In October 2013, while speaking at the annual Lieven de Key Awards, held in Haarlem, the Netherlands, Dutch architect Marlies Rohmer did something remarkable. She described her revisiting three decades' worth of her past projects to discover their fates. According to authors Hilde de Haan and Jolanda Keesom, who attended the event, Rohmer did not sugarcoat her findings: "She showed without holding back: the covered-up windows, rotting window sills, discolored facades," they wrote in What Happened to My Buildings? (NAi010 Publishers, 2017). "And also: cluttered walkways, a neglected ornamental garden, an impracticable underground bicycle storage, the white hose of an air conditioner protruding from the letterbox of a place of business, as an improvised climate control system." The rapt audience witnessed something truly novel: an accomplished architect divulging the mistakes and lessons learned from her past work.

Inspired by these revelations, Haan and Keesom assessed, analyzed, and reordered much of Rohmer's extensive research to write What Happened. Subdivided by five thematic essays, What Happened demonstrates the significant benefits of an architect's reflection, acknowledging missteps, and celebrating the longevity of our built environment.

Courtesy NAi010 Publishers

Material performance and selection are key lessons in the book. Architects rarely readily and publicly admit to material failures—the authors name "discoloration, green or black deposit, nasty stains, loose elements and leakage" on building envelopes as examples—as they suggest a degree of professional incompetence, not to mention the fact that roof leaks constitute a large percentage of construction-related lawsuits. However, sharing such experiences can help others avoid repeating the mistakes.

Architects' fondness for white envelope materials despite their potential for visible degradation, particularly if not detailed or maintained carefully, poses another example. Rohmer visits her Waterwoningen (Floating House) project in Amsterdam to find its white polymer cladding covered in soot and algae. A disgruntled resident speculated that "it probably all looked very nice on the drawing board" despite the realities of weathering. The suggested solution? Improved access to enable regular cleaning as well as "smoother details and fewer edges."

In another example, leaks represent an even more serious failure in another case. Rohmer bemoans the cheap window and door frames she was required to specify for a housing project, which all failed within 15 years. Noordkop, in Amsterdam, also has obvious signs of leaks due to insufficient waterproofing. In these sections, the architect's confessions are sobering, but also empowering for future architects.

What Happened also addresses the challenge of mechanical system optimization. In the case of Rohmer's Matrix School in Hardenberg, the Netherlands, uncomfortable interior temperatures and lack of occupant-accessible HVAC controls essentially guaranteed dissatisfaction. Though the school received a sustainable design prize in 2008 shortly after its completion, it has become a more cautionary tale in the long term. Budget cuts had resulted in the choice of a centrally operated HVAC system and problems began soon after occupation. The gyms would become overheated, motivating staff to open windows. Consequently, more air conditioning was delivered to the classrooms, where teachers would then cover diffusers.

Eventually, the school completely reconfigured the mechanical system at great expense. According to de Haan and Keesom, "this mistake led to such high additional costs that this became a classic example of ‘save now, pay later.' " In this way, What Happened reveals that poorly designed mechanical strategies often lead to needless energy consumption as well as user irritation. And systems that prioritize occupant control is paramount—although surprisingly, many factors prevent this. As the Matrix School's HVAC installation adviser told the headmaster: "Opening windows? You mustn’t do that. The calibration of the installation doesn’t allow it."

Courtesy Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists Waterwoningen project in Amsterdam.
Deterioration of the white cladding of the Waterwoningen project in Amsterdam.
Courtesy Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists Deterioration of the white cladding of the Waterwoningen project in Amsterdam.

Building regulations also serve as a common source of disappointment. In 1992, the collection of myriad municipal building codes was consolidated into a single national building code in the Netherlands (as in other countries), promising to bring clarity and simplicity to what had become a tedious and intricate set of regulations. However, in reality, the situation became more complex in new ways. "The harvest of new regulations of the past 20 years has been absolutely rich with provisions against noise nuisance, energy waste, pollution, and unsafe playground equipment," the authors write. While these codes were certainly well-intentioned—prioritizing occupant safety and welfare—the increasing standardization of elements has created a restrictive homogeneity. In a section called "The Dreariness of Dutch Housing," the authors describe the cramped conditions that result from regulated ceiling heights, corridors, and entryways—now omnipresent features.

Marlies Rohmer
Courtesy Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists Marlies Rohmer

Sadder still is the restrictive safety net surrounding children. Compared with past generations, Dutch society—like our own—has become ultra-protective of children's security, with negative ramifications. "Children are no longer given the opportunity to discover for themselves how to handle everyday risks," the authors write. "Many children do not get enough exercise, struggle [being] overweight and do not sufficiently develop their motor skills." As a passionate advocate of child development via healthy risk-taking, Rohmer regularly infused her designs for schools and playgrounds with inviting features for physical play—such as child-sized slides incorporated into staircases. However, What Happened reveals that many of these designs are now off-limits—with strategically placed planters or danger signs prohibiting their use.

As orchestrators of building design, architects are naturally sensitive whenever problems arise. Yet What Happened reveals that the architect is merely one of many stakeholders responsible for the future of a building, including both negative and positive outcomes. Marlies Rohmer is courageous to reveal her design mistakes openly, and this selfless contribution will help elevate the quality of practice. However, the failings presented in What Happened are not hers alone to bear, and include those by clients, consultants, regulatory agencies, and users—parties who often admit their culpability in the book. Yet the problems are far outweighed by the abiding successes of these works. In a compelling feat of reverse psychology, What Happened leaves readers with a more endearing portrayal of Rohmer's architecture—warts and all—than would have been possible in a standard monograph. We are captivated by Rohmer's insatiable desire to create inspiring and highly functioning spaces for people—a goal she ultimately achieves. By sharing in the joys as well as disappointments, we revel in Rohmer's and her collaborators' struggle to create better buildings.