What is an architectural program?

When a client comes to me and asks to design a building, the first thing I ask is, “what’s going in it?”  In order to design a building the first thing architects need to understand is the program, which is an architectural way of saying, “what is your wish list?” or, “how will this building be used?”  Many factors go into a program and when clients come to me I often help them write the program simply because I do this every day and understand that some things are needed to make the building a success in terms of function.  “Programming” is a term that architects use when describing how they work with a client to help them refine the client’s wish list.  For example:  an architect might say, “We will help you during the programming phase of your project…” or, “We will help you define your programmatic requirements.”

Vitruvius was a Roman architect.  Some would refer to him as one of the great “ancients” of architecture, some would even go so far as to say he was the first architect.  I’m not sure about that one but he was in a way because he was the first to have his architectural work documented.  Alas I digress.  So this guy Vitruvius basically coined the phrase “form follows function”.
Vitruvian ManMany have used that term over the last 2,000 years after he died.  It is a great phrase because it sums up what architects (most of us) do when it comes to design in three words that everyone can relate to.  Most architects first study the program, lay out the spaces, and figure out how the building functions.  Once it looks like the function is working out, the design part comes in.  Now I say “most architects” work this way because some actually work the opposite way.  What I mean by this is that sometimes an architect (possibly due to a client’s wishes) will have a predetermined shape for a building in mind.  If that is the case, the building is designed as a shell and then once the desired shape is achieved the inner workings of the building sort of get shoved in there.  This concept tends to work better with large scale projects such as skyscrapers, arenas, stadiums, etc. because the functionality is pretty much a given so the exterior shape tends to trump the interior workings at the early stages of design to get people excited about the project.

On a residential scale, some styles lend themselves towards being very “boxy”.  Styles such as:  Plantation, “Key Westy”, and French Chateau are just a few examples of aesthetics that would fall into this category for a home.  The reason I bring this up is because if a client is leaning towards one of these styles, the opposite approach would be used to tackle the design; “function follows form”.  Designing buildings like this can be deceivingly simple because most people would look at a boxy building and imply all you need to do is create a box and throw walls in it.  Well it isn’t that simple…in some cases designing a box can be extremely difficult because there is almost always a strong sense of symmetry in the design that would force windows and doors to be in very specific places that would dictate how the rooms inside could function.  An example of how this could be problematic would be if we had a beautiful façade working with 8’ tall windows.  Now…in one portion of the house we’d like to throw in a powder room or a full bathroom.  Guess what?  It can be hard to design a small space (that is obviously supposed to be very private) with an 8’ window in it!

Again, these are fairly unusual cases.  Most buildings do start with the program and then the building takes shape according to the needs of the building.  I tend to metaphorically “listen” to the program and allow it to “speak” to the site (and vice versa) so that the building becomes what it wants to become.  Every building is an exciting new adventure and I never know what it will end up looking like until the design is done.  I tend to laugh to myself when a client will ask me on day one, “So Dave…do you have an idea of what this thing is going to look like?” to which I usually give my stock retort. “I have no idea; however I will tell you that I won’t stop until we have achieved an aesthetic that works for you.”

Do you have a project that you are currently working on and need assistance in programming…or coming up with your wish list?  Or maybe you’re not even sure what is possible on your site and would just like to talk about the possibilities?  Please contact me directly here and I’ll be glad to help any way I can.