how does an architect design? part 2…refinement

21 October 2011

The last we left our hero, we were discussing how an architect uses sketches to explore ideas to create architectural designs. We not only reviewed where do the ideas come from, but how do we get them out of our heads and onto some medium where they can be seen and tested.

So how do we translate those rough sketches, ideas, scattered thoughts and a crazy amount of doodles on the napkin we had at lunch (or classy paper place mat) into anything cogent? I suppose there is no singular way architects do this and it can vary from project to project for each architect. A short search on YouTube will list a plethora of videos that may attempt to explain all of this. Although entertaining, design can be complicated and at times difficult to teach or explain. Therefore, we will look more at the types of issues we grapple with and explain why architects walk around with furrowed brows all of the time. Let’s look independently at six issues out of many. Keep in mind that design is the integration of these issues, so a good designer takes all of these and synthesizes them into one building, one work of architecture. Think about it as a really hard puzzle that looks really good and is fun to visit.

Site – Our buildings have to exist in some real location on this Earth. Depending on the project type this may require studying many alternatives or in some cases such as a simple addition, there may only be one position available on the site. Either way, the architect will consider what the “givens” are. What conditions are fixed that cannot be changed? Do you have an existing building being altered or added to or is it new construction? What is the solar orientation, climate or other environmental factors? Are there zoning restrictions that will influence where the building or addition can be placed? Let’s not lose track of the intangible qualities that relate to our humanity as well. Views, perceptions, degree of enclosure, a sense of place are really important considerations to make a specific site enjoyable. The site cannot be considered independent from the other design requirements. For instance, a long and narrow site will have a huge impact on the layout of the program. A small site may require the building to be tall in order to fit all of the desired spaces. I listed this consideration first since many of my ideas stem out of the ‘place’ where the building will live. Can I design something that really fits or belongs on its site like nowhere else is the real challenge.

Program – It would be fun to design “follies” that serve little purpose but to look good and be playful. However, with rare exceptions, buildings must be functional and serve a specific purpose. With respect to the program, how we begin to resolve this is related to its complexity. For instance, a new bath addition, although complex in some rights is not as complicated as planning a new student center on a university campus. This part is most like a puzzle. It’s not enough to take all of the required spaces and merely stuff them into the bag. They must come together in an order that makes sense and their relationships to each other are really critical. Throw the building codes into the mix and things get difficult in a hurry. So to solve the program, start simple. Organize the major spaces or types of spaces first and work down to the smaller details. In other words, one approach may be to cluster offices, classrooms or other similar spaces into one large block and then cluster functional spaces like bathrooms, mechanical rooms, stairs and elevators into another cluster. This may not always work, but start with the big picture and don’t let the minutia get in the way too quickly.

Scale and proportion – We’ll consider these kissing cousins together. In school, we are trained to develop our compositional skills and master an eye for what looks right. The Greeks and then later the Renaissance architects attempted to objectify this into mathematic formulas. Mathematical or not, we find this frequently challenged as designs develop. There are many scale issues to consider which affect the proportions. How does the building relate to its surroundings? Is it taller or shorter than its neighbors? If it is an addition, how does it relate to the existing structure? As the details develop, how do the openings relate to the existing building? As we develop sketches into architectural designs, we begin to give dimension and thickness to various elements. Rooms start to have specific dimensions and walls take on realistic thicknesses as we consider materials and construction techniques. Sketchy lines turn into hard lines. We use drafting and modeling tools whether manual or digital to work this out. That early site strategy sketch is now starting to look like a site plan or better yet a floor plan in the site context. Now we can really examine how one will enter the building, move through it and ultimately use it. We can test if the spaces are large enough, too large or arranged in a meaningful or functional order. As we test if the functions work, we also test if it looks worthy of pursuing. To me form and function are inseparable. My apologies to my early modernist mentors.

Materials – Architects often are inspired by certain materials, so a special material may be the impetus behind the big idea, thus be a part of the concept from the beginning. Sometimes material choices are delayed purposely to allow a better exploration into the spaces themselves. Again, it depends on the design concept. Oftentimes the general materials are considered at the earliest stages, but the specifics are not confirmed until this later stage. An architect may have concrete block in mind to be a finish and a structural element, but the color, texture and type of concrete block may not be important until the design develops further. I prefer for the materials to be integrated into the design concept, such that ideally, no other material would work. For instance when we designed our house, the ‘box’ or main mass was brick with some concrete block woven in. It is an anchor. The remaining material had to be in contrast to that heavy material as those pieces appear to be emerging out of or away from the brick anchor. Therefore, metal was chosen as a light, durable and flexible material.

photo by Ron Lutz II

Building Systems - I tend to consider building systems very early in my process. It is important to have a good sense of the structural requirements as they impact the physical or spatial requirements of the project. For instance, if a large open space is needed, the structure has to be designed to be as free from columns as possible. I don’t leave all of this to my structural engineer; I must have a rough sense of it myself. Next, how will the HVAC be addressed? What room do we need for equipment or ductwork? How will plumbing be routed from the top to the bottom? Is there enough electrical capacity? Do we need to bring new utilities in from the street? All of these not only impact the cost, but the physical space and form of the building. Looking for ways to find energy-efficient systems that can be integrated into the architecture in a meaningful and economical way is no easy task. Don’t put it off to the last-minute.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Hopefully if you’ve learned nothing else (assuming you’re still reading this), you can see that architects take a series of issues that are complicated on their own and work to resolve them to relate to each other. This is what we do; this is why we always state “do not try this at home.” Oh, wait, that’s another show.

All images and drawings are copyrighted by the author. house6 photo by Ron Lutz II

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2 Responses to “how does an architect design? part 2…refinement”


  1. Ha! I love the token nod to Corbusier at the beginning of the article. Lee, what a great explanation of the design process. This article touches on my love, the business of architecture, because it does a good job of explaining what an architect does when cooped up in her study and how much thought and attention is put into design – in other words the value of hiring a good designer. By the way, is that your home office on the first floor in front of the main entry?
    Enoch


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