3 ways to design a building

Ahh the age-old question concerning the process of designing a building.  How is it done?  With a pencil and paper?  With a special computer program that allows you to hit “create” and then viola…a building appears on the screen?  Architects go about the process of designing a building in a variety of ways.  I know there are many ways to skin a cat in terms of the design process, so I will simply write about my particular process.  Having said that, before we can talk about the actual tools of the trade, we must first understand basic methods of design as it pertains to architecture.  Here are a few of the most popular designing methods from a macro point of view:

  1. The Vitruvian way = “form follows function”: This method tends to be one of the more popular ways to design a building nowadays.  Basically what it entails is that the architect analyzes the programmatic requirements (click here to learn more about this topic), create a flow based on the program, and then allow the building to take shape from there.  Usually architects will “elevate” the plans.  What this means is that they take the walls that are simply drawn as line work, and then extrude them to varying heights to allow the building to take shape.  This is where the term “elevations” come from.  Every building no matter how big or small has four elevations:  front, left, right, and rear.  All this means is that when you stand in front of the building and look at the façade, you are looking at the front elevation.  Now when architects draw elevations they don’t take into account the 3-point perspective that our eyes see the world through, thus the elevations are flat, or 2-dimensional.  We need to work like this because if we worked in perspective with elevations it would get too complicated as vertical and horizontal building lines would become slanted and hard to measure.
  2. Function follows form: This is a method that is used when a desired exterior shape is required.  An example would be creating a 50-story office building that looked like a cylinder.  Well, the first thing the architect would do is set off to design a building in the shape of a cylinder.  He knows the shape, now all he has to do is fill the inside with “stuff”…the stuff being the functionality/guts of the building.  These would be things like:  offices, bathrooms, elevators, stairs, conference rooms, etc.
  3. Designing based on styles: This method of designing a building entails an intimate knowledge of the architectural vocabulary of a given style, or architectural aesthetic.  For example:  if a client wants a townhome project that is designed in the Spanish/Mediterranean style, the architect must know what in fact makes a building Spanish/Mediterranean, or “Spanish/Med”.  These are things like:  barrel tile roofs, Spanish tile, corbels, wrought iron work, etc.  Designing based on a specific style is somewhat of a union of the first two methods in that the building is design according to a program, but it is also mindful of what the exterior of the building looks like.

Now, once a method has been chosen by the architect, it is now time for the actual process of designing the building.  I think it is safe to say that even in today’s world of amazing technology…the kind of technology I dreamt of as a child, that still 9/10 architects start any design with a pencil/pen and paper.  I know I do.  I take out my favorite pen and just start doodling.  Sometimes I doodle in plan, which is to say I draw as if I were looking down on the project…while other times I draw in elevation…while still other times I draw in the form of a “parti pris” which is commonly referred to the shortened “parti”.  Ok hold up.  What the heck is a parti you ask?  building partiGood question.  A parti  is a combination of a diagram, plan, and elevation for a project…basically it is a graphic representation of the big idea.  It may be a bunch of circles, squares, lines, squiggles, arcs, dots, dashes, arrows, or a combination of these things.  I know that when I draw a parti it tends to look like some sort of alien language…but that’s ok.  It doesn’t matter what it looks like, as long as it is in a language that I can understand.  Typically, for me at least, when I draw a parti it isn’t with the notion that I am going to show it to anyone.  I just draw them fast and loose to get my crazy ideas on to paper so I won’t forget what I was thinking about.  The shapes that I use all have a meaning to me as they are the same shapes I’ve been using for over 16 years.  Each architect has a different way of utilizing the parti…some may not use it at all.

After a rough concept is figured out, for me at least, I start getting my thoughts into the computer.  I like attacking the building all at once when I design.  What I mean by that is that I typically design the elevations and floor plans at the same time.  I do this because I know that every line on a plan has meaning.  Every line will ultimately have a thickness and will eventually become a wall.  These walls will in turn affect the roofline, which will obviously affect the elevations and overall massing of the building.  Massing, by the way, refers to how the largest components of a building are assembled in terms of their adjacencies, numbers, and scale.

After the elevations and plans are roughed in, it is a question of going back and forth with the client until the design is refined to the point that it is accepted and approved.  This period of going back and forth can take weeks, months, or even years depending on the size and complexity of the building.  In most cases it seems that once the building is approved and begins to take shape, the client will come in and make changes on the fly (known in the field as “change orders”).  This can and should be expected on every project to some degree.  Sometimes it is a question of moving a window 6” to the left…while other times it is adding another wing to the building.  The latter is an example of a more extreme change order that doesn’t happen nearly as often as the former.

Hopefully this gave you some insight into the process of designing a building.  If you have more specific questions regarding how I personally design a building, please feel free to contact me here.