are only made after the implications have been digested.

We are attempting this, often succeeding, but on occasion deliberately failing. Failing and then refining. Failing is not negative as long as it is undertaken at the correct scale and point in time.

‘One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.’ Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922.


Paul Ruff is director of Ruff Architects and a member of RIBAJ’s Rising Stars cohort 2017. Find his profile here.

RIBAJ Rising Stars is a scheme to recognise and reward up and coming construction professionals. Rising Stars 2018 opens for entries from May.

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