Beyond the Physical: Workshop and Mini Symposium on Masonry at Syracuse University

Words: Roger Hubeli

Words:Roger Hubeli , Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, Syracuse University
Photos: Syracuse University  

Material Discourse in Architecture Education 

A workshop for the Master of Science (MS) program as well as a mini symposium during the last academic year aimed to provide students at Syracuse University with an expanded notion of materiality. Both the workshop and symposium were structured around the idea to reveal hidden aspects of the ‘mediation’ of materials to the students. In other words, what processes and tools facilitate the integration of materials, such as a CMU block, in an architectural design and who decides how a material can or cannot be used.  

In the case of the workshop, this was discussed through a closer look at how the negotiation of the building code impacts common masonry solutions; while the symposium exposed students to how these regulations find their way into digital design tools. In both cases, the pedagogical goal was to show students the forces that regulate and orchestrate the material translation of their design work. 

CMU Industry Collaboration at Syracuse University 

Syracuse Architecture has a long-standing relationship with the local CMU and masonry industry that reaches from construction workshops in the past, to factory visits and a recent collaboration for the design and construction of two Habitat for Humanities houses. One of the great benefits of this relationship, from the stand point of the architectural education, is that it provides the students access to a more hands-on and comprehensive idea of material processes and applications. The ability to see the production of a material first hand and to be able to have access to people that produce and work with the material on a daily basis is of great importance for the students and their capacity to integrate material systems into their own design work.  

However, this is only one aspect of the production of what constitutes a material. Another, and perhaps a typically less discussed component, is the development of codes and regulations for a material or product, as well as the integration of it into a variety of design tools. As much as the understanding of the physical qualities and abilities of a material and its application is fundamental to design, so is its ‘immaterial’ context of codes and information management systems that accompany it. This is particularly important in a design world where more and more, the entirety of project elements and assemblies are governed by a single BIM component that can predetermine some, if not most, of these properties.  

Static versus Dynamic Understanding of Material Parameters 

Typically, students experience materials in architectural education as an abstract condition because most often a formal and/or programmatic topic is the driving force behind their design work. If there is technical resolution in the design, it is because it was the goal of a design studio but then the designs are resolved technically through the application of pre-existing material systems and not through exploration of what materials can do. This approach is usually supplemented with a series of technology courses that provide a survey on the performance and use of building materials and a series of design resources, such as The Architect’s Studio Companion or Frank Ching’s Building Construction Illustrated. While these resources are valuable tools, they present materials as static systems with clearly defined and limited applications and do not provide a more in-depth understanding of how these applications are developed and governed. 

Therefore, the main goal of the workshop and symposium was to provide the students with an opportunity to more holistically understand the way materials, in this case masonry, are mediated by code, which are then integrated into information modeling and engineering tools, and put them in contact with the professionals that are part of this process.  

MS Workshop The Negotiation and Influence of Code and Regulations 

The first event was part of a Master of Science research methodologies course at Syracuse University. The course’s goal was to provide the students with a view into the role of matter and materiality in architectural design and the role research methodologies can play to providing processes for design that typically lie outside of the normative architectural production - leading to new intersections between architecture and its ecological and social environment. As part of this course there were a series of three workshops, one of which focused on masonry and was dedicated to issues of codes and regulations on the built environment. 

Participants and structure 

Building on our relationship with the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA), we invited Nicholas Lang, the Vice President of Business Development at the NCMA to give a lecture and lead a workshop that focused on the relationship between building codes and common solutions in concrete block manufacturing and construction. While Mr. Lang provided insight into the development of code and regulations, he also invited Rick Roach, the President of Barnes and Cone, a local Syracuse-based CMU manufacturer and Mike Palmer, the President of a local masonry construction company to showcase how the larger issues of code impact the design and construction of local buildings.  

Lecture and Assignments 

The core of Lang's lecture was an illustration on how codes and regulations of building materials have changed over the last decades; providing the students with a sense of how dynamic this process is and how much regulations have increased in complexity. He illustrated this surge in complexity by the sheer increase of pages in the Building Code Requirements and Specifications for Masonry Structures alone, from 40 to 400 pages in a span of only 30 years. To better understand the framework in which these codes and regulations are generated and the inherent political nature of the development process, Lang explained the basic process to revise and update the International Building Code by discussing the ASTM E119 Hose Stream test on masonry and metal stud walls.  

He showcased how standards can be used to favor certain assemblies and create potentially false notions of the performance of materials and assembly systems. In the case of the hose stream test, the masonry wall can resist the hose stream with the original wall specimen after being exposed to the heat transfer test. The standard, however, allows for a duplicate specimen to be tested using the hose stream after fire exposure for only ½ of the time of the original specimen. By use of this duplicate specimen, many light-frame walls can comply with the requirements for a fire wall, despite lacking the robustness of a truly non-combustible system.  

The lecture by Lang was a powerful way to show the students that code, regulations and standards which architects typically reference to as static conditions are in fact a set of dynamic relationships that are continuously changing, subject to economic interests and bias. This fact was further underlined by Lang through tuning into International Code Council’s webcast of the hearings for the revisions of the next issue of the International Building Code, that was concurrently held on the day of the workshop.  

In addition, a series of short assignments were setup to further showcase this point through the energy specification of a CMU wall. In one of the assignments, the students were asked to compare the energy compliance requirements for a light frame wall and a CMU wall, realizing that there are multiple paths permissible to provide compliancy, from prescriptive R-Value tables to providing a whole building analysis; and that each might favor different materials and assemblies. 

The Mini Symposium – The Design Of Masonry Design Tools  

The content and structure of the Mini Symposium on Masonry Design tools stemmed from the masonry industry’s lack of integration in university architectural education. We used the 1-day Symposium to bring in, among others, two software developers, Tom Cuneio and Russ Peterson, to conduct short lectures and demonstrations for both students and invited professionals. Students and professional architects alike are the end user of a multitude of different digital design tools.  

With the rise of BIM, digital fabrication and novel applications of VR and AR in design and construction, these digital tools become even more important and integral than they already are in the design process. In spite of the importance of BIM, VR, etc., architects typically know very little about the development of these tools. This might not be problematic with regards to drafting and 3D modeling software that are independent of material information but with more and more software, such as BIM, providing pre-configured material and assembly solutions, it is important for architects to understand how and by whom these programs are developed and what information serves as the basis for their development. 

Symposium Participants and Structure 

To provide a window into the current development of such digital tools, Tom Cuneio, the developer of the Masonry IQ plug-in for Revit and Russ Peterson, the developer of Direct Design software, a masonry structural design program, presented their current work to the students, faculty and local architects and engineers. 

Masonry IQ and VR 

According to Tom Cuneio, Masonry iQ automates many time-consuming detail efforts required by architects to design with masonry.  Custom patterns, accurate elevations, wall sections, control joint placement, bond beam placement and other critical details are all handled in a central masonry data model.  Masonry modeling technology like clash detection, coordination, laser scanning and production order staging was demonstrated. To showcase the possibility of a comprehensive BIM model, Tom provided the opportunity to explore and inspect a BIM model with his virtual reality headset.   

Direct Design Engineering 

Russ Peterson developed Direct Design Software with the support of the NCMA. He describes the program as an inexpensive, state-of-the-art structural masonry design program that makes masonry design faster and easier. What previously took an engineer several days to design, now can be accomplished within hours. The ultimate goal of the program is that buildings can be drawn in Revit, and then exported into Direct Design for accurate structural calculation. After the structural masonry design is completed, the file is integrated back into the Revit model of the building. This allows for a fast feedback loop between design, structural analysis and block layout and systems integration. 

Both of these programs showcase the potential of advanced digital design tools for masonry. They reconfigure the typical workflow that leads from a design idea to an assembly to one that is more iterative, allowing one to continuously move between formal and technical aspects of the building design. While this is extremely beneficial and provides the designer with more direct information on to the viability of the design, it is also important to understand that all these tools work on the basis of assumptions that are reflected by the developer’s choice to include or exclude certain standards and options into the program.  

Concluding Notes  

The benefits for the students 

There are two distinct benefits for the students that resulted from both of these events 

First, the simple exposure to a side of the construction industry that they are typically not working with, and they may not know exists, broadens an understanding of the forces that are at play when they choose particular building materials. For example, knowing about how the building code gets negotiated and by whom, and how codes and regulations impact digital design solutions (for example during the coding of software) might make the students question their material choices in a different, hopefully more critical way then by just following the advertised arguments for any specific product.  

Second, events such as these, offer the students an opportunity to connect to professionals that are otherwise rarely seen as part of the design process and gives them access to the experts that develop the resources and tools they are working with as designers. This has the potential to extend their knowledge of where their own work is situated in the larger context of design and construction. These events help shape a student’s design process by seeking out collaborations and partnerships that might go beyond the typical project teams of an architectural commission.  


Given the current developments in the construction industry that are marked by an increase in regulations and an ever-growing focus on performance to satisfy economic and environmental concerns, architecture students need to better understand the larger context of the materials and products they will be working with in the future 

They can no longer rely on an understanding of a material as a simple product that helps them to physically manifest their design ideas, but they need to comprehend the entirety of what mediates a material/product. This includes the processes that lay behind its regulation, the manner in which it is integrated into design tools as well as its environmental impacts. This is especially important for a design process that will increasingly rely on preconfigured planning tools, such as BIM with integrated energy and structural analysis capacities 

Due to speed and convenience, these tools can quickly shift the decision-making process, around the use of materials, away from the architect to a series of preset choices provided by the design tools they use. It is therefore important for future architects to understand who creates these tools and what governs their parameters. Having a clear notion of these more hidden material properties gives the students an opportunity as young architects to engage the building products and construction industry in a more meaningful way, empowering them to push for new applications that challenge the status quo in design as well as the expectations of how our buildings perform in an ever more challenging environmental context.  


Thank you to the students at Syracuse University, especially the fall 2018 MS course and thank you to the NCMA and the MCAA Upstate New York Chapter for their ongoing support. 


Fig. 1: Nicholas Lang, Vice President of Business Development NCMA, presenting to the MS class at Syracuse University during the workshop on codes and regulations 


Fig. 2: Students and invited professionals are listening to Ross Peterson’s presentation on Direct Design during the Mini Symposium on digital design tools for masonry at Syracuse University. 

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